Whither electronic media?
The year was 1973. Yousaf Buch, special assistant to the prime minister, was visiting the PTV station in Lahore. Aslam Azhar, the doyen of PTV, was regaling everyone in the conference room with his witty remarks. Those were the early years of PTV, with artists and professionals gelling well together to form a closely knit family. Transmission used to be of limited hours, we were still in the black-and-white era and most programmes were telecast live. I joined PTV as news producer in early 1972 and was stationed in Lahore. Most PTV departments had moved into the new building on Abbott Road, while news and current affairs programmes were still telecast from a small studio within the precinct of Radio Pakistan, located next to the new building. PTV, in many ways, owed its traditions, early rearing and intellectual rigour to the ethos and culture of Radio Pakistan. The channel’s key professionals were mostly radio trained. PTV’s surroundings were marked with the presence of some great names — artists like Roshan Ara Begum, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Maharaj Kathak and Fareeda Khanum, writers like Ashfaq Ahmed, Intizar Husain, Munnoo Bhai and Amjad Islam Amjad, and performers like Naeem Tahir, Anwar Sajjad, Khurshid Shahid and Khalid Abbas Dar were seen at the station frequently. Next door to thePTV building, romantic fiction writer A Hameed had given his prime years to Radio Pakistan. His non-fictional literary accounts would capture the lush ambience of Shimla Pahari and the wet winters of Empress Road, its leafy pedestrian track leading to Lawrence Gardens, a gift of the Raj, just across the Mall.
The key figure of the electronic media, Aslam Azhar, had a distinguished academic background but broadcasting remained his passion. In the early years of PTV, he was ably assisted by persons of eminence like Agha Nasir, Muslehuddin, Zubair Ali, Zafar Samdani and many others. They all possessed the finest intellect and discerning minds. As a young beginner, I had long working hours that went well beyond the call of duty. We had a rare breed of newscasters who immersed themselves in word play while delivering the news. PTV Lahore boasted of Sayed Muzaffar Husain, Suhail Zafar, Absar Abdul Ali, Hasan Jalil and Yasmeen Wasti. In English, Muhammad Idrees, Tariq Rahim and Habibur Rehman carried the day. News broadcasting was a matter of painstaking labour and professionalism, it was about making the right eye contact and pauses, and having impeccable pronounciation. In news broadcasting, it was important to distinguish between accent and pronounciation. BBC, for instance, has broadcasters with a variety of accents varying from the British accent to Caribbean, South Asian to west African. But there is never any compromise on pronounciation. Everyone has an in-born accent, a reality of diverse life, while having the perfect pronounciation is something that needs to be slogged over and acquired through a great deal of understanding of phonetics. We now see some leading anchors faulting on this count. In some Urdu talk shows, for instance, the word ‘fauj’ is pronounced as ‘foje’ with gay abandon. Likewise, the English word ‘security’ is uttered nonchalantly as ‘scorty’.
Back in the day, the monopoly that PTV had on the electronic media resulted in propagandist content in favour of the government of the day, restricting options for disseminators. On the programme side, however, there was innovation and experimenting with themes and content. Teleplays of the time had the most engaging themes, rallying around cross-cutting social realism with diverse content. One still vividly remembers some popular serials of the time like, Khuda Ki Basti, Jhok Sial, Jazeera, Teesra Kinara, Tota Kahani and so on. What we are witnessing today on private channels are mainly glossy sets, and barring a few plays, most of these centre around extramarital themes as if that was the only problem besetting life in Pakistan.
We are now missing good humorous content as well when it comes to finesse and finer sensibilities. Programmes of the past such as Alif Noon,Such Gup and Taal Matol had a rich element of entertainment and education. What we see today is that humour-based programmes, anchored in Urdu, are interjected with crass Punjabi puns, which are often in poor taste. This in a way demeans the language of Baba Bulleh Shah and Madhu Lal Husain. One can only bemoan the apathy of media regulators, who seem to be obsessed with fabricated stories of Imran Khan’s third marriage than with taking action against the debasing of the language of Sufis at the hands of a few.
There is also a growing tendency to commodify women. For instance, just a few days before her death, Qandeel Baloch was showcased on a channel in a needlessly provocative manner. There was never an effort to provide the viewer with the other side of the story, of woes and the suffering that the poor lady went through. Even her most tragic death did not move any channel to come up with a follow-up programme along this theme. The electronic media had more time for Ayan Ali, who was shown appearing in court in the backdrop of Bollywood songs, than for the umpteen incidents of honour killings and acid burnings.
There is a dearth of coverage of our rural areas with the focus being urban-centric. Stories are mainly confined to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad-based events and the coverage of the rest of the country is episodic. Our prime time talk shows are afflicted by a serious deficiency of participants and relevant content. The lack of preparation is far too obvious and a handful of faces are seen on all channels.
The electronic media as of today stands out distinctly in terms of viewership, technology and advertisement revenue. It is catering to diverse segments of society through a host of streams, ranging from current affairs to music programmes, sports events and entertainment shows, while safeguarding its hard-earned freedom. What it needs at the moment is deep introspection. ‘Rumour’ has become a handy tool in investigative journalism. There is a need for closer editorial control and greater oversight from within than to wait for indictment from government regulators. Self-censorship is never a limiting imposition; it is part of intellectual rigour.