The moment of a media man
Both in misery and maturity Pakistan has progressed too far for patriotism on payroll to be anything more than prime-time entertainment. All its buffoons and pigmies end up exposing their inadequacies the moment they undress themselves to please the ‘patriots’ and rouse the rabble against the ‘traitors’.
The same, but more interesting, is the case with our earnest anti-corruption ‘politician’ whose childlike inability to understand any word beyond a royal ‘I’ has now reduced him to a vengeful plaything of ‘patriotism’. To many observers it was clear from the start that the plaything was a project conceived to cause confusion at a time when the Pakistani polity was going through mild pangs of transition.
He has now come out with both guns blazing – each blaze giving out one conspiracy theory against Jang and Geo.
A questionnaire I received recently on the Hamid Mir incident and its fallout contained remarks and questions about the largest media house not being able to counter conspiracy theories when it was on the side of the truth. Leaving it to the tides of time to decide the truth and outcome of the matter, I would say the point was rather naïve because it was being made about the media in a society where brute force and interests depending on that force have determined much of its history and still shape that society to a very considerable extent.
And a push for more space by the relatively marginalised and the certainly endangered is never very pleasant for those who occupy places of strategic convenience.
How large is that media group? As large as the forces it has offended just by airing Hamid Mir’s allegations? The outcome of any effort, journalistic or otherwise, to arrive at the truth in this or any other matter like this cannot be the sole outcome of the size of a media group but the capability and willingness of the wider society and its institutions to live up to an ideal – of discovering, owning and expressing the truth no matter what.
We are not there yet.
Conspiracy theories happen where conspiracies are born. In a highly conspiratorial atmosphere such as ours, and in a highly polarised polity such as ours, quite often the choice is not between conspiracy theory and straight thinking but between my conspiracy theory and yours – depending on our biases, and interests. This applies as much to the media houses as it does to the houses on the streets.
It is not a question of the media failing in the face of conspiracy theories; it is a question of the media being a part of, and a player in, a society that is as conspiracy-theory-ridden as it is conspiracy-ridden.
What we call the media is a monolith neither within itself nor for the powers and forces outside it. There are contradictions between different media groups and also, more importantly, within a media group that has a host of hosts with different approaches to the same problem. This latter form of contradiction is important because it is healthy.
Very often, in shallow discourse, such contradictions are derided or seen through the lenses of conspiracy theory or theories. But we must remember that the mainstream media, when it is breathing in the air of liberal freedom, cannot be anything other than a ‘marketplace’ of ideas and attitudes formed not in the studios but in society at large.
The more a media group embodies that concept, the freer it is from, and the more resistant it is to, agendas and conspiracies hatched up in the corridors of civilian and military power. And the resultant conflict can be dangerous for media persons making use of the space provided to them by that media group.
If this premise is right, then it can be a good yardstick to judge which section of the media is thriving on conspiracies and not just theories of conspiracy and which section is not. The matter of Hamid Mir and Geo and the way it has been dealt with, talked about and debated by different media groups can serve as a test case for such a study.
The orchestrated, multi-front media and military campaign against the airing by Geo of the allegations by Hamid Mir and his family distorted a simple matter. It would have been highly inappropriate for Geo or any other news channel not to run, or censor parts of, Mir’s statement for fear of backlash or persecution.
Censorship in the face of power – even when it goes by the name of discretion – is fear in action. At times it may help you save your skin. At times such fear can only propel you to dig a grave for yourself. You act in fear and go as under as the powers that be want you to. You fight back in ways that are natural to you and you have caused a commotion that ensures your survival somewhat on your own terms.
You have not won. But you have not lost either. There is space for hope. Hope for even more space someday.
Hope! If the mere mention of allegations can cause questions of propriety and professionalism to rise, what hope can there be for the truth to come out in any such affair? This is more a rhetorical cliché than a question. But no cliché was avoided more in the ‘media’ discourse around this issue – because a logically structured discourse on this would take little time making us see the brave wisdom of the no-holds-barred way in which Hamid Mir sought to counter the threat posed to him.
But our ‘professionalists’ would have none of it. Instead the debate came to be about the extraordinary manner in which the allegations were run. The more professional ‘media’ critics did their job to their satisfaction by convincing themselves that the manner was more important than the moment – of the breaking of a taboo that has been observed too long to the detriment of our profession and at the cost of our lives.
Not one among them can ever be convinced in their right mind that an enquiry done under the present power equations can ever lead us to the truth of who was behind the attack on Hamid Mir. Because the requisite space for this novelty – when it involves allegations against the army and the ISI – has not been won.
So, the matter then was not of the manner but of the moment when a push was made for a bit more space. The moment’s significance should have been grasped by those who have made careers out of lamenting the institutional imbalance in this country.
At the risk of inviting derision from the ‘realists’ in the media, I talked of the capability and willingness of the wider society and its institutions to live up to an ideal – of discovering, owning and expressing the truth no matter what.
We are not there yet. We are never there. It is approximation that matters. Therein lies the beauty of the moment that belongs to Hamid Mir.
The writer is editor oped, The News. Email: email@example.com