Hucksters and Hacks

Watch the firestorm of shame and rage that the News of the Worldscandal has unleashed on both sides of the Atlantic, and one thing will become painfully obvious: no phone-hacking scandal could ever cause the media heavens to fall here in Pakistan. The hackeratti can clutch their pearls all they want, the outrage is disingenuous. We watch for the simple pleasure of seeing the world’s largest media empire squirm. The horror mumbled and muttered across Pakistani newsrooms over the shenanigans of magnate Murdoch’s men (and women) is synthetic. And, of course, we’re hardly ones to talk.

In Pakistan, media is a regulated business—at least in theory, since the governing laws are not worth the paper they are printed on. Editors, publishers, and TV executives insist on “self-regulation,” which is code for taking editorial decisions with an eye to the bottom line. The timeworn local tradition of a secret government fund to plant official platitudes across media platforms continues without questions or concerns of integrity. There are advertorials. There are potted phone-ins on talk shows. There are bribes. There are bribes by other names (“foreign tours”). There is cheerful disregard for the country’s feeble antidefamation laws. Yes, wagging fingers at Fleet Street represents an utter lack of self-awareness.
Let’s be clear. There is no such thing as a free press in Pakistan. For each story that is run every now and then to give the appearance of no-fear, no-favor journalism, there are a dozen that never make it—and only sometimes for legitimate reasons. One cannot authoritatively judge Pakistan’s power-drunk but self-preserving media without looking at the stories which are not being reported.
Some media organizations—including in the U.S. and Europe—serve as an ostensible insurance policy for big business, which is fair enough but hardly a foolproof strategy. Often journalists will pontificate and preach about their personal and professional virtue and valor merely to elude the fact that the news organizations they work for—however concerned for the public they may be—are, in fact, commercial enterprises. Media bosses know the cardinal rule well: Do not piss off paying advertisers. In Pakistan, the biggest advertiser is the government. The only complaint you will ever hear from a Pakistani media mogul in his (or her) less guarded moments about this inconvenient fact is that the government isn’t spending nearly enough. Some skinflint news channels and broadsheets have been known to go for the government’s jugular, not in a bid to expose wrongdoings, but to bare fangs and drum up their nuisance value. In the ensuing battle of kings versus kingmakers, what chance does truth stand?
Journalism in Pakistan has come to stand for all-caps scandal-mongering and sensationalism. Political news is the celebrity gossip of our media times. In zealous obeisance before ratings, the cannot-fail business model turns on appealing to the worst in people’s nature: reckless gossip, wild conspiracy theories, fervid and populist rejectionism. Raw emotions help rake it in. The result is a media landscape shorn of any real credibility, barren and bleak. At least in the U.S., there is a Keith Olbermann for every Bill O’Reilly, and there are solid, truly instructive platforms like PBS, NPR and even C-Span. We, on the other hand, have lemmings.
It’s a scandal. Ultimately, it’s audiences and advertisers who enable Pakistan’s media and who are responsible for its self-destructive degeneration. Raised on a bilious diet of distortion and dogma, people buy dailies or tune in for cheap entertainment. And they expect to get what they pay for: salacious half-truths and provocative stories that will elicit a dinnertime rant and then they’re done. But there is always that little bit of hope. After Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, advertisers were corralled into boycotting a local news channel. It worked, and the inflammatory P.Y.T. host was given the heave-ho. But is it really another matter that she resurfaced weeks later on a rival channel?
The closest approximation of an independent and free media is only possible in an unwounded society, where introspection and honest self-appraisal are not viewed as admissions of weakness. In business, there is oftentimes a thin line between what is legal and illegal. There is no distinction between morality and immorality, only profit or loss. If Pakistan’s media businesses really want to serve the public interest, they would make this important distinction count. Now what could be less—forgive me, Rupert—Murdochian than that?
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