Sound and fury, signifying nothing
It’s always the same old story. Day after day, Pakistan’s newspapers and TV channels provide unending coverage of, and commentary on, issues that are notable only for the disturbing regularity with which they continue to re-emerge. For example, with some notable and welcome exceptions, and in the context of an understandable and more general desire to talk about terrorism and violent extremism, the first month of 2016 has seen the media maintain and perpetuate an unhealthy fixation with the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ties with India, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and domestic political squabbles. All of this has been supplemented with a regular dose of celebrity gossip and, bizarrely enough, a puzzling obsession with the pronouncements of Donald Trump.
All of these topics (with the possible exception of Trump) are serious issues worthy of considerable thought and reflection. However, seen through the lens of the media, it appears to be the case that these are the only issues that merit any consideration in Pakistan; everything else is either ignored or simply mentioned in passing.
One does not need to look far in order to see the effects of this tendency to focus on a select range of ‘big’ issues. For one, the media landscape itself is rendered relatively sterile with the ceaseless barrage of sameness that assaults the senses whenever a newspaper is opened or the television is switched on. Whatever novelty there may be in seeing politicians accuse each other of corruption should most certainly wear off by the hundredth time the scene is repeated, just as there are only so many ways allegations of Indian perfidy can be invoked to justify the suspension of peace talks. When Chaudhry Nisar attacks critics of the NAP in the National Assembly and lambasts the PPP for its record in power he is hardly saying something new and unexpected, just as the endless speculation over the extension of General Raheel Sharif’s tenure was ultimately fuelled by the repetition, ad infinitum and ad nauseum, of reasonably uncomplicated arguments first made a year ago. It might be counterintuitive to suggest that the news in Pakistan is boring, given how chaotic, unpredictable, and absurd life inevitably is in this country, but that is the truth.
One explanation for this might simply lie in the way in the public discourse has been generated and disseminated over the past few decades. The efforts of the state, in both its dictatorial and democratic forms, and its collaborators in the media have long been directed towards establishing particular myths and ideas about this country; Islam is the defining feature of life and politics in Pakistan, everything that goes wrong is the fault of shadowy external actors, politicians are always corrupt, the military is always correct, and alternative narratives – about gender, ethnicity, class, and religion – are to be treated with suspicion. Put differently, the media’s favourite subjects of discussion enjoy that status not because of any inherent importance they might have, but because their ‘importance’ has been constructed and established through the machinations of the state and the media themselves.
The problem is compounded when considering the relationship that exists between the media and its consumers. While some might argue that the media simply reflects the interests and predilections of the people that watch and read it – hence the devotion of so much space to sports and celebrities – it would be naïve to believe that the media does not play a role in shaping public opinion, using its role as both a curator and gatekeeper of information to emphasize and spread certain ideas and opinions above others. This does not mean that the media is a monolith, or that there are no contrary opinions or views to be found, since that is obviously not the case. Instead, while the diversity of the media landscape does provide for pockets of dissent and alternative discourse, it is not difficult to discern the existence of structural regularities across different media institutions that are borne out of the environment and origins that they share. For example capitalist media organizations (namely all of them) are largely driven by a quest for profit, and therefore have every incentive to engage in the production and distribution of content that caters to the lowest common denominator, both creating and reinforcing ‘received’ wisdom.
It is not difficult to see the results of this in practice. The absurd political theatre that is the defining characteristic of panel-based talk shows on television occludes more than it illuminates, with shouting and screaming taking the place of more substantive debates about policy and ideology. Jingoism rules the airwaves and the print media, with the expediency of attacking India obviating the possibility of conducting reasoned discussions about peace in the subcontinent. Deep-rooted economic problems remain ignored, with CPEC and the empty rhetoric of the government and International Financial Institutions providing the only answer/explanation for the state of Pakistan’s economy.
Every instance in which politicians receive blanket coverage for their grandstanding is a lost opportunity in which they could instead be questioned about the lack of progress they have made in actually governing this country. Every column and programme that trots out the same tired tropes about Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East fails to probe what it might mean to go beyond traditional invocations of Islamic fraternity and solidarity. The unquestioning reproduction of press releases cheering the success of anti-terror operations plays a role in perpetuating the lack of information about missing persons, civilian casualties, and other human rights violations. The media’s emphasis on the easy and the obvious, the ‘safe’ and the known, and style over substance, simply represents is a failure on its part to challenge the power and the privilege of the elites – economic, state, ethnic and religious – that continue to shape the trajectory this country is taking.