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Not An Elitist Media!

If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it.
[Art Buchwald}

A momentous turn in the history of the media both electronic and print in Pakistan is the rule of law movement. No doubt, through the thick and thin of this movement it was proved that in the war against the elite classes, media especially electronic media can play a frontal role. It must be mentioned here that electronic and print media both reciprocate their influence on the formation of public opinion. Prior to that, media was considered an integral part of the elitist alliance. No doubt, it was so!

By Dr. Khalil Ahmad

With the advent of electronic media and its proliferation, the war against the all powerful elite classes has acquired a new dimension in Pakistan. As the force and both reach and range of TV channels has no parallel in the history of communication technology, now the previously all important print media occupies a backseat or just follows suit. But of course it has its own uncontested place.

A momentous turn in the history of the media both electronic and print in Pakistan is the rule of law movement. No doubt, through the thick and thin of this movement it was proved that in the war against the elite classes, media especially electronic media can play a frontal role. It must be mentioned here that electronic and print media both reciprocate their influence on the formation of public opinion. Prior to that, media was considered an integral part of the elitist alliance. No doubt, it was so!

Just one evidence: in January 2006, a letter to the editor of a national English daily desperately painted the state of no rule of law in Pakistan in the following words:

“My generation – one that once lived under British governance – knows what the rule of law meant. What we have today is anarchy. People like me, who are not affiliated with a political party, the bureaucracy, the army or the press, are treated as though we are not even citizens of the state.”
[Shaukat Ali]

Now when the rule of law movement, by getting the deposed judges restored, has won its first strategic battle (the second strategic battle victory is the 31st July Judgment of the Supreme Court), a pertinent question that needs to be raised is: whether media is still part of this movement, and if yes, does it meet the ‘etiquette’ to be part of this movement such as, and most importantly, its unconditional loyalty to the constitution of Pakistan, to rule of law, to fundamental rights of the people of Pakistan enshrined in the same constitution, and, again most importantly, its resolve not to serve the interests of and promote the agenda of the elite classes of Pakistan. In addition, it must also be asked, whether media while enjoying freedom behaves responsibly or not. That is the thrust of this article.

Before entering this ‘hazardous’ domain, let the writer admit that following observations are based on his almost regular reading of the online and print editions of the English language newspapers, off and on viewing of news, analyses, talk shows on various TV channels, and discussions on the related topics with a number of acquaintances from a variety of walks of life. His two and half years’ experience of working with PTV helps him see through the TV set screen and guess what’s happening (meaning the ‘politics’) behind it in the studio and offices of the TV channel whose program he happens to watch. Also, the writer will confine himself only to the op-ed pages of the newspapers, and news, analyses, and talk shows of the TV channels, leaving the quality of news coverage in both cases to be examined at some other occasion.

As far as English newspaper op-ed pages (it may be noted here that sometimes such opinion articles are placed on other pages too) and TV channel analyses and talk shows are concerned, the writer has come to view the editors and producer/hosts of almost all of them in awe of retired bureaucrats, generals, admirals, air marshals, brigadiers, retired ambassadors, retired ministers, and retired planners (meaning retired from government’s planning agencies). In some cases but not so often, they may be from a serving lot.

Another group that seems to occupy these pages and sometimes the talk shows also belongs to the foreign seats of learning or is foreign qualified. Maybe it is too much of saying it in this manner but probably it is so that if someone sends his article to a newspaper stating at the end that the writer studies or teaches at this or that university of US or UK, probably it will get placed. Let’s not compare it with any article sent by someone studying or teaching at a local university since we have no two or three such reputable universities in Pakistan; however, it is to be admitted that sometimes such articles do publish.

Under another unique category fall those names which do not appear regularly or frequently on these pages or on the screens. They seem to be provoked by a certain issue or come to the fore only to clarify or defend the position of a government VIP, or a leader; e.g. a name that publishes mostly only on those articles which aim at rescuing the position of President Asif Ali Zardari. Included in this category are those also who seem to be regularly employed for the job. This does exclude the regular columnists; probably they are the ones who are in demand of this or that large group of readers. But sure not all the regular columnists or hosts/guests sell like hot dogs. Most remain un-demanded, un-sold, un-watched, but publish and appear regularly.

