Digging its own grave
Pakistani media is once again at the center of a fierce debate but for all the wrong reasons. But once again it seems no one will lend a patient ear to it, contribute something substantive to this debate or learn anything from this episode.
This media was stooping lower and lower since the advent of TV on the scene but all warnings about the deteriorating journalistic standards were thrown to the wind and the criticism dubbed as mere noise of those failed individuals who couldn’t make it to the screen. They wouldn’t listen until one among them from Express News plumbed new depths – by jumping into the grave of Abdul Sattar Edhi, literally – on July 9 to bring home the actual state of affairs inside the TV news channels, wrongly dubbed ‘the media’.
This wasn’t a jump into ignominy of a lone wolf inside a particular TV channel; it was a manifestation of deeper, collective malady but only if they are going to recognize it. Let’s examine it. A news report on TV is not the handiwork of a single individual. It passes through so many heads and hands; starting from ground zero to newsroom and MCR editors to in charge newsroom. In case of something unusual higher authorities – like Executive News Director in this case – can be informed to take guidance from. Looking at it from this angle, there is a long string of people involved which is a sad reflection on the journalistic ethics, professional training and educational level of the of the people who were working not on this one particular assignment but also all others in the said channel who are spread in the nook and corner of the country. Going one step further, it is not the story of this one channel; this is the story of all others who more often than not exhibit it through their news and current affairs programs.
How this story of collective fall from grace started has itself become so old that telling it again makes one feel embarrassed. But there’s no alternative.
It started from a big bang that created a whole universe of TV channels without any prior preparation. There was virtually only one TV in the country i.e. the state-owned Pakistan Television. But in the year 2002 a flood of TV channels, both news and entertainment, overwhelmed Pakistan when Pervez Musharraf decided to allow private channels to go on air. Being a one-TV country since 1964, it lacked professionally trained, educated manpower. There were no educational or training institutions to produce and provide the required manpower either. Even today, 14 years after the introduction of private channels – with a little less than one hundred TV channels on air – the educational institutions that are producing journalists for this industry are in pathetic conditions. Most of these educational institutions are inadequately equipped and are crowded with teachers to whom ‘patriotism’ and ‘Pakistaniyat’ are basic requirements for ‘objective journalism’ and for a good journalist, respectively. As far as training institutes for journalists are concerned, they are literally non-existent.
The next big bad thing that happened to the so-called free media was that the government allowed cross-media ownership; which means a person or organisation can own more than one TV and radio channels as well as newspapers and magazines. This resulted in the monopolisation (or a loose oligopoly) of the industry, creating a sort of brotherhood in which positive criticism and accountability became strange words.
Compared to other media forms, TV required huge investment and political connections, which attracted wealthy and politically well-connected ‘investors’ to this industry. But once they entered there, it was a whole new world of aura and power; markedly different from the media that existed till then and which comprised only print media, then called ‘press’.
These two realities (larger investment and power) changed the face of media and created a bigger room for the owner to maneuver in. Editorial control – which though historically remained a bone of contention among the owners and editors when newspapers ruled the roost – slipped from the hands of professional editors to those of the sarmaya-lagane wallah owner. Thus, this modern Pakistani media universe revolves around business magnates who have created big and small stars of their own that shine every night on TV screens all around. The game now is purely corporate in nature with little journalistic professionalism involved.
Most of these owners are fighting each other for the limited resources that are available in the country’s corporate sector. The completion, therefore, is cut-throat; which is commonly known as ‘rating game’. Needless to explain that this is a no holds barred fight in which no ethical or professional restriction can be observed, hence, constantly falling journalistic standards.
There is another factor that is instrumental holding back the media to either grow professionally or to become an established institution and that is its manipulation by outside forces for its own ends. The mixing of the editorial and financial sides within the TV channels, and the concentration of decision-making powers into the owners’ hands has made this manipulation easier. In the bygone journalistic world professional editors saved the day for owner and ensured some degree of freedom for the organization even in the face of great dictatorial pressures. No more. Everything is just a call away now; everything that is commercially beneficial and/or politically expedient. No wonder one sees senseless, even farcical, presentations that bring in more and more money and a constant smear campaign against civilian rulers and democracy that earns the ‘investor’ approval of the powers that be.
In the race to achieve these goals and get maximum public rating, this media doesn’t feel shy to invade privacy and private property in the name of investigative journalism. At times assuming the roles of moral vigilantes and then self-appointed law enforcing agencies. All these things together have tarnished the image of the media and media-related people alike. Added by a persistent and well-organized social media campaign, today’s Pakistani media is running head-to-head in unpopularity race with civilian rulers, politicians and democracy – all of which it has discredited to unimaginable extent.
Promoting and selling illiteracy, anti-democratic sentiments and stupidity in the name of ‘rating system’ and ‘public demand’, this media has made itself immune to any corrective measure, terming every such initiative by the government as an attack on freedom of the press. And it refuses to agree on its own on some code of ethics or to finance and establish professional training institutes for budding journalists to cater for the needs of the industry.
It is high time that the owners loosen their control on the editorial side of the media and some give free hand to the professional journalists. It is also necessary that the government doesn’t sit like a silent spectator to watch and let make every absurdity a norm in the name a free press. It should give priority to establishing educational and training institutes for journalists. It must also come forward and help evolve a code of conduct for the media; and the media should help every such endeavor. The government’s regulatory body, PEMRA’s role, though somewhat pronounced these days, shouldn’t be confined to imposing meaningless fines on TV channels or imposing controversial bans on the advertisements of contraceptives and some shows of its disliking. It should be given meaning role and powers to address issues and problems of this one of the most important sectors of modern day life.
If the needful is not done on voluntary basis, we should worry about media’s head rolling along with the much abhorred current ‘system’ in the event of any calamity befalling it. It can’t hide and save its skin on the pretext that it was innocent like the Executive Director News of the channel whose reporter went berserk and did the most ludicrous thing. TV channels and its owners may be blamed digging its own graves tomorrow if they didn’t mend their ways today.