What we need is not a middle-of-the-road position, ‘sacred facts’ or ‘balance’. We need transparency!
Dunya News, a major television channel has of late been the focus of the Mediagate scandal. A Dunya News interview with Malik Riaz---a real estate tycoon who paid Rs. 30 million in bribes to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s son Arsalan Iftikhar in the hope of swaying court cases---is at the centre of the dispute.
Leaked studio footage on YouTube, shot just before the programme went live and during commercial breaks, shows the anchorpersons, Meher Bokhari and Mubashir Luqman, smugly consulting Malik Riaz as to what questions he should be asked next. In certain cases, he is even suggested possible answers. In one clip Mehar Bokahari is seen telling Luqman in Urdu: “Why don’t you start talking about it yourself, otherwise it will seem planted, which it is.”
In another scene, Mubashar Luqman quizzes Malik Riaz in Urdu-English, “Do you think the Chief Justice has pre-empted your move?”
Malik Riaz, during the break, innocently asks in Punjabi “aay pre-empt kee hunda aay?” [What does pre-empt mean?]
This scandal has invoked many responses.
For instance, Fahd Husain, an anchor at ARY TV, and Moeed Pirzada, director of world affairs at PTV, in an essay titled ‘How to reform the reformer’ have suggested certain reforms (http://dawn.com/2012/06/22/how-to-reform-the-reformer/).
Duriya Hashmi’s report, ‘Reporting the Familygate’, in Viewpoint (Issue No 106:http://www.viewpointonline.net/reporting-the-familygate.html) quotes a few media critics like Adnan Rehmat, Matiullah Jan and Imtiaz Gul.
All these well-intentioned media reformists have suggested a host of homilies. The clichéd stress is on media ethics. Neutrality and impartiality is the ultimate standard against which media should be judged, our reformists suggest. How simple (in fact, simplistic).Our reformists want the lion king to respect animal rights and become vegetarian.
The fact of the matter is:
(1) Commercial media can never be ‘reformed’. Neutrality is an impossibility. Media bias is inbuilt.
(2) Objectivity is a myth, nay deceit.
(3) As critics and audiences, we should demand transparency not objectivity.
Neutrality is an impossibility:
Media can be classified into three categories: commercial, agit-prop, and state-run. Commercial media are driven by capitalist logic and the only motive is profit. The agit-prop media are often attributed to the socialist/communist tradition whereby media are agitating and propagating on behalf of the party. But agit-prop media are not a province of the left alone. For instance, fundamentalists or fascists also run their agit-prop machines. Similarly, Pakistan Television or the newspapers of the now defunct National Press Trust (NPT) symbolize state-run media outlets.
While agit-prop media almost never breach the party line (whether the Socialist Worker or the daily Jasarat), the state-run media abide by the rules set by the ruling class (whether BBC or PTV).
It is, in fact, the commercial media that flaunt their credentials as neutral messiahs upholding the truth. Are they?
John Molyneux, in his ‘Will the revolution be televised?’ points out: “Faced with accusations of bias there is one argument that media representatives and apologists often come up with. They say we are being attacked by the right for being biased to the left and by the left for being biased to the right, so that shows we are more or less in the unbiased place.”
Countering this apologia, Molyneux says: “First, it is necessary to understand that the centre, the so-called middle of the road, is itself a position – a bias – so this argument is a justification for the bias rather than a denial of it. Second, the idea that the truth lies somewhere midway between the main opposed arguments is particularly ill founded. For example, Copernicus and Galileo said the sun circled the earth. The truth did not lie somewhere between the two. Thousands of survivors testify to the extermination of millions of Jews and others in the Nazi concentration camps; Holocaust deniers, like David Irving, claim this is a hoax. There is not some truth on both sides”.
So if neutrality/objectivity is not treading the middle-of-the-road, is it stating the facts? ‘Facts are sacred’ is yet another cliché that embodies text-book objectivity.Consider the following two (imaginary) versions of a report.
