Pakistan’s media: the opinion industry

On the flourishing ‘column’ industry despite the slow growth of readership’

What is so peculiar about the Pakistani media opinion factories churning out problems and solutions products day after day? Frankly, they are self perpetuating oligarchies and boring at best. The slightly discerning mortals who browse the daily newspapers in English and vernacular languages or bother to engage with the electronic media discussions are struck by certain repetitive trends. Let me map them out before rambling any further. On a note of caution, there is no intention of making generalisations here. Exceptions, they say, prove the rule!

The curse of self-importance

Nowhere else would you find brazen references to the importance of a writers’ opinion particularly among the Urdu language newspaper columnists. Despite the slow growth of readership, the ‘kalam-navees’ industry is flourishing. A few years ago, a new Urdu newspaper with a hefty advertising budget, ensured that a few big names in the column industry were under its wings.

One saw TV commercials with celebrity columnists announcing how they were switching to the new publication and how their avid readers must follow. New columnists follow their seniors in terms of writing with a clear, often not so subtly articulated, sense of self-importance. Many of them mention how a state functionary called on them or invited them over for a discussion. The best example is a senior and much respected political commentator published in an Urdu daily who frequently quotes his previous columns as if they were voices of the oracle. While reading an otherwise well-written piece you are suddenly reminded by him of something written years ago by the same gentleman insisting how prophetic his words were.

There are others who write a full piece on a day spent at the Governor’s house in the provincial capital or on a leader’s aircraft or even a luncheon hosted by Pir of Pagara. It is sometimes embarrassing when a couple of journos writing in the same newspaper, relate their ‘individual’ experiences of attending a collective meeting with the chief minister that often end with a punchline on the vision or personal kindness (more so in Zia era) of powerful persona concerned. Printing fan-mail is another favourite pastime of our columnists. An indicator of their grandeur and invincibility, perhaps.

Some opinion-makers in English language are in the same league. A senior journalist with a penchant for reproducing his court petitions in entirety, claims a grand ‘position’ in making or breaking events. It is not uncommon to read him addressing the General or the Prime Minister directly and warning him/her of the fateful anjaam if his advice is not heeded. In Urdu press, “hukmarano hosh ke nakhun lo or rulers, act sanely” is a favourite byline. A few Urdu newspapers actually conduct ‘raids’ to expose stories of injustice and corruption. Great, but isn’t that the task of agencies that function with taxpayers’ money; and thereby are accountable to the public.

Go where the power goes

I am no political activist. And, I earnestly believe that some measure of grace is far more important that the particular ideology or political affiliation one holds. Even if people strive to be pragmatic or blow with the opportunistic winds, which define Pakistan’s ethical climate, some subtlety can do us all good.

I vividly remember those exciting mornings after General Musharraf’s takeover in 1999 when I made it a point to read all the papers. Whilst, during pre-Musharraf days, I found the comparisons of his predecessor with Mohammad Bin Qasim, at the least inaccurate, I was horrified to read the same columnists working hard to prove the same person’s villainous, scheming and naive (yes all in one go) nature.

There was one such luminary of the column-stan (yes this is what it is!) who happened to be in the Sharif kitchen cabinet and was also incarcerated briefly after the declaration of emergency, proved his innocence in the public domain by undermining his former benefactors.

Let me also cite another case from the English language columstan. A suave writer on economic and political issues who had written enthusiastic columns on the eve of 1997 elections and continued eulogising the successful Sharif brothers was among the first ones to condemn them after their fall. He was also a regular member our retired General’s entourage on foreign tours and ponders a lot on the recent economic miracle.

Another Urdu newspaper columnist who only writes on ‘non-political issues’ is an example of journalitistic expediency. His writings on the younger Sharif’s leadership and achievements quickly found an echo in his later writings on the progress in the Punjab crediting the succeeding chief executive.

The writer is a former…

With due respect to all the bright diplomats who navigated our foreign policy, led our missions abroad, increased Pakistan’s trade and inflow of tourists: please reconsider the burden of writing. Last week, I counted that almost every day in our leading English newspapers former ambassadors had held forth on issues from Islamic Ummah, terrorism, middle eastern crisis, domestic policies and tonnes of policy advice to the rulers. Most of the writings were well intentioned though generally quite dull, much like the dispatches that they were trained to write. The more important question is that what did they do while holding senior positions. Did they furnish truthful advice to their bosses that they now generously dole out to the ‘common’ readers! Some questions have no answers, I guess.

Perhaps the ‘former’ category is empitomised by the born again democrat, a retired demigod civil servant who enjoyed positions of authority under most regimes and who was a reliable advisor to a galaxy of constitutionalists including General Zia and Ghulam Ishaque Khan. The gentleman is extremely cross with our present General in command because of his new-found fondness for constitutionalism and democracy. Amazing that newspapers management and editorial teams are oblivious to the ‘image’ such gentlemen hold in the public eye. Our memories are not that short after all?

And the piece of cake will be taken by a polished writer based abroad and who held senior positions in a renowned international financial institution. His weekly dose of “what should be Pakistan’s policy and strategy” regularly falls on deaf ears. His column starts with what he wrote the last time and makes sure that he gives us good tidings of the forthcoming article’s wonder prescription. Not just that, he comes across as patronising about Pakistan’s progress and in that vein often pats the back of our leaders (as if his endorsement of their decisions means anything). But then why does he still live abroad? Some readers wonder and whisper.

Qualified to comment?

Mostly No.

This is perhaps the most irritating group, often found on the pages of Urdu newspapers. Writers with unclear expertise, driven by rhetoric and gup-shup culture, recklessly comment on the economy, technology, global warming and renewable energy. There is an indecent play of ideology and jingoism in their ranting but sometimes it is just a reflection of medieval cultural practices. Inaccuracies (2-3 lakhs), no recourse to data (‘ba-khabar-zaraiy’ or informed sources and ‘generally speaking’) and sitting on judgment (we don’t want the American dollars). By the way, most of these West-bashers have email addresses flaunted at the end of every column they bequeath to the public — Bill Gates was not born in Raiwind, exactly.

I humbly suggest that they should focus more on what they are good at: narrating mirasi and sardar jokes with qaseedas or ghadar sentences to individuals they like of dislike!

Obsession with regression

Why are so many Urdu columns, save great exceptions, on politics or to be specific, the jor-taur (wheeling dealing) stories? Is it the predominance of ideology (nurtured by the medieval court intrigue culture) filtering through political comment? Our friends in the Urdu press and now the electronic media are driven by self-propelled engines of a make-belief ideology. Read the articles on how debates on Hudood Ordinance were inviting the wrath of Allah and how we all were doomed by even debating the fine print of a man-made law. Add to this the way our changed Taliban policy is ghaddari to the Muslim cause.

This reminds one of the naivete of the Khilafat movement when the South Asian hysteria for the restoration of Khilafat was dashed by the Turks abolishing it themselves. Stereotypes on women’s roles, shoddy defense of the maulvi and extolling irresponsible behaviour displayed by the unfortunate late Amir Cheema who killed a kafir in Germany or the release of a ‘spy’ after 35 years are common themes in our current [opinion] affairs.

There is a long way to go before we can see some signs of responsibility that is as important as ensuring and safeguarding of the press freedoms.

Author’s Disclaimer: The author might change his opinion following the winds of opportunity.

– This article also appeared in the daily News

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