There are hate-mongering conservatives everywhere and yes, they can come in the form of non-hejab, western-suited, cigarette toting, alcohol drinking, fraternizing with men, face-booking, Pakistani women too. Thank you, Gen Musharraf
The power of media in the 20th century was most effectively unpacked by that seminal work by Herman and Chomsky titled, ‘Manufacturing Consent’. A befitting title, it became a ubiquitous reference to how political, coercive and corporate the political economy of the media really was. For many of my generation, Chomsky neutered the sexy notion that the ‘free’ media and journalism were truth-seekers and democracy promoters. Instead, the fourth estate in capitalist economies was revealed for its sole interest in profit and its active contribution towards the decimation of the left press, as part of the anti-communist campaign in the US and indeed, all around the cold world.
Through the 1980s, state media was demonized as the hand-maiden and propaganda tool of ruling parties who denied freedom to duped consumer-citizens. In reality, post cold-war private media has become so incestuously close to the ruling elite that it makes state media look naively pedestrian and even, prudent. In some cases, (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire being the obvious example), media houses have become more influential and powerful than governments themselves. This is an ironic twist to the accusation that socialist states manipulate media messages as a tool of cultural affect.
Today, the corporate media has been revealed to be a contributing factor to major governance decisions and with no qualms about breaching any and all ethical standards of basic journalism and being accountable to no-one. From the sexing up of the existence of weapons of mass destruction leading to the Iraq War, to hacking phones of murder victims and high officials, media houses have pushed the boundaries of freedom over the cliff’s edge. Competing with social media sources, traditional media has become more about the Herman-Chomsky identified political economy, and less about information and political education.
Media Morality in Pakistan
Contextualised in this back-drop, the current crisis within Pakistan’s electronic media becomes more plausible and not as ‘scandalous’ as several commentators have interpreted it to be. Why do we believe that we are immune to the almost-universal complicity between media, politics and money? If anything, the main crime committed by the electronic media in Pakistan has not been its vulnerability to political influence, acceptance of perks and bribes from businessman, or rewards in the form of ads from governments but quite simply, of intellectual laziness.
Consider the latest media ‘scandal’ by way of the Mehr Bokhari-Mubashir Luqman off-air leaked video of the sham interview of Riaz Malik. Malik is the real-estate tycoon who claims that the Chief Justice’s son, Arslan Chaudhry, has been a compliant go-between who oiled the judicial wheels on cases in favour of Malik, for a price. Malik’s revelations have set the conspiracy theorists on both sides, in a spin. As the leaked off-air clips that expose the charade set up by Dunya TV owners and the named anchor persons became viral on YouTube, some argue this was a planned conspiracy to discredit a judiciary and the Chief Justice (CJ), who is considered the nemesis of the current government. They argue this attempt to discredit the CJ is a revenge tactic for the judicial dismissal of Prime Minister Gillani last month. Supporters of the government insist that the judiciary is bent on persecuting the PPP and there is no evidence that the government is involved in any such maligning of the judiciary.
As someone who resists social media as her source of information or entertainment, despite WikiLeaks and the (often, inaccurate) contribution of Facebook to the Arab Spring uprisings, I found the Mediagate clips to be compelling. However, my interest was sociological, not political. In other words, I was grudgingly impressed by the naked ambitions of both anchors and their pathological addiction to their cell phones (clearly smarter than their owners). What was interesting was that both revealed a professional insecurity that prevented them from being confident in their (fake) interview and seemed to be more dependent on the feedback and instructions that they obsessively scrolled for on their cells and squabbling over camera time. They both competed and hungered for credit and praise on a staged programme!! One has to be pretty low on self-esteem to consider that a success – its like a student feeling proud rather than simply relieved for copying an entire cheat-sheet for an exam.
Also interesting for me was the gender war that simmered and often erupted between two clearly ambitious anchors hungry to be the ones associated with the scoop, the exclusive, the ‘bomb’ even. One may have been more impressed if they had in fact, been journalists who had investigated and brought the scoop to surface. But here the anchors were really just mid-wives for an oily businessman whose fingers exist in political pies. Unfortunately, anchor persons in Pakistan are largely not journalists but self-defined media personalities. In many cases, they are not even opinion columnists but just (often, young) ‘media persons’ with attitude and looks and a confidence that makes one cringe when they hold forth on current issues that are ahistorical and often, just plain wrong.
Talk-Shows; The New Chattering Class
Many, nearly all, young professionals involved in the new media rely heavily on social media as a substitute for real (for want of a better term) media skills. The more social, the more twitter followers, and the more these media people (not journalists) can create their own personas and give the impression that they are followed (even if they don’t write and therefore, are not read). The talk-show phenomenon has given rise to a new generation and new meaning to the term, ‘chattering classes’. In fact, in many cases, the sources of ‘news’ for the anchors are much the same as those of the earlier chattering classes – the Pakistani drawing room, peppered with politicians and businessmen.