First version: Pakistan test-fires a nuclear-capable ballistic missile that can hit targets in India. The army high command says Pakistan’s defence has become impregnable. The president and prime minister have congratulated the nation on this achievement.
Second version: While the country is suffering from chronic power failures amid scorching summer and 40% live below the poverty line, the rulers are wasting money on nuclear gadgets. The peace activists have yet again questioned the nuclear madness India and Pakistan have been engaged in. Besides bringing a nuclear Holocaust even closer, nuclear programmes are posing an environmental catastrophe. Residents in Mianwali, living next to nuclear plants, are contracting cancer.
Which version would Fahd Hussain/Moeed Pirzada place in the mouth of news reader at ARY/PTV?
Another ploy employed in the name of objectivity/neutrality is to offer both sides of the story: ‘balance’. However, this golden rule is conveniently ignored in times of ‘crisis’. For instance, in the case of 9/11, American networks did not ask Al-Qaida for its version.
Also, this sort of dichotomy is in itself problematic. In the case of Palestine and Israel, the two sides are not equal. Every news story from Palestine needs a context.
I remember a news report aired by some Swedish channel on this conflict. The report showed one interview with a Palestinian mother who lost her son in an Israeli attack. The other interview was with an Israeli mother who lost her child in a suicide attack by a Palestinian. The Palestinian mother, with her head drapped in a headgear, was mother of many children. She was talking about revenge. She was chanting Allah O Akbar [God is great]. The Israeli mother, speaking polished English, was dressed Western style. She was mother of two, one lost in the suicide attack. She was talking peace between Palestine and Israel. One does not need to say which of the two Swedish women would identify with.
Ironically, often both ‘sides’ belong to the same camp. The popular talk shows Pakistani audiences are subjected to every evening best delineate this practice. For instance, pitching one rightwing person [say Sheikh Rashid] against another rightwing person [say Irfan Siddiquee] can hardly be characterised as objective presentation of ‘both’ sides.
Objectivity is deceit:
Still almost every commercial media outlet claims to be ‘objective’. Likewise, most professional journalists would proudly swear allegiance to ‘objectivity’. This supposed neutrality perspective is, in fact, an Anglo-American legacy that has been widely adopted by media in other parts of the world too. It is a legacy of corporatist victory over partisan press. As in the UK, the US press, affiliated with political parties, was highly partisan until the 19th century. The US Socialist Party alone published some 325 daily, weekly, and monthly publications with two million subscribers. Its major organ, Appeal to Reason, had nearly a million subscribers.
According to Robert McChesney, a progressive US media scholar, the notion of politically neutral, non-partisan, and “objective” journalism did not exist in the US until the 20th century. The point of journalism was to persuade. When, during the 19th century, the logic of newspaper publishing changed from being political to being commercial, the corporate press increasingly began to depend on advertising as a key source of revenue. However, dependence on advertising was harshly criticised not merely by a strong working-class press, even liberals questioned the commercial logic of the press and its consequences for democracy. Criticism of the commercial press was so widespread that in the 1912 election campaign all challengers to President Howard Taft, in particular socialist candidate Eugene Debs, criticised the capitalist bias of the press.
In 1919, Upton Sinclair published his magnum opus The Brass Check. It was the first systematic critique of a capitalist press under a liberal democracy. It was in such a charged atmosphere that the notion of professional journalism came of age, according to McChesney. “Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased...or their business would be far less profitable.” It was also during these debates that publishers pushed for the establishment of formal “schools of journalism” to train a cadre of “professional” editors and reporters. None of these schools existed in 1900; by 1920, all major American schools such as Colombia, Northwestern, Missouri, and Indiana were churning out ‘professional’ journalists practicing ‘objectivity’.
McChesney says the argument went that trained journalists were granted autonomy by the owners to make the editorial decisions, and these decisions were based on their professional judgment, not the politics of the owner and the advertisers or their commercial interests to maximise profit. As trained professionals, journalists would learn to tame their own bias as well. Readers could trust what they read and not worry about who owned the newspapers. The regime of objectivity and neutrality also produced the culture of sensationalism in the form of genres like sports and crime reporting: such genres were safely neutral.
