By: Syed Hassan Belal Zaidi
Your guess is as good as mine, although mine may be just a fraction better because I’ve done a little more leg work on it than you have
Journalism, fortunately, does not operate on the principles of faith. You are not required to believe in everything you read in the paper or see in the news. The audience is always presented with three things: facts, opinions and conclusions. While the first is objective, the latter two are necessarily subjective and are included to help the audience make a decision. In most (if not all) cases, the choice of which shades of opinion to present and what kind of a conclusion to draw from the presented facts and opinions ties in directly to a channel/publication’s own slant or leanings. This is not ‘unethical journalism’; it is simply ‘journalism’.
Human beings are peculiar creatures. They can see causal and logical linkages where none may exist. This is because post-hoc rationalization is something we are quite adept at i.e., the ability to mould facts, events and speculation to suit our own point of view is something that comes as naturally and involuntarily to us as breathing. Therefore, it is obvious that many reporters and opinion writers produce pieces that are little better than James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings in Ulysses: they may look like the best-written words of the century, but they’re not.
‘Thick-skinned’ is a term that is used to describe someone who is impervious to senseless abuse and unconstructive criticism. But the number of thick-skinned individuals in our society has seen a drastic decline ever since the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf reared its head in Pakistan’s politicosphere. It would be unfair on my part to say that every other party has been far more tolerant of criticism, since once-prime minister famously targeted the Jang Group and had Mr Najam Sethi ‘picked up’, ostensibly for “doing their job”.
Similarly, Herr Musharraf imposed a mini-martial law on November 3, 2007, because the media wouldn’t stop telling him just how big of an ass he was being. The MQM has often used its ‘clout’ with cable operators to pull certain unfriendly content off the air, most famously in the case of Amir Khan, whose press conferences (before he re-joined the party fold), were blacked out by allied cable-wallahs across the city. Even the current PPP government, which has been most unhappy with the Jang Group of late, violated its commitment to free press when it ordered that Geo be taken off the air on repeated occasions. And these are just the examples that readily spring to mind.
The point is, being reactive to criticism isn’t a characteristic of a certain group or party: it applies across the board on all individuals. When a story or a barb hits too close to home, everyone and anyone clams up and becomes hostile. But it has always been the more level-headed among all parties that have eventually prevailed; it is always those with a sense of humour and irony who can best answer pointed questions. Take spin-doctor extraordinaire Qamar Zaman Kaira’s putting-down of Kamran Khan on the eve of the contempt verdict against erstwhile premier Gilani. Or Sherry Rehman and Husain Haqqani’s handling of the media following the multiple crises that they have had to face. Effective media management and damage control is a skill that is essential to today’s politics. Even the PML-N has its Saad Rafiques and Khawaja Asifs to pacify the media monster; the ANP has Shahi Syed and the MQM is a trained jamaat of veritable talkshow pundits. But few others do.
People should remember that a free press means the freedom to do all sorts of things. It can also be used to further all sorts of interests and agendas. However, unlike the United States, where airtime is openly purchased by political parties for their campaigns, things in Pakistan are a little more under-the-table. Since media organizations are less straightforward about why they are representing a certain opinion, it is up to the audience to decide whether they want to side with the talking head on screen, or not. While this presupposes the intelligent viewer, it does not liberate the media from ethical limitations: no one is arguing for the abolition of PEMRA, just for the institution of better mental checks for readers themselves.
The intelligent reader is not a myth. Habitual newspaper readers and TV viewers become accustomed to a certain style of presentation and begin to read between the lines once they are familiar enough with a certain publication/channel’s style. This is what separates them from the masses that treat all they see on TV as harf-e-aakhir, when in fact, there is no such thing.
The lesson we must take from this diatribe is this: the fourth estate is part and parcel of the democratic (sic!) setup. There will forever be accusations of bias, yellow journalism, slander and unfair criticism against it, but that will never change the way it does business. Like so many other professionals, media moguls don’t particularly like being told what to do and consider it their sworn duty to tell others just how they should be running their affairs. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but it does work most of the time.
Fellow columnist Nadir Hassan once remarked, “Imagine what our opinion pages and TV shows would be like if people were more comfortable with expressing doubt”. While losing the pulpit of punditry may compromise the credibility of many a two-penny writer, the general rule is quite consistent. No one is an expert on everything and no one has any crystal balls. Your guess is as good as mine, although mine may be just a fraction better because I’ve done a little more leg work on it than you have. This is what the narrative of the media in Pakistan should be like. Any attempts to contradict this will only amount to severe stupidity.