Meanwhile, politicians have realized the symbiotic and mutually beneficial possibilities of feeding news to the press via these socially mobile media persons, rather than going through the more hardened, jaded, old-school and worst of all, ideological journos.
Politicians give special attention to media personalities, (Mehr Bokhari takes a ride in minister Qamar Zaman Kaira’s car after an official event and is seen bumming a cigarette off him) and in return, anchors dress up their talk shows with politicians and businessmen allowing them to present their views, however outrageous and unvetted. In the case of Malik Riaz, (appropriately referred to by Talat Hussain of Dawn as ‘Riaz Contractor’ – for that’s exactly what this influential nouveau socio-political personality is), his influence allowed him to ‘plant’ a discussion on a sub-judice case on the Bokhari-Luqman talk-show on Dunya TV.
We all remember Luqman as that lip-curling, unsavory opportunist caretaker minister to Gen Musharraf and foul mouthed sexist. Bokhari memorialized herself as the abrasive provocateur who inflamed her viewers during an interview of the late Salmaan Taseer which painted him as being complicit to blasphemy due to his support of a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy. At the time, the liberals were outraged against Bokhari’s role in inciting viewers to see Taseer as a credible blasphemer just days before his murder, leading some to call her a media assassin or murderer by proxy. For an interesting discussion on the broader issue of the “mediatized Islamist discourse” in Pakistan, with reference to this case, see Fawzia Afzal’s, “Role of Media in Salmaan Taseer’s Killing” http://fawziaafzalkhan.webs.com/apps/blog/entries/show/5986221-role-of-media-in-salmaan-taseer-s-killing.
However, the idea of a conservative section of the media (dominant even) is not exceptional to Pakistan and it’s certainly a determining feature of mainstream democracies. The liberals’ outrage unfortunately too often tends to hit off the mark. To make a causal link between Bokhari’s inflammatory questions to Taseer, however abhorable and transparently hate-inciting, is too far-fetched as a possible motivating factor to his actual murder. It may reveal similar positions on the same spectrum where conservatism and extreme acts of hate reside close to each other but it takes away from the very real religious fanaticism that enables that jump from accusation and hate-spitting to an actual criminal act.
In any case, the real issue was not that Bokhari’s politics are similar to right-wing media personality of the US, Ann Coulter (author of How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) and Demonic; How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America). There are hate-mongering conservatives everywhere and yes, they can come in the form of non-hejab, western-suited, cigarette toting, alcohol drinking, fraternizing with men, face-booking, Pakistani women too. You can be a lifestyle liberal but politically anti-feminist, anti-secular, anti-US and India and a spiritually Muslim conservative to the spiteful core, in this postmodern world. Thank you, Gen Musharraf.
One tries to resist the old-fashioned resort to blaming-the-dictator-game, now that we witness the sustained and resurging Islamisation of the state and society even two decades after the death of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. Still, the historical fact is that Musharraf gave wind to this new media in more ways than we may like to remember. But this is just a half-statement that doesn’t look into the layers underneath such accreditations. Therefore, it is important to add that Musharraf didn’t give anything for free. He injected a specific culture into the new media, which was in keeping with his approach to everything, exemplified by his Prime Minister, Shortcut Aziz (real name, Shaukat Aziz).
The shortcut in the media policy was that while freeing the media he created a specialized culture of Public Relationing and media personalities. Some were imported from overseas at undisclosed costs and employed specifically for the purpose of sexing up the dictators uniformed persona and converting the look and feel of his government into one that gave the air of a ‘real democracy’. These artists and opportunist circus ring masters milked the state by staging state fashion shows and art exhibits and film festivals, all as part of the liberal trappings of a regime that allowed the fire of terror to rip through the country, decimating its true social and cultural fabric.
This new generation of media puppies who fawned and jostled with the foreign press and Islamabad elite on the upward path of their careers, are Musharraf’s children and are today influential actors on the stage of the new media. My generation was affected in varying ways by Gen Zia’s Islamisation such that we see the religious dupes or, (fewer) cynical secularists as damaged goods of that time period. Now we see Musharraf’s media babies grow into privileged professionals who wear liberal masks but wean serious political clout which is deeply conservative. They are not scared to play dirty.
The trouble with the focus on this younger crop of media personalities is that, it exempts the more seasoned journalists from a closer examination of what has accumulated in their closets all these years. The only saving grace is that one may disagree with the old-school’s power, perks, privileges, politics and access to places they don’t belong but you have to respect the fact that they read, write and practice the profession of journalism - unlike the new-age media personas who increasingly seem to be operating on whims, networking parties and googled information. The bad news for us is that truth, as usual, remains trapped somewhere between these two discourses.