However, Oliver Boyd-Barret, a radical British media academic, thinks the development of journalistic ‘objectivity’ in the Anglo-American context has roots in a variety of traditions, of which one is the news agency tradition of reporting, in particular of financial news reporting.
In the 1820s, financial news was a key source of income for the news agencies. Trading companies in Brussels, London, Amsterdam and Paris were their key clients. According to Boyd-Barret, “Credibility and reputation depended crucially on the willingness of the agency to disclose accurate and validated information, above all market-sensitive information, as soon as it was received, to all paying clients without exception.”
Hence, if a news agency was proving an information that benefitted merchants in London at the cost of merchants in Brussels, Amsterdam, or Paris, such an agency would lose clients outside London. Therefore, news agencies would stay neutral and will provide the same information to all the clients.
We also know from the works of numerous researchers and scholars, most notably Noam Chomsky and Chris Herman’s seminal study ‘Manufacturing Consent’, objectivity is deceit. Yet the news industry and, worse, the educational establishment, has continued to preach the merits of this regime of objectivity to journalism as the most desirable or valuable criterion.
Similarly, the use of ‘appropriate sources’ to provide relevant and credible ‘fact’, is yet another trademark attributed to ‘objectivity’. However, it just so happens that the available sources are frequently representatives of powerful institutions/structures. For instance, in case of our domestic “war on terror” we are either provided the ISPR side of the story or statements by Taliban spokesmen.
As a matter of fact, the mask of ‘objectivity’ on the whole legitimises established power relations. According to media scholars Hackett and Zhao, “It systematically produces partial representations of the world, skewed towards dominant institutions and values, while at the same time it disguises that ideological role from its audiences. It thereby wins consent for ‘preferred readings’...embedded in the news.”
Transparency not objectivity:
It is no secret, and media have reported that, the Federal Information Ministry bribes journalists. The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the Media Cell at the ISI brief [or debrief] the journalists. At least one such episode was reported by Viewpoint [http://www.viewpointonline.net/the-20-briefed-by-the-ispr.html].
An even scandalous episode was hushed up by the mainstream media: Two Pakistani journalists filing reports home from Washington---Huma Imtiaz of Express News and Awais Saleem of Dunya News--are drawing their salaries from US State Department funding through a non-profit intermediary America Abroad Media (AAM), ‘highlighting the sophisticated nature of America’s efforts to shape its image abroad’, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
Neither of the two media organisations, Express News and Dunya News, disclosed that their reporters are paid by this non-profit AAM on their websites or in the reports filed by their correspondents. Though the journalists have worked under the auspices of AAM since February 2011, AAM only made their links to the news organisations known on their website on Aug 31, 2011, after being contacted by the Monitor. The amount allocated at the time for the project was some $2 million over two years with the resources coming from the public diplomacy funds budgeted by the State Department. This included besides salaries for the two correspondents –a bureau for both TV channels.
A Viewpoint research report by Riaz ul Hasan, titled ‘Pakistan media’s mysterious financing’, highlights yet another aspect of the absence of transparency. While the Mediagate and programmes like Apna Greeban have highlighted individual cases of corruption by journalists, Riaz’ brilliant report exposes the mega-corruption by media barons in connivance with the state.
What we need, therefore, is not a middle-of-the-road position, ‘sacred facts’ or ‘balance’. We need transparency. We need:
1. To know how much money in ads a newspaper/media house is receiving from the federal and provincial governments.
2. A public audit of the media houses.
3. An end to ‘secret funds’ at the disposal of Information Ministry.
4. An inquiry into the allegations against journalists accused of wrongdoings.
5. Making public all the names of staffers that are in fact in the pay of foreign ‘NGOs’, ISPR, ISI, Information Ministry, or phony characters like Malik Riaz.
6. A public declaration of mission statements by media outlets whereby they publicise their ideology.
And this list of demands is not exhaustive.
Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.