By Anjum Altaf
At the recent recording in Karachi of a TV talk show – ‘Pakistan-US Relations: What’s the Problem with America?’ – during the warm-up before filming began, a member of the audience asked why the problem was deemed to be with America and not Pakistan, or, at the very least, both.
The anchor had a ready answer, suggesting he had heard the kind of question before. He argued he had a huge audience including sophisticated viewers in the auditorium and in drawing-rooms but many more ordinary people in the shanties of Lyari, FATA, Khuzdar, Mirpur Sakro, etc. Framing the issue in a neutral manner would trigger channel-switching by the latter and a loss of viewers – to get something across, it had to be provocative without challenging the biases of the audience.
This interaction started me thinking about the media. We accept that in many countries state-controlled media ends up being used for propaganda, the negative impacts of which are unambiguous. We also recognize that private media in a market economy, like the channel whose show we were seeing, is owned by big capital and driven by profit. There is less agreement, though, over the influence of the latter on its audience, especially in a country like Pakistan, where television is such a dominant source of information.
In the best of all possible worlds, a free and competitive media would expose the audience to information from a range of perspectives, a function essential to the working of a democracy. This range of viewpoints, theoretically, helps people form opinions based on multiple sources of information, their opinions translating ultimately into votes.
But in a market economy, information providers are driven primarily by the imperative to make a profit. Education is at best a secondary goal. Thus the bulk of media offerings is comprised of entertainment, sports, and merchandising, above all. The marketing of ideas is part of the same calculus: it has to translate into eyeballs, and shape purchases, not votes. Hence, the framing of the talk show with its focus on the ‘problem’ with America, a supposedly easy sell at this time and to this audience.
The control of media by big capital also means that the ideas aired reflect particular, usually powerful interests, and it is rare to see consistent presentation of alternative perspectives that challenge the dominant interests. Add to this the reality of the residual control of the state in Pakistan and it is not surprising that the ideas presented seldom drift too far away from accepted narratives. The role of the organs of the Pakistani state in shaping relations with other countries, near and far, is an obvious example. Can we ever have serious and open discussion about this aspect of our reality?
The fallout is that while the old state-controlled media inculcated the mindset that all of Pakistan’s problems were due to external agents, the privately-owned free media is playing to those very same prejudices and deepening them. In the calculus of profit, any unfamiliar frame of reference would not sell as well – or, at least, so goes the prejudice of the sophisticated: “ordinary people,” we are told, are averse to open and balanced discussions.
Add to that a limitation the anchor had also proffered to the gathered students – that a talk show was not long enough to explore any issue in depth, even if one wanted to in the first place. The purpose of a talk show in Pakistan it seems is to transfer the most readily acceptable sound bites in the most entertaining format to the largest possible audience.
What then constitutes the freedom of the unregulated free media in Pakistan? It is free to determine who can be more successful in the ratings game by playing to pre-existing prejudices. There is fierce competition to see who can most jazz up a limited slice of half-truth. What can be a better analogy than skin-whitening cream – every producer hyping up its brand while the bottom line remains that none of them work. Ideas in the privately-run free-market economy are reduced to the equivalent of Fair and Lovely – attractive but without foundation. Freedom to propagate without challenge is no guarantee of the dissemination of truth.
The show was being recorded in the very impressive auditorium of the brand-new Habib University in Karachi and the institutional motto – stressing respect, grace, excellence and self-reflection – was proudly emblazoned on the backdrop. As it crossed my eyes, I had the feeling that the problem was perhaps bigger than one simple talk show or even the perennially fraught topic of US-Pakistan relations.
It goes without saying that understanding calls for reflection and self-reflection most of all. Not only was there little thoughtfulness and no self-reflection in the exercise underway, there was an implication we seemed to have overlooked. My own self-reflection suggested the university might have made a mistake by ceding control and initiative to the talk show. In the eagerness to showcase itself, it might have helped reproduce the same mindset it was established to challenge. By the end of the show I was not certain who had been the bigger loser.
As the panelists shook off the barrage of aggressive and leading questions and the bewildered audience filtered out, it occurred to me that educational institutions could do better. Universities and colleges have the mandate to educate and are meant to encourage thoughtful self-reflection. Recording a much more nuanced show itself and disseminating it under its own control would yield a product more in consonance with its vision. The challenge for Habib University is to learn from the experience and to lead the way in reshaping the future – something that underlines its stated commitment to Pakistan.
Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This op-ed appeared in The News on January 20, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.