There is just no escape from the political talk show

While there is a plethora of thriving entertainment channels, the limelight continues to be hogged by the political talk show ever since the revolution against General Pervez Musharraf was televised in 2007.

Interestingly, Mushrraf’s return last month from a self-imposed exile is again the centre of the inescapable chatter. Today’s hearing in the Supreme Court will ensure more bytes!

However, there is some irony surrounding the prime time fare, which was probably at its best during the time of the worst dictatorship Pakistan endured.

To think that the fare etched itself in the minds of my generation in spite of the suffocating code of morality — and on state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) — is to speak from the local chapter of Ripley’s Believe it or not!

Ironically still, it took another brother general of General Ziaul Haq, the mustachioed helmsman and probably the worst dictator to rule Pakistan, to free up the waves.

General Musharraf is credited with the glastnost that, apart from delivering the necessary freedom of thought, backfired on him tremendously when he tried to asphyxiate the messenger.

To begin with, it wasn’t as if Musharraf had suddenly fallen in love with the idea of independent media. It was necessitated by the Kargil conflict that brought home the lessons of why and how a credible media is crucial on the diplomatic front. He realized that the state-run electronic media had no credibility and no purpose was served by withholding bad news as it were.

Fast forward to Musharraf’s blunder in trying to force out Iftikhar Chaudhary, the incumbent chief justice, on mere suspicion that he would stall his presidential reelection bid in 2007. Once the top adjudicator refused to resign on cue and was captured on camera being pulled by his hair a day after Musharraf sacked him, all hell broke loose.

Musharraf self-destructed by blacking out the private media following a sweeping Emergency measure that unwittingly culminated in uniting the rejuvenated judiciary with a media that was dying to telecast the revolution. Since then, there has been no looking back.

The reason I have narrated a script all too familiar to most of us with that TV remote in hand is to drive home the point on how prime time ever since that mad Musharraf winter streak turned it into a circus called the talk show.

Admittedly, it was fun watching the daredevilry for some time. There was no dearth of in-your-face mien with prominent but outspoken lawyers like Ali Ahmed Kurd prime timing cameos about ripping the (military) uniform off the General who was refusing to take his fatigues off, calling it his “second skin”.

But after a while, the talk shows began to resemble secondhand clothing with no imagination or substance. The average Pakistani viewer has had little respite since then with TV anchors far from playing moderators assuming a larger-than-life profile and forcing agenda-driven shows down the throats of the viewers.

It was a cinch that at some stage, the lack of credibility would give them away, and it did resoundingly, last year when two of the breed was caught on camera literally staging a show with a real estate tycoon on extended prime time. The real estate tycoon is notorious for his wheeling-dealing and has the country’s who’s who in his pocket.

Even though the influence of the electronic media has shot exponentially, the same cannot be said of its credibility. The leaked tape served to reinforce the stereotype among both the chattering classes and the viewing public that the media was part of the problem, not quite the innocent messenger it fancied itself to be.

One popular notion — and it is used with some abandon by warring politicos on prime time TV — is that a breed of anchors are holding the discourse (if not the nation) hostage. That they decide what will set the stage alight and conversely, ignore anything that falls short of their agenda.

Truth to tell, it is a charge not easily dismissed. The bias, in some cases, is so blatant that you don’t know whether to laugh at their audacity or sympathize with the unsuspecting viewers who may have lost their sense of prime time direction.

But to blame the anchors entirely for the crisis of credibility that permeates every TV-equipped household would be stretching the argument. It is the crafty managements behind these men and women of influence that is constantly at work to ratchet up the ratings to milk whatever they can.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that a TV channel accused of leaking the tape of a self-styled religious scholar, whose sales pitch is unmatched, in one of his unguarded moments — out of sheer jealousy for losing him to a rival — lured him back and, against all in-house opposition, forced him down the throat of the believers during the month of Ramadan because it fetched incredible moolah.

This space is too limited to list the media’s crass commercialism and its hues of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Paradoxically, it is not too difficult to make out which media house is in which league and with whom but most of them clearly know which side of the toast to butter for a rewarding experience.

Not too long ago the media was considered the last frontier in terms of conquest. Now both the stakeholders and the media seem to have co-opted. This is particularly true of the fare the viewers are currently exposed to in an election year whose frenzy will take the country by storm in the coming days and weeks.

In fact, in an unprecedented move, Najam Sethi, perhaps, the country’s most influential talk show host — whose access to the high and mighty in civil and military circles as well as a remarkably accurate source base is legendary — is now presiding over the most critical bastion of Pakistani power equation — the Punjab province.

Now, what is this, if not prime time transcending the power of airwaves?

The writer is Editor Pique Magazine based in Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Very well written article that reflects the true picture of the dubious role being played by the electronic media, unfortunately this is not just a Pakistani problem it is the same everywhere else in the world. Truth be told, I have watched TV news channels from across the globe and I cannot point out even one single news station that tells the whole truth, you ultimately have "Read Between The Lines"


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