Media’s slippery slope
By Moeed Yusuf
SYED Talat Hussain, the widely respected TV anchor, has emerged as a national hero following his ordeal aboard the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla.
. Talat Hussain was part of the aid mission and was captured and held captive by the Israeli authorities.
Back home, the nation was fixated on his plight. He was the topic on the media for the entire two-day period his whereabouts were unknown. Immense sympathy and concern was shown even by the average Pakistani who only knows the anchor through the TV screen. Those who voiced their sentiments on the media (in Talat Hussain’s own programme and others) afterwards showered him with accolades and expressed hope in him as an agent of change.
Unlike the many politically manipulated shows of strength in Pakistan, the public reaction to Talat Hussain’s experience was not manufactured. It was genuine. While it undoubtedly reflects his following, it also underscores something very fundamental about the people’s outlook on the Pakistani media and the hope attached to it as a game-changer. Not many have grasped this aspect of the episode.
What transpired in Pakistan as Talat Hussain’s story hit the TV screens is a vivid reminder of the fast-growing respect for the media as a pro-people force advocating change that favours the common citizen. Individual personalities like Talat Hussain, without having ascribed this role to themselves, are seen as the icons of this change.
The media’s stature in the public eye is central to the future of state-society relations in Pakistan.
There is no denying the fact that the advent of a free media is associated with a number of positives. For one, the virtual absence of any civil society entity able to check governmental actions and demand accountability – this characterised state-society relations in Pakistan for long – has become a thing of the past. The free media enterprise has put the government and its policies under intense scrutiny. No longer can a Pakistani government afford to disregard this new player.
Furthermore, the media, by acting as a transmitter of public will to the government makes the official enclave more responsive. Improved flow of information lowers the costs and effort required for rulers to sense the mood on the street. The media’s capacity for outreach also implies that the extent of information received is far greater than any state machinery is able to gather through its limited resources.
The above notwithstanding, media popularity can also prove to be a slippery slope if maintaining popularity becomes an end in itself. A populist media can create perverse incentives, prompting the state to respond to media pressures rather than instituting policies based on long-term strategic thinking. This is the danger Pakistan faces today.
Presently, the media is viewed as a direct challenger to the state apparatus. Such a sentiment is not uncommon for societies where formal state institutions have eroded; dismay with officialdom prompts people to find alternative channels of hope. The independent media is indeed one of Pakistan’s newfound hopes.
The worrisome aspect, however, is that its popularity is largely a function of the perception that the institution is squarely on the people’s side. To retain its stature then, the media is compelled to take a populist tone. This is precisely what it has done; the narrative emanating from the media outlets in Pakistan favours an anti-incumbent mindset. In fact, while having played a commendable role in transmitting the public sentiment to the state, the media has often shied away from ensuring that the state’s compulsions and rationale for various actions are conveyed back to the people. In mature media industries, the two are seen as complementary roles – not so, or at least not yet, in Pakistan.
In terms of government performance, which is what both the media and people ultimately seek to change, a perverse dynamic is generated. The Pakistani state, already severely constrained in its human and financial capacity and faced with myriad economic, social, political and security problems finds its policy space tremendously constrained.
On the one hand, expert opinion converges on the fact that Pakistan needs bold (read politically unpopular) transformational policy decisions that ensure long-term sustainability. On the other hand, however, the media’s constant criticism of the state’s lack of responsiveness to the plight of the people implies that these ‘bold’ decisions become excessively unattractive. Governments are likely to prefer jumping on the populist bandwagon to fend off media pressure rather than instituting policies that aim at long-term progress.
Lack of sustainability in policies in turn is bound to catch up with rulers, if not with incumbent governments then with their successors. Policies that disregard long-term implications outlive their utility sooner than desired and necessitate policy reversals. And even if reversals aimed at genuine course correction are made in the future, they will likely end up reinventing the wheel as the authorities instituting these changes will also face identical populist pressures sooner or later.
Consider that media industries that play a constructive role in harmonising state-society relations take it upon themselves to maintain a balance between transmitting information from the people to the state and vice versa. Leaning towards one or the other extreme is dangerous, especially in societies as fractured as Pakistan’s.
The free-media enterprise in Pakistan needs to remain conscious of its power to mould the Pakistani state’s relations with its people. A fine balancing act must become the norm. The good news is that almost all executives of the major media outlets realise the present anomaly and acknowledge the need to rectify it. They have, however, yet to find ways to deflect business pressures that remain staunchly opposed to any such move for obvious reasons. The sooner they prevail, the better it will be for state-society ties in Pakistan.