By Hajrah Mumtaz
The Sharif brothers have been through the wars recently. The elder threw a spanner in the works of the constitutional reforms package while the younger asked the Taliban to spare the Punjab. (What were they going to say in return: “Oh well, that’s ok then, why didn’t you say so earlier?”) These instances might make us think about the leopards that don’t change their spots and all of the subtexts the Sharif-led PML has acquired over the years, but that is not the subject of this article. What interests me is Shabaz Sharif’s inexplicable statement, and makes me want to ask him, “What did you think was going to happen? You were speaking on record!”
Pakistan’s contemporary news media landscape is nothing less than a battleground. The most obvious is the ideological war being waged between the far right and the ‘left’. (I use ‘left’ only in terms of being oppositional to the ‘right’, because leftism in its classical sense is barely visible in the politics of Pakistan or, indeed, much of the world.) Consider, after all, the divisions evident in the media on subjects ranging from Lal Masjid and the TTP to India and the Kerry-Lugar Bill. Then, there is a war being fought over audiences, which can translate sometimes to non-objective or yellow journalism, or in printing/broadcasting material unsuitable for mass audiences (aftermath of suicide bombings, for example) or dangerous (such as live broadcasts of security personnel battling for control of Lahore’s Manawan police academy last year).
But the one place the media are all on a common footing are in picking up, whether with glee or a sad shaking of the head, the missteps and faux pas of the political elite. What is said in the public arena, which is where political elites operate, is fair game for the media anywhere in the world; public statements are put under the microscope and pulled apart and mulled over and reconstructed and ripped inside out again — and ill-judged comments live for ever in public discourse and memory.
Media exposure cuts both ways. The media are a powerful tool for drumming up public support and working people up to fever-pitch. This is adequately illustrated by the acknowledged-by-all-players role played by the media in opposition to the Musharraf regime, support of the lawyers’ movement for CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry’s reinstatement etc.
But the newspapers and particularly television also allow public figures to expose their inadequacies under the full glare of the cameras. And, to some extent, the logic of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ holds true too: one of the effects of sustained media exposure is to reduce the political elites to the level of ordinary people and render audiences less likely to forgive their failings — particularly in these charged times when the media and their audiences pounce with a roar upon even the merest whiff of controversy. What Shahbaz Sharif said is difficult to explain and even harder to defend; in having access to mass audiences, the media handed him a rope and he nearly hanged himself with it.
Every politician or would-be politician in the country should by now have recognised the need to factor in the full, often unexpected, consequences of media exposure. True, many of those now in government or on the front-lines of the opposition were out in the cold during the years of the so-called media boom. They weren’t in Antarctica, though, and even the president-general himself found to his consternation that the genie, once out of the bottle, could not be caged again. As much damage was done to his case by decisions such as the imposition of the emergency as by his attempt to pull the plug on certain news channels and personalities, and the numerous odd statements he delivered for all to hear — remember “I have imposed emergency; you must have seen it on TV”?
The retired general’s confidence in his ability to contain the genie may have been bolstered by the memories of the nonchalance with which, you may recall, army personnel scaled the walls of PTV Islamabad and ordered a news blackout that fateful October night at the close of the century.
But the political elites who are today in the news ought to have no such reason for sanguinity. During the past few years they have had ample opportunity of seeing the effects of one compliant, state-owned channel and a handful of country-wide newspapers morphing into a rowdy, multi-tongued rabble. The no-longer new government, its allies and opponents, need to take to heart the fact that each promise and prevarication, each U-turn and reversal, is made under the full glare of the public spotlight and consequently beamed directly into millions of homes. They attempt to turn the criticism around by accusing the media of “irresponsibility” and “speculation”; but they forget that at root, the news media operate as a collective whole which is about as knowingly and wilfully damaging as a brick wall in the middle of a motorway — itself innocuous but deadly in context.