Ruling the airwaves
A few days ago, the BBC Urdu website carried an interesting news report that gave details of the number of exclusive interviews of various front-line politicians carried by Pakistan’s 24/7 private news channels over nearly a 10-month period – prior to the August 14 ‘revolutionary’ and ‘freedom’ marches and sit-ins by PTI and the PAT supporters.
According to the report, the PTI’s Imran Khan, the PAT’s Allama Tahirul Qadri and their ally, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed – who heads his own small Awami Muslim League – dominated the airwaves in hundreds of special interviews telecast by various news channels.
The entire focus of the cameras remained glued on these leaders once they formally launched their anti-government campaigns on August 14 as they addressed their supporters several times everyday – getting unprecedented live coverage.
The statistics about the pre-marches and pre-sit-ins coverage offer an interesting read, which has already been discussed in some detail by the section of the local media. For instance, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed appeared on exclusive talk-shows and interviews 170 times between November 1, 2013-August 12, 2014. Imran Khan stood second with 75 interviews and Qadri third with 60 interviews. In a nutshell, these three leaders gave more than 300 interviews in the build-up to their marches and sit-ins.
In comparison, leaders belonging to the ruling PML-N, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, share between them around 100 such interviews. The rest of the political parties including leaders and representatives belonging to the PPP, the MQM, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the ANP also appeared in around 100 such exclusive interviews.
This means that the PTI, the PAT and the AML of Sheikh Rashid managed to get more television appearances compared to the combined total of the government and rest of the opposition parties.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who has just one seat of his own in the National Assembly, undoubtedly appeared as the darling of the electronic media as he alone got 170 exclusive appearances during the 10-month period – before the hurly-burly of marches and sit-in started in the country.
In comments Sheikh Rashid Ahmed made recently when he appeared in a talk-show on Geo Tez, he admitted that after Almighty Allah, it is the media that has kept him alive on Pakistan’s political scene. And this statement rings true for many other politicians as well.
Sheikh Rashid’s popularity on television shows perhaps stems from the fact that he gives entertaining one-liners, sharp and scathingly candid statements against rivals and makes doomsday predictions and prophecies about the system and the government. Ironically, all this makes ‘good TV’ at least when it comes to catching eyeballs and fabulous ratings in an over-politicised and deeply polarised society.
The BBC news report indeed offers a fascinating glimpse into the kind of journalism prevalent in the Pakistani media – which continues to remain overwhelmingly statement rather than issue-oriented. By and large, our electronic media has followed the trend set by our newspapers – especially the Urdu-language ones, which proudly carry statements of politicians from all hues on their main pages, including the front page.
These statements or ‘exclusive’ interviews, unlike the ones in the international media, may not necessarily fall into the category of ‘news-makers’, which focus on some key development, revelation or exposure, but in most cases on mere often reiterated points of view, unsubstantiated claims and allegations. Many of these ‘sensational’ statements would fall straight into the category of libel, defamation and slander in any other civilised country where freedom of speech and free media come along with responsibility. But this is not so in Pakistan.
Our vibrant electronic media, which has explored many new grounds and highlighted issues and subjects that were once taboo in mainstream discourse, has unfortunately failed to break away from the trend of statement-oriented journalism – for better or for worse. In fact, 24/7 live coverage has intensified the impact of this statement-oriented journalism as, unlike in print, in electronic media all that is said goes unfiltered and unedited to the viewer.
A newspaper may usually give a single, a double or a triple column news report out of most press conferences, interviews or speeches, but the same would get over-played during live coverage on TV. Such is the nature of the beast called 24/7 television in Pakistan. As a result politicians manage to disseminate their message effortlessly and free of cost. Both politicians and the media tend to feed each other – one getting free publicity, the other content, no matter whether it is newsworthy and of journalistic standards or not.
The question of why these three politicians – Qadri, Imran and Sheikh Rashid – managed to so-effectively dominate the airwaves, however, is a pertinent one. Some media analysts and political rivals see an organised anti-government conspiracy, which allowed these politicians to set the narrative – in league with some media houses.
This may or may not be the case and falls into the realm of speculation, though a couple of media houses went all the way to champion the cause of the PAT, the PTI and their allies, who want to bring down Prime Minister Sharif just as a couple of others supported the government and the continuation of the existing ‘democratic order.’ This division among the media houses also reflects the deep chasms in our politics in which no issue seems to be settled yet and remains open for intense debate and a possible change.
But it is a fact that the opposition is always a star for the media compared to the government. Therefore, when politicians are in opposition they have usually better ties with journalists rather than when in government. The opposition is always available to highlight issues, and go on the front-foot to expose the real, imaginary or perceived wrongdoings and policy flaws of the rulers. Government stalwarts in many cases try to evade tough questions about their decisions, policies and things done or not done.
Had it been any other politicians attacking the government as is being done by Qadri, Imran and Rashid, they would have probably got the same amount of coverage, given the fact that the government and its supporters started reacting slowly to this challenge.
But that does not sweep away the fact that the lopsided coverage of the leaders of the revolutionary and freedom marches exposed the gullibility of the media which remains in love with the proverbial ‘bad news’ and tend to lean more on sensational journalism.
In their own way, all channels imitate their competition or react to their coverage. As a result, every screen appears to follow the same pattern, highlighting the same leader, his opinion and his statements. And in doing this it often compromises the core values of this profession which calls for fairness, objectivity, balance and sticking to facts.
Since private TV channels exploded on the scene in 2002, we have seen this kind of sensational and opinionated journalism a number of times – be it on issues as grave as covering terrorism and extremism to political crises of which we have no dearth in this Islamic Republic.
We have seen the distinction between news and opinion getting more and more blurred over the past decade or so in Pakistani journalism. Objective and independent analysis has been surely taken over by subjectivity in which many media persons unashamedly paddle this or that point of view. Professional journalists have to either fall in line with the dictates of policies of media houses or be ready to be sidelined.
The power and reach of the media has transformed many paper tigers and political lightweights into screen giants who manage to set the narrative. What is important becomes unimportant while the unimportant assumes importance.
This calls for a close self-scrutiny by the media itself about its role and journalistic practices. The answer to this problem is both simple and complex. Simple if we stick to the core values of journalism and complex given the current state of political polarisation, financial stakes, weak regulatory framework and absence of an agreed code of ethics.
The writer is editor The News, Karachi.