I want to name names and point fingers, but I can’t. Honour among thieves and that sort of thing
I make my living off the evening news
Just gimme something, something I can use
People love it when you lose
They love dirty laundry
Don Henley had the right idea when he sang about the news business. Because that’s just what the news business in Pakistan has become; a wad of soiled undergarments being aired in public, unwashed. But that doesn’t mean that the individuals who work for our media houses are invertebrate, obnoxious, reptilian beings who would sell their own mothers for a scoop. In fact, most journalists, be they newsroom hands or intrepid reporters and camerapersons (who may or may not be putting their lives on the line everyday), are actually some of the most intelligent, sensitive and down-to-earth people I’ve ever come across. But there’s such a thing known as organisational mizaaj, which permeates the core of every sahafi and, for the bulk of their time spent in the field, becomes a part of their persona. This has more to do with people’s expectations from journos than their own selves. So the streetwise crime reporter becomes an over-the-top version of Chuck Norris just so he can ask important people tough questions and get away with it. It’s a character, a persona. It’s his job to be like that. In real life, that man has sacrificed more for his profession than you and I ever could. Keep this in mind the next time a promo for the crime show ‘FIR’ comes on and you’re tempted to poke fun at Faheem Siddiqui’s bad impersonation of the host from America’s Most Wanted.
The news game is not about the individual. It’s about the group. Every major media house, bar none, has an agenda. Some agendas are pretty straightforward, like the anti-government-yet-watered-down-with-a-stiff-upper-lip temperament of Yawn; or the criticise-everything-because-our-man-is-in-opposition style of Lahore-based N-mouthpiece. Others’ agendas, like that of the Red-and-White Media Group and the Maya Khan conglomerate, are more complex. There are special interests, friends of the boss, friends of the bosses’ sons and daughters, political partners and business rivals that must be dealt with. As is too often said, most of the media groups in existence today, except maybe the three oldest ones, were founded merely to provide the owners’ other businesses with cover; political, financial and legal cover. And thanks to the unique way these groups played their cards, we in Pakistan now enjoy tremendous media freedom, to the point that there seems to be no system of checks or balances on the fourth estate.
Dyed-in-the-wool journalists will tell you that all this talk of putting the media on a leash is detrimental to the greater cause. They will try to convince you that, in fact, letting the media operate as a free agent with no regulation and all the power in the world is the way things are and should be done. Sahafi-gardi, they will tell you, is necessary in a situation where most other institutions are inept or impotent. In such cases, the media becomes the final forum for redressal of popular grievances that actually holds any sway. I say to these people: “What a load of croc”!
Every single issue ever highlighted by the news media, be it loadshedding or inflation or political misdemeanours, are all dictated by that particular group’s allegiances. So you should not expect Tez TV to report on the recent ill-managed concert rampage that cost innocent college girls their lives just because the owner of said colleges also owns the TV channel in question. You should, however, expect them to blow out of proportion every single story about the government’s ‘mismanagement of Punjab’ just so they can say “See, our time wasn’t this bad!” You’re right, it wasn’t, because you weren’t there to twist your statements to make them sound like they were coming from Saddam Hussein rather than Shahbaz Sharif.
This game of one-upmanship goes beyond political gain. Media magnates, despite being perfectly rational and reasonable individuals in their own right, seem to depart on power-fuelled acid trips when faced with making decisions that affect the lives of millions. Including their own employees. They treat everything like a number game, because as owners of sprawling empires, that’s what their currency is. It’s all about the numbers. Revenue targets, ratings, profit margins and cutbacks. People? Employees? Readers? Viewers? Just another statistic on the Powerpoint projection of their wealth.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? It’s alright to keep your employees starving while you sip champagne and devour caviar in the comfort of your many mansions. It is only natural for a family of spoilt, rich brats who haven’t done an honest day’s work in their entire lives to deem it unnecessary to pay those who work to build their glorious pyramids. It’s also perfectly reasonable to revoke the hard-earned salary raises of those who toil endlessly just so your son can afford to learn how to live a life free of substances to use and abuse. It’s also perfectly commonplace for the seth to undo everything the seth’s son does, because they don’t share the same vision for the organisation. And it is next to godliness to ensure that anyone who has taken bullets, bombs and the threat of imminent death for family members does not remain tied to your worthless, moralising organisation. It makes me sad to say this, but the group most hated for over-sensationalisation is perhaps the only one that treats its employees like human beings. Not completely, mind you, but just enough that they look like anointed saints in this bazaar of zameer-faroshs.
From the day I signed my first job contract with a (then) respected newspaper to the day that my employment at a moralising media house was terminated because I was too loyal to the cause; it has been a rollercoaster ride for me. For nearly eight years, I wandered from city to city, media house to news organisation, looking for a calling that would let me do what I’m good at, telling true stories. But even today, in this very column, I have to water-down my narrative. I want to name names and point fingers, but I can’t. Honour among thieves and that sort of thing. But a time comes when you have to stick your head out the window and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
That time is now. That person is you.
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