Media’s moment of shame
Farrukh Khan Pitafi
In the presence of owner-editors the assurance of content quality and adherence to media ethics becomes impossible. Our profession has become highly complacent and in a conflict between the business owners and a professional editor, most journalists wish to stand with the former.
Never throughout my career have I felt as ashamed as I feel now about the media’s misconduct. Last week a few news channels flashed an item that was later proved to be nothing more than a rumour. The item claimed that the government was about to withdraw the notification that had reinstated the judges sacked by Musharraf. The apex court’s judges met in emergency and issued a press release. I am not to discuss the court’s reaction or the government’s attitude when it was asked to clarify. However, I feel heartbroken by the callous attitude of our mainstream media, which brought the country to a standstill with reports that it has failed to substantiate. Could it be an elaborate deception by a section of the press or a government ploy to expose the media’s lack of responsibility? We may never know. However, there is no doubt that the reports were aired without regard to the best practices known to journalists. And had there been any evidence present to back the claims up, it would have already surfaced by now.
In the golden days of journalism, we were taught not to carry any report unless there was prima facie evidence or at least three separate sources available. In the case of a breaking story or report of critical importance, this rule was relaxed to either two independent sources or word from the horse’s – in this case the prime minister’s or the law minister’s – mouth. As evident however, none of these precautions were taken, nor was any patience shown for such details to emerge. Innocent until proven guilty is the universal principle in case of unsubstantiated allegations. However, in this particular case it was deemed fit to consider the government guilty until proven innocent.
Since there were no reprimands for those who reported inadequately, a narrative is already being developed that projects them as the saviours of the independent judiciary who foiled an elaborate conspiracy. It is tragic that any sensible person can justify such glaring malpractices to such an extent. It must also be noted here that I am not an enemy of the independent judiciary, nor any lackey of the government. I have always maintained that any attempts to remove the sitting judges by the elected government will be counterproductive for democracy. As for the media, since it is my first love, I have always fought for media freedom. But you have to realise that this is a government with a learned tendency of failing to take the pressure and so vulnerable that it had to give an unprecedented extension to an army chief. Similarly, when it came to the appointment of the judges it had to beat a retreat overnight. To think that it can even plan, what to talk of putting into action, such a measure is stretching the imagination to the breaking point. Yes, anyone can indulge in daydreams and you cannot punish people for their sweet dreams or angry discussions. The chief justice’s claim that he knew for a fact that it was not a baseless report complicates the matter further.
The best practice would be to ask the concerned reporters or the channel managements to produce the evidence. It is important not to confuse a source with evidence. Even when we have sources we are not supposed to air an item without our own satisfaction. And in any case, no source will ever accept that it had generated such information in the absence of recorded evidence. If media outlets do not produce evidence they should be fined and asked to ground the reporter for a bit. This is about the only civilised way.
Now let us focus on the source of the problem in the heart of darkness. Apart from the culture of cynicism that has mushroomed around the current government and for which the government’s poor media policy is to be blamed, the institution of a professional editor is almost extinct in this country. In the presence of owner-editors the assurance of content quality and adherence to media ethics becomes impossible. Our profession has become highly complacent and in a conflict between the business owners and a professional editor, most journalists wish to stand with the former. Had there been professional editors in place, even if unverified information was produced, it would not have made it to the screen or print. Also the professional editor, given the damage caused, would have sacked someone.
Of course, there is the issue of talk show hosts-anchorpersons and their reckless attitude. It must be recognised that since each anchor-host is responsible for the content of his program, he/she is usually expected to act as an editor for the content. But remember in the heat of live programming there always is the chance of some inappropriate behaviour. A professional editor as the media’s conscience should always be there to remind the anchor and to issue the corrigendum. Yet these are mad times and even at stations with elaborate infrastructure, a tendency of getting carried away has been witnessed. In a tragic twist of fate, it is often observed that owing to the lawyers’ movement even the judiciary has developed a soft spot for such groups or channels. That is exactly why libel cases are not too often filed in the courts these days. It is imperative that in order to prove that it is truly independent, the judiciary should create some means and precedents to show impartiality. Similarly the government needs to ask why its media policy is such an abysmal failure. It is curious to see how those who are responsible for such failures are rewarded. It is not as if the government does not have media savvy individuals. Farhatullah Babar and Sherry Rehman both know how to interact with the media without offending anyone’s intelligence. But only those who prefer confrontation are promoted.
Please remember that name-calling or accusing well known journalists of being foreign spies will not serve anything. If there is a crisis due to the media in the country, we will all have to start acting more responsibly. However, all-important interventions are elaborated above. No external restrictions will ever prove viable in the long run.
Source: Daily Times