(For a visual depiction of the evolution of the media over the last decade, click here: http://bit.ly/ehSeeV)
Zarrar Khuhro reviews TV’s report card across a decade of change.
It has been without a doubt, a decade of development (apologies to Ayub Khan) for Pakistan’s multifaceted media industry.
However, in the interests of brevity, and restricted both by my own experience and a strictly enforced word limit, this piece will focus mostly on the largest, most influential and most
in-your-face medium: TV.
The rat(ings) race
There is one thing you can say about PTV, and that is that they don’t have to worry about the two big R’s: revenues and ratings. As for all the other channels that do not have the state bankrolling them, staying on-air can become a very expensive proposition indeed. That is where the advertisers come in.
Granted, lucrative government advertising still plays its part, especially where the print media is concerned, but when we turn to TV, it is the private sector’s rupee that is the most sought after. And when it comes to parting the corporations from their closely held advertising money, the higher your ratings, the bigger the slice of pie you are going to get. The ratings system, however skewed and unrepresentative it may be, is really the only yardstick advertisers have to gauge a channel’s success. So when ratings dominate the agenda of weekly meetings in news channels, what effect does that have on what you see on the screen?
Let us entertain you
Well for one thing, you see the kind of reaction most of the media had on the Shoaib-Sania wedding and all its preceding drama. For a few weeks it seemed as if suicide bombings and political tussles came to a halt as we were treated to blow-by-blow coverage of Shoaib’s previous ‘marriage’, ‘divorce’ and attendant scandals. There is no doubt that it was news, especially with Pak-India relations in their usual frigid mode, but did it take precedence over the attack on the US consulate in Peshawar? If you happened to be watching TV on that day, there is really no question about where the priorities of most TV channels lay.
The quest for the newer, bigger story has also led to serious attention deficit disorder on the part of the media, and distracting it is now about as easy as dangling a shiny object in front of an infant to get him to stop chewing your cell phone. Case in point: after the back-to-back coverage, how many flood-related stories do you now see on the nine o’clock news?
Restrictions placed upon the press remain a hot topic, at least in media circles. Due to the turbulent history of state-media relations in Pakistan, the prime violator of journalistic freedom is usually taken to be the government, operating through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) or the ‘deep state’ which operates through its anonymous agents.
Certainly, neither forces are blameless. Those who thought the TV genie was too big to be forced back into the bottle were in for a bit of a surprise in November 2007, although that ham-handed gesture proved to be yet another self-hammered nail in the former President’s coffin. More recently, the ‘informal’ banning of two prominent channels does prove that the old bogeyman of ‘stop press’ is still alive, though one would wish that channels were penalised for, let’s say, inciting violence against a certain community as opposed to simply reporting an event, no matter the bias said reporting was imbued with.
The recent abduction and torture of reporter Omar Cheema also seems to have the fingerprints of the ‘hidden hand’ all over it. But with the weakening of the state in general, many other forces have also stepped into the gap. Speak to any Balochistan based journalist and they will tell you how they are trapped between the devil of the Baloch insurgents and the deep blue sea of the agencies. The Taliban also regularly give warnings, matching their threats with very real violence, and political parties are not to be left behind, as any Karachi-based journalist who has ever received ‘friendly advice’ can testify.
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But there is another factor setting the limits on what the media can and cannot talk about, and this ties in directly with the revenue issue.
Let’s start with an example: we all remember the coverage when the Competition Commission of Pakistan moved against the sugar industry, but how many remember the coverage of the CCP’s action against telecoms? Surely in a country with over 100 million mobile phone users that would be big news, yet it merited nothing more than a ticker that scrolled across the screen and was seen no more. As to why there was such silence on your usually shrill TV screens, well just take a look at who brings you your hourly headlines and the bulk of TV advertising. Similarly, had someone drowned in a politician’s swimming pool, the smart money says every TV channel in the country would have focused its cameras there, but what about the man who drowned while participating in a multinational’s ‘reality show’. Again, the silence was deafening. And let’s not even start on the sparse coverage of the melamine issue or why we never see a documentary criticising fairness creams. If you want to know who really calls the shots in today’s environment, you only have to follow the purse strings.
The Murdoch effect
If you happen to follow US politics, you may have come across a statement by President Obama in which he describes Fox News as ‘destructive to the country’s long term growth.’ Well, substitute Obama with Zardari and Fox News with ‘political actors’ and the script starts to sound familiar. As the media industry consolidates, there is little doubt that cross media ownership has led to some media groups pushing a blatantly partisan political agenda at the expense of the often touted but seldom implemented standard of journalism: impartiality.
Take for example, the coverage of Musharraf’s coming out party in London.
No prizes for guessing which channel cut to the event a full 15 minutes after everyone else did. No surprise then that while every other newspaper treated the story as a main headline, that group’s newspapers relegated it to a lonely column. While that may simply have been an editorial call, was it really necessary to call the former president ‘crazy’ in a front page headline? I thought venting your spleen was reserved for the opinion pages. The same people have also made it a habit to predict the imminent downfall of the Government on a nearly daily basis. They may eventually be proven right, but then the broken clock on my bedroom wall is also right… at least twice a day. If left unchecked, the pushing of partisan agendas may end up doing more of a disservice to the news-hungry public than any amount of government restrictions ever could.
Finally, while media in Pakistan has come a long way, there are still many pitfalls in the road ahead. Luckily, we have not degenerated into the sheer sensationalism we see west of the Wagah border post, and luckily we have nothing that yet matches the scale of political bias that Fox News brings to the screen. We do not yet have a host/demagogue such as Glenn Beck to lead public rallies (Zaid Hamid’s attempt fizzled out) and neither are we (yet) complete slaves to corporate interests.
As we look ahead we must not only learn from our own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of others.
Zarrar Khuhro is Executive Producer, Current Affairs, DawnNews. email@example.com
First published in the November-December 2010 issue of Aurora.