Language we use
By: Zofeen T. Ebrahim
Where are our home grown versions of debonair and charming television hosts like BBC’s Zeinab Badawi and Stephen Sackur? Where are the definitive desi hosts who can ruffle mighty feathers and pop egos while grilling them, albeit in a respectful manner; and at the same time guarantee intelligent conversation punctuated with entertaining anecdotes and intriguing insight?
Love them or loathe them, irreverent, often foul-mouthed, at times acerbic but rarely sharp and incisive, today’s brigade of Pakistani TV show hosts with their well coiffed hair and way too much make-up, very often become the star of their own show.
Chasing ratings, in their mad rush to be at the top, they resort to asking questions in grammatically fractured and convoluted language.
Haughty and contemptuous, their use of language is reflective of the low national education standard coupled with insolence in behaviour. The accusatory tone further adds to them sounding offensive. They put the guest in an awkward situation with the latter coming up with inane answers for fear of being looked upon as uncooperative or evasive.
People who love the Urdu language feel cheated. Ask noted Urdu columnist and short story writer and novelist, Zahida Hina, and she will tell you that most anchors have forgotten the “norms of conversation or debate”.
“They have no idea that they have lost a lot of serious viewers,” said Hina.
Senior journalist, Ghazi Salahuddin said language has been polluted by our television. “I feel that TV reflects the intellectual and educational bankruptcy of the Pakistani society,” he said.
“Call me old-fashioned, and maybe I am, but there is sanctity attached to current affairs programmes, which has but been lost,” said Agha Nasir, a name inextricably associated with broadcasting.
“Don’t take liberties in the name of innovation,” he cautioned to TV hosts, and then added: “I haven’t seen the kind of shows we produce here being aired anywhere in the world!” he added and put it down to “lack of training” and boundless foolhardiness of inculcating what is wrong.
Urdu poet and scholar, Iftikhar Arif is also pained by the incorrect use of the language.
What’s more, he finds talk shows monotonous with most hosts merely clones of each other, “using the same diction and idiom”. Arif also marvels at how there are days when flicking through one channel after another, he finds that even the issue being discussed is the same.
At the same time, he said, the gestures, the way of sitting and how hosts dress up, should all reflect the mood of the show. “Those in the current affairs programmes forget that they are not in the business of fashion and don’t need to veer towards glamour; it looks inappropriate,” he added.
Addressing the language issue, writer and journalist, Mohammad Hanif has a slightly different take. He insists the hosts “use exactly the kind of language that is used in newspaper op-eds, that is used in political speeches, the kind of language that dominates our general political discourse and it’s not new.”
Furthermore, he said: “If you listen to most of Jinnah’s speeches (excepting the Aug 11 speech) you can find the same strain. Just after independence he told Bengalis that they should all start speaking Urdu, which made no sense especially to the Bengali speaking population. So our anchors still say a lot of things that make no sense but sound grand. And our contemporary Urdu language is well equipped for that!”
But it’s not just the rape of language that is going on unchecked. Nasir said there are clear dos and don’ts while conducting interviews or calling guests to your shows and which are flouted without a care in the world. For example, he said: “You must show respect for the guest and do not interrupt when he’s talking.”
What’s worst, these demigods are so self-obsessed, they refuse to let their guests take centre-stage, pointed out Nasir. “The success of the show is to let your guest do most of the talking instead of you hijacking it,” he explained.
Asma Shirazi, one of the more seasoned journalists, agreed saying: “The least we can do is be objective, fair and be civil in treating our guests.”
Having worked at various channels, Shirazi said over the years she has noticed the absence of editorial rein-in over presenters and TV show hosts. “There are no editorial boards, fewer people with command over the language and no one to correct us. Either they are hesitant, or we, the hosts, have stopped listening to their advice.”
She said gone were the days when journalists felt the responsibility to mould public opinion. “We’re now going to their level and following them instead of the other way round.”
She lamented that the more celebrated hosts were those who showed aggression, could provoke and put the guest in an awkward position. Finesse and decorum are qualities that have long gone out of the window only to be replaced with banal but haughty performance.
According to Shirazi, a good host would be smart enough to get past the obvious, sneak around and catch his guests off guard to present something different, without putting his or her guest on the spot. But then, she lamented, there are very few with sound journalistic background and there is little emphasis on training.
“Obviously where you lack in research, you make up for it through loud and coarse behaviour,” pointed out Shirazi.
Litterateur Arif said the bare minimum qualification for a TV host and anchor person should include command over the language, its pronunciation and have sound knowledge and a passion for current affairs. In Radio Pakistan, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when he presented news, there was a department where one would go if one were unsure of any pronunciation.
“They are expected to present a higher level of discourse and the use of language in any serious arguments has to be more exact. That some of them are poor in their linguistic expression is surely a lapse, professionally speaking,” is how Salahuddin looks at a majority of hosts and show presenters. However, he added: “Their rustic idiom can be excused when they interact with individuals who are not sophisticated,” said Ghazi Salahuddin.
And while repartee is important, poet and columnist, Harris Khalique, objects to use of “incorrect language, slang or inappropriate jokes, analogies” that he feels have been allowed to creep into these programmes.
“Gone are the days when institutions like Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan attached importance to the correct usage of grammar, syntax and idioms. Private channels are promoting mediocrity in the name of populism,” said Khalique, who feels there is an absence of editorial policy or quality control in private TV channels.
But coming to the rescue of hosts, Azhar Abbas, heading Geo Television network added: “There is nothing wrong with using words from another language; it only lends the show a relaxed and comfortable touch,” he argued. He agreed that mediocrity seems to have set in, but justified: “These personalities are a product of the same mediocre society.”
While he is not sure about other channels, Abbas also pointed out that his channel had an editorial board that gave written feedback of the previous day’s shows and informed the producers and hosts of the faux pas made including inappropriate use of the language.