Of political drama and media spin

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The PML-N is threatening a long march against the appointment of the NAB chairman because it believes that the appointee is close to the PPP. Law Minister Babar Awan is busy challenging the Sharif brothers to go ahead and carry out a long march, at the same time saying that the last long march was more of, as he put it, a “Prado-Burger” venture. PPP information secretary Fauzia Wahab is shooting off anti-PML-N statements, the PML-N’s Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, is near frothing at the mouth in his vitriol against former president Pervez Musharraf and Salmaan Taseer, it seems, is out to bring down the entire Punjab government.

Our politicians are marching around with their own agendas, trash talking at every opportunity, egged on by sections of the media desperate to feed the viewing public’s demand for soap opera that has come to be known as news in Pakistan.

Being a media man, I would lay a fair share of the blame for this pathetic state of affairs with the systems currently in place in our media – broadcast in particular. The standard protocol for reporters covering political beats is to attend event ‘xyz’ where politician ‘x’ will be visiting. They are informally (sometimes formally) instructed to gather news not related to the event itself, but on whatever issues the media channel is interested in building into its daily agenda. This is actually a very straightforward example of spin.

How is such spin executed? The moment politician ‘x’ is done with his/her actual job on-site, the reporters will crowd him/her, shoot off courtesy questions regarding the actual visit, and then goad the (usually willing) politician to shoot off a few ‘mirch masala’ personal opinions on anything ranging from standard name-calling to lauding the colour of a fellow politician’s tie. Once the footage of the entire event reaches the newsroom, it is spliced down to 15-30 second sound bytes built around those (technically unrelated) questions, and voila – the news channel now has content which can compete with the best ‘saas bahu’ drama Star TV has to offer.

Bear in mind that the politicians have also fallen in line with this much-flawed system of broadcasting information. The ultra-media savvy types don’t even bother talking about the actual job/task they are on anymore and instead jump straight into the politicking fray. Worse still, some of our elected brethren seem to actually be making up fake assignments and visits just so that they can broadcast their propaganda via these trips. It is appalling – on the part of both the media and politicians – yet anyone who watches news on a regular basis has come to accept it. Sadly enough, this same flawed system is also a major contributing factor to the reigning confusion which underlies our current ‘democratic’ setup and the perception of instability.

Reforms are necessary. The media needs to rein in its reporters and rethink the policy of spin, which is in part based on the deadly competition for ratings. The industry could also use the support of Pemra which must at the very least introduce a strict policy regarding granting licenses to every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to launch yet another news channel. The politicians need to rethink their on-camera politicking and how point scoring in the short term is actually shaping up Pakistan’s politics as a farce or soap opera, with far-reaching dangerous consequences.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2010.

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