Likewise, sometimes kith and kin of government VIPs write something and it publishes, such as a recent piece by the Prime Minister’s daughter. Or when President Asif Ali Zardari’s name appears on a piece of writing, but regrettably he writes only for the foreign newspapers, though it is reproduced in our domestic press also. Ok, it has news value, political weight, and policy implications and must be heard.

The writer does not know how it happens and how all such and other articles get published or talk show hosts and guests appear on the screen: whether they have connections in the newspapers/channels or are friends with the owners, or it is just their name and credentials that make all the difference. Or it is sheer merit that decides the fate of individual writers, individual articles, fate, individual hosts and individual guests. But it does happen and happens repeatedly. Safely, all this combines to get op-ed pages finalized and talk shows aired.

Whatever is the case, the writer is not interested in knowing either how all that good and bad stuff publishes and talk shows aired. It is his considered opinion that it is the sole right and prerogative of the owners and editors of the newspapers and TV channels to place or not to place this or that op-ed article and to bring this or that host or guest up on the screen. He does honor their freedom and believes that media needs but to be self-regulated and not from the outside, and any grievance of any citizen against it should go to their self-regulators and then to the courts for adjudication and relief. At the same time, the writer thinks that it is his right to rate and evaluate what is published on op-ed pages and aired on the TV channels. It may be merit or it is merit alone that would be the top consideration of the editors of the newspapers and producers of the said programs while examining the plethora of writings in their mail boxes and selecting this or that host and this or that guest; however, it is for the avid readers and viewers like the present writer to see how and in which way all that stuff and talk shows consummate, what purpose and what interests they serve, and what agenda they promote.

To assume that all the stuff that publishes in the English newspapers in the form of opinion articles is bad will be totally false, but again to rate it all as good will also be preposterous. Likewise, it is the same with the TV channels’ said programs. Here by good and bad is meant not serving the cause of the elite classes and promoting their agenda. Although, sometimes, there are such remarkable pieces and programs which aim at setting the tone and tenor of the war against the elite classes, but not so often. To experience the source, character, and ethos of the opinion pages of the English newspapers, and the said TV programs, go through and watch them only for a number of weeks, and you will see writers and guests from the elite classes are conspicuous by their predominant majority on these pages and screens. It seems they are the only intellectuals and analysts of the sort in town.

Yeah, in a sense, they are intellectuals a posteriori. Didn’t they first practically serve and promote the agenda of their elite classes and now when they are no more in a position to do the same from a position of official authority, they have transformed into intellectual gurus. Though mostly they do use the language of change and usually write and speak what is not out of sync with the main stream of the new waves of thought, however, isn’t it a fact that yet again they have come to occupy the intellectual space that may eventually have come to the share of those who could by writing in these pages and speaking in these programs make a lot of difference in favor of rule of law, fundamental rights of the citizens of this country, and not the members of the elite only?

Another point that needs to be noted here is that these would-be writers’ and talk show guests’ honesty and integrity is not that much open to be questioned which in case of intellectuals a posteriori is sufficiently justified. They are the idols shunted out of their pantheons! And now they aim at leading the change!? How is that possible?

Although, it may be objected that every op-ed piece and talk show opinion ought to be examined and judged on merit alone, however, the fact is that politics of situation is not too insignificant to be ignored. This politics emanates from newspaper’s editorial and TV channel’s policy (both announced and un-announced), and all important role of various types of pressures, clouts, expediencies, exigencies, urgencies, compromises, consistencies and inconsistencies, the bent of mind and interests of one who has the final say in the op-ed and guests’ selection process, in moulding or shaping or de-shaping the editorial policy and channel’s philosophy. It is this factoring in that makes the special names appear on the op-ed pages and screens. Also, this helps understand the nature of the media in an all powerful state where it has to survive on a priority basis even if it finds itself on the other side of the fence against an unfriendly government.

Now let the writer make some observations especially regarding the electronic media. Though it is still in its infancy and is inclined more towards the state and the elite classes, but in view of these elite classes’ anaconda-like coiling of the state and its resources, it has to go a long way and that too in a shorter time period to meet the challenges it faces. As in the wake of the rule of law movement, its tryst with the truth proved it is fast maturing, it behooves it must utilize its potential to promote the cause of the people and not the elite classes.

