July Issue 2012
Interview: Talat Hussain, Host of ‘News Night with Talat’ on Dawn News
Q: Do you think the Malik Riaz interview on Dunya TV was planted?
A: It was certainly well-rehearsed. Questions were pre-determined. Answers were told in advance. The guest, an extraordinary character at an extraordinary juncture in our political history, was tutored during the breaks and his desires were respected beyond the call of courtesy. The complete disconnect between off-air and on-air tone and tenor, and the extraneous calls that came in during the interview, leaves me in no doubt that the interview was a piece that was fitted into the larger attempt to destroy the judiciary’s reputation and force the chief justice into an impossible personal situation.
Q: Is it common practice for interview questions to be discussed beforehand?
A: In all big, set-piece interviews the professionally done thing is to draw up the scope of the interview by identifying themes around which the discussion will be woven. For instance, in Mr Riaz’s case an interview request would have stated that the anchors would like to take up the issue of his onslaught against the judiciary, the contradictions in his stance, what he intends to do next, etc. Questions, tone, level of firmness and follow-up questions are sacred secrets. These unfold as the interview unfolds, never before. Most hard-hitting interviews are spontaneous. These often meander off into uncharted directions and the emotions that go into the debate are never fake. That is why in real in-your-face type of interviews, the breaks are the most difficult time period to kill because the on-air tone is very hard to adjust to make the guest at ease. Tough interview breaks have raw tensions and sullen faces — not a festive environment.
Q: Where do you suspect the list of journalists supposedly on Malik Riaz’s payroll came from? What course of action do journalists need to take to avoid being implicated in such controversies?
A: I do not know where the list came from. But it certainly raises questions that were being asked informally in the media market without any names being attached to them. This does not necessarily make the list authentic, nor does it rule out the possibility of mischief being carried out in the guise of blowing the lid off journalistic corruption.
Q: Some people say that news anchors are public personalities and should declare their assets. Will that solve the problem?
A: This remains a personal decision and subject to situations that individuals confront in their careers. However, with all this muck floating around in the gossip market it’s better to let the viewers know who you are and how you have made your money. Whether one lives humbly or like a high flying star, the lifestyle must bear relevance to one’s sources of income. Easy money corrupts, and big easy money can corrupt absolutely. If this issue has begun to cast aspersions on journalists’ credibility let us address it through transparency. Just like we put a source on our story to make it credible, putting a source on our income will make us more believable among the public. I have already done this and I feel that I have pre-empted needless questions coming my way.
Q: How true is the perception that anchorpersons are virtual demigods and do not take any dictation from the producers?
A: Current affairs and news producers are not a strong institution in Pakistan. They are subservient to the will and editorial line of the anchors, who often hold senior editorial and management positions as well. So most of the senior anchors, well-paid and with a chip on their shoulder, are masters of their own universe.
Q: Are the channel owners involved in the editorial processes? If so, what kind of feedback do you get from them?
A: It varies from channel to channel. Most channels are mints. They produce gold coins for the owners. They protect their varied business interests. They are their shield against accountability and even tax evasion. In such channels the limits of anchor freedom are clearly defined. In my case, it is a deliberate decision not to work for the top channels, as the higher you go the greasier is the pole of freedom. I am happy in the mid-ranking channels where the financial stakes are as important as credibility. Feedback is therefore subject to a strict criterion — whether this adds to or subtracts from our credibility. Anything that does not meet journalistic standards, I tend to say no to. So far this has worked well for me.
Q: When controversies such as Mediagate or the Maya Khan incident erupt, anchors are vilified across the country. But why isn’t the management held responsible?
A: If anchors are the arbiters of their content then they must be held responsible for it — unless, of course, the problem is technical in nature. But the larger framework of responsibility is with the management. They keep a close eye on everything. Most of them are good at controlling “what SHOULD NOT” go on air. By that token they should be good at knowing what “IS” going on air. Hands-on management lays down the framework. They observe programme patterns. They share the bigger chunk of responsibility.
Q: Keeping in mind that journalists have their own political views/biases and relationships with public figures, how does one maintain objectivity? Is neutrality an idealised concept?
A: Much objectivity comes with space being granted to all points of views in a given programme. In a 35-minute programme with three guests, minus the opening, the closing and the introductions, the actual talk time for the anchor is not more than 6 to 8 minutes. So explicit bias is constrained by time and the presence of a counter point of view (quite contrary to how Newsline or any other reputable publication would write their editorials where unbending positions are taken without any space for a counter-punch). However, bias should be separated from taking a stand on matters of principles. You can’t be even-handed towards the rapist and the raped and pretend to be neutral towards them both as if they are two peas in a pod. They are not. The most unacceptable bias is the one that does not allow for the other side of the story even when editorial merit dictates the alternate explanation.
Q: There is a lot of talk of checks and balances being imposed on the media. How would that work?
A: The best check is journalistic competence. Enhancing this competence in electronic and print journalism is the ultimate check on unprofessional behaviour. The other check is that of civil society and research institutes who should be vigilant about bad trends. And finally of course it is time for a media ombudsman not just in every organisation, but also at the national level.
Q: TV channels defend themselves by saying that the content is developed keeping rating trends in mind. How does the ratings system work exactly and is it accurate?
A: Journalism has to reach for the highest common denominator. The argument that “we air what’s there and that’s fair” is utter nonsense. Ratings can be achieved with good solid journalism and meaningful content. However, not everything that is done on channels is news and current affairs. And much of the problematic content is in the realm of “infotainment” and entertainment. That part of the channels really needs a strong review and much check and balance.
Q: Do you think Pakistan could have a state-funded, as opposed to a state-controlled, media organisation (e.g. PBS or BBC)?
A: public-funded, public welfare-based channel should replace the present PTV regime, which has degenerated into a pretty shameless propaganda tool in the hands of rogue leaders.
This interview was originally published in the July issue of Newsline as part of a larger cover story on the Pakistani media.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.