Tragedy of the talk shows in Pakistan

Tragedy of the talk shows —Elf Habib

The shows obsessively promote the political circus splashing the spicier rhetoric and sensation. Their anchors, contrary to the common norms of calmness, insouciance and neutrality are often quite agitated, flippant and biased on certain issues. Some are almost too rapacious to devour their guests

The private channels in Pakistan have come a long way since CNN was first introduced by Benazir Bhutto to allow us “a window on the world”. They have become largely independent, even defied some of the Musharraf edicts and played a pivotal role in his ouster. Their strength to stir frenzied hysteria on various partisan and controversial issues like the restoration of the judiciary was witnessed during the Long March. They fiendishly flagellate the federal policies and performance, nonchalantly promote the Opposition and repeatedly project a coven of the dictator’s coteries, retired generals and bureaucrats as political and defence wiseacres, analysts and commentators. Even the politicians utterly pounded in elections are routinely solicited to swipe the state of current events. But their morbid infatuation with the fundamentalist, obscurantist and jingoistic notions and an inveterate apathy towards any rational approach, thought and realities is far more rattling to the saner elements.

Even Islam, persistently proclaimed as the leitmotif, lacks an evolving and enlightened interpretation essential for interaction and survival in modern pluralistic societies. A programme on a local television channel, for instance, eulogised the Taliban enforcement of standardised beard brands and compulsory prayers as great reforms in Afghanistan. The media naively ignores that immense resources required for a real welfare cannot be sustained through poppy trade, scuttling the transit supplies or mercantile fleets but can only be generated through modern education, skill and expertise. This in turn, can only be achieved through cooperation with the advanced industrialised Western states and not through alienation or confrontation against them. Yet they reinforce hatred against the West incited by the mullahs and dictators for their combined disdain against democracy and the inevitable evolution in human thought and culture.

Similarly, the mullah myths that the world is divided into Muslim and non-Muslims and that almost the entire world is continuously conspiring against Muslims are also fervently perpetrated. Our flubs and failures are also invariably imputed to our enemies rather than to our own weird vision, priorities and policies. India and Israel are particularly blasted for our miseries. No sincere attempt is made to squelch the suspicion, angst and attitude knowing well that the democracies like Britain, France and Germany have left behind the bitter hatred of several bloody wars and millions of deaths and are fast forging a larger single community. We, in contrast, have been squandering our resources trying to match our might against a ten times larger neighbour rather than caring for the vital needs, welfare and happiness of our masses and to diffuse the militancy and fissiparous fights.

An irrational angst against the US, evident in lambasting American policies and intentions, like the outburst on Kerry Lugar Bill, is another nauseating preoccupation. American policies are more ruthlessly anatomised in Pakistan than in the American media, which is rather more dominated by sports, cinema and celebrity gigs. We rail against this biggest donor that even interdicted the Indian onslaught with the famous “hands off West Pakistan” Nixon gesture. We would rather have the US conduct all its actions in accordance with the wishes of our mullahs, media magnates and anchors. The drone attacks are another irritant being consistently castigated as counter-productive and avoiding any dispassionate analyses of their impact in remote, inaccessible hostile and torturous terrains. Drone attacks, of course, are said to turn useful if they are conducted by Pakistan, implying that the problem really is not with their attacks but with their possession and ownership.

Touting the nuclear weapons as the most marvellous and sacrosanct achievement worthy of all human and socio-economic sacrifices is another media passion. Contrary to the global norms of accepting the people as our prime national asset and resource, the media has ironically glorified the nuclear arsenals as the national assets (asaasay). Nuclear stocks and the Taliban were, in fact, edified as the two great national assets. The Taliban trove has already turned devastatingly toxic making one shudder at the fate and future of the second asset. The media, of course, never emphasises that the largest nuclear stocks on earth could not save the Soviet Union from splintering, secure the safety of Israel or procure food, fuel and medicine for North Korea. They were no deterrent against the debacle and ignominy at Kargil, Taliban terror, the tension following the Mumbai carnage and the begging bowl syndrome.

Unfortunately, the media rather than illumining the need for building modern affluent industrialised welfare models like Scandinavian states or Britain has been acquiesced into advocating the medieval militaristic obsession. The modern welfare states evidently need a continuous and extensive investment in education, research and skill forming and the public welfare projects for which the defence expenditure has to be rationalised to not more than a fifth of the national budget. But the media has never ventured this vital and critical orientation. Nor has it ever highlighted the need to spruce the non-productive expenditure, the multilayered bureaucracy, overlapping corporations, excessive taxes and utility costs. It flagellates the authorities for lack of food, water, sanitation, fuel and power facilities without revealing the real reasons for the chaos or building pressure for their rectification. It even rarely bothers to guide the public on some ordinary mundane matters like traffic, cleanliness, cottage industries or initiatives for livelihood.

The shows obsessively promote the political circus splashing the spicier rhetoric and sensation. Their anchors, contrary to the common norms of calmness, insouciance and neutrality are often quite agitated, flippant and biased against certain issues. Some are almost too rapacious to devour their guests. One anchor petulantly ranted why a certain point so passionately felt by her was not explicated during a foreign visit; another anchor declares himself to be the number one columnist of the country; while commemorating ZAB’s martyrdom, one anchor had also invited a scion of the prosecuting family. A bubbling anchor, known for her characteristic shrill aggressive tone, was hooked on hydrogen bomb. The selection of guests, experts and the issues is also quite ambiguous. The largest political parties like the PPP and PML-N are often equated with the palookas like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Some guests are allowed to perorate at length while others are repeatedly and relentlessly interrupted. The exasperated viewers often feel that the anchors should rather swap their seats. Some talk shows are just the anchor’s rudderless screeds.

Despite such evident bias and thrust, the channels never declare their political affiliation or sympathies. The Western media giants like the Fox, CNN and Guardian are openly known for their commitment and affiliation facilitating the viewers to understand a particular viewpoint. In Pakistan, ironically, each channel claims to be independent and impartial masking its true colours and association. Parallel to a dictators’ penchant to be apolitical, espousal to a particular party or thought still remains a taboo with the media giants. Enlightened citizen’s fora are thus needed to evaluate the media programmes. The media’ representative councils and official watchdogs similarly also have to be energised to replace the ruinous stranglehold of the clergy, emotions and the establishment by a more rational and realistic content and purpose.

The writer is a freelance columnist. (Daily Times)