As the electronic media is basically a combination of two media, movement and visual (also sound, but in its truest form it requires sound only as one of its aids), its message in no time penetrates to and embeds in the deepest layers of our subliminal perception and it is this unique quality that makes it a leading former/framer of public opinion, not only a former/framer but a dismantler/shatterer of norms, values, assumptions, also, both subservient to the elitist interests and independently moral and universal.

On anther side, though electronic media is always beset by urgency of the moment, however, in that daily flux of happenings its purpose and beauty lie in creating a picture with stable images and a lasting message. That means to say, its ever moving camera should not lose its focus. That focus should remain directed on constitutional values, rule of law, freedom of individual, and self-responsibility as the greatest guiding norm. Likewise, another constant pressure under which it has to survive is competition. This should not force it to lose its focus and get lost in trifles of daily politics, events, news, happenings, statements, figures, glamour, and millions of such things.

For a media with such a powerful thrust of message, it is incumbent that it should never compromise on the values of authenticity, reliability, dependability, corrigibility, and responsibility. It should not run after hypes and fashions, and be able to sift through the mountains of news, events and analyses to bring up those not of pseudo-importance but which really make difference and are catalytic in promoting the values of freedom and responsibility.

It’s lately that a good many number of letters to editors have started appearing in various newspapers which target the quality of TV channels’ talk shows, their hosts’ knowledgeability, and their guests’ veracity. What a tragedy that so many young newscasters have turned to act as hosts to talk shows, all-round interviewers, and analysts. Obviously they have no credentials at all, but only that they used to read news on the channel. This raises the issue not only of age and experience, but credibility of the dialogue also. Haven’t that race transformed almost all of the news slots, talk shows, political and social analysis programs into events of glamour? It is more than or less than or other than what they purport to be. It is not what it should be. How could one believe and take in earnest what transpires, say, between a host and his or her guests, and an interviewer, like Attiqa Odho, and her interviewee, like General Musharraf,? It is never shown on any TV channel what knowledge and experience of the field such hosts or interviewers have on which the said program focused!

Another common practice on the TV channels is the appearance of the rejected politicians. They, such as Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, come to the screen or are invited to so frequently that one is forced to start believing either they are the pillars of Pakistani politics and no political event or statement of any politician should go un-responded to by them, or then it’s all the miracles of the Press Advice or the Mammon that such politicians of doubtful allegiance keep on floating on the TV screens. That’s same as is the case with the op-ed pages, it needs not repeating the words already expressed above. It’s the TV channel owners’ and their program producers’ or directors’ right to bring anyone on the screen they want to, but it’s the viewers’ right to evaluate and weigh their quality.

Though, in view of the above, one must take into account so many state and non-state pressures on the media, but this article assumes that there is always a lot of room, or a grey area, which may always be made use of as one wishes and that it can be utilized to promote one’s mission and values. The same is the case with our media; it can easily probe the limits of this room and such an area, and no doubt it has been and it is. That’s the fact on which is based the writer’s premise that media can play and it must play a vital role against the elitist alliance and its appropriation as well as expropriation of the state and its resources from the people of Pakistan.

Certainly it is part of what this article intends to recommend to the English newspaper op-ed pages editors and TV channel high-ups, i.e. a containing of the elitist names appearing on them. Of course, where names per se are read and heard first and the content under them and opinion expressed by them is taken into consideration afterwards, the names acquire a monopoly status, transmit a message of defeat to the readers, imply their upper hand in the intellectual realm, impact public opinion in more than one ways, and last but not least, exert an unseemly influence on public policy debates. Thus in the final resort these elitist names serve but the elites they come from. To remain trapped in and by their intellectual un-questionability and epistemological infallibility is but to remain in the eternal service of the elite classes of Pakistan.

That is why if media wants itself to be as actively enlisted in the war against the elitist state of Pakistan as it was in the rule of law movement, it needs to take a more responsible review of its philosophical priorities and set them right without delay. Also, it requires a home-coming like return to its real market, the readers and viewers and in an ultimate sense the forsaken individual of Pakistan. It will have to wriggle out of its love affair with the elite classes of this land. In short, it will have to abandon its intellectual and financial dependence on the parasites, i.e. state and the elite classes, and decisively come to be part of the people, the real producers and owners of the country.

The writer is founder/head of the Alternate Solutions Institute, Pakistan’s first free market think tank.

[The article was carried by Pakistan Observer and The Frontier Post on various dates.]