The Poison and the Antidote

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By
Lt Gen ® Asad Durrani[1]

“The Taliban can only kill a few of usbut the Media will slow-poisonthe whole society”; so saida young lady with a doctorate in strategic studies, and no fan of the Taliban. Since the pen was always deemed to be more powerful than the sword,the media’s soft power can indeedbe deadlier than the brute force of the Taliban. The problem is that the pen,even when used to lethal ends,can do no harm to the ignorant, or for that matter to the bigoted (MARD E NADAN PER KALAM E NARM O NAZIK BEASAR). For them we have the electronic media, more precisely its visual version, the television.I am assuming therefore that the scourge that the lady was referring to must be the TV, which now rules the airwaves and has so pervasively inflicted our brainwaves. It may not have done a yeoman’s job to inform, educateor entertainthe masses; the charge ofpoisoningnevertheless seems a bittoo harsh.But if one looks at the trajectorythat the media has taken over the past few hundred years, this toxic fallout was almost inevitable.

In the 18th century Europe,the pressalong with the church, the nobility and the townsmen,was the fourth estate. In due courseit was exalted tobe the fourth pillar of the state– the executive, the legislative and the judicative, being the other three. As it grew in power, itwas at times diffidently called the fourth force. In countries where it is more effective than the state inshapingperceptions-alwaysmoreimportant then the reality-it may wellhave become the first force. If the charges ofpoisoningstill seem a bit over-the-top, let’s not forget that when the state abdicates the business of hearts and minds,the media, or for that matter the Taliban, would fill the void and acquirenoxious powers. And then it can get worse.

One of ourformerprime-ministers actually believedthat the statecraft was all about ‘space in the media’. He would noteven bless relief goods unless a good number ofcameras were thereto showcase his passion for the poor. Essentially a PR man,his infatuation with publicity was understandable. But then there was alsothis senior bureaucratwhose only part on a foreign visit was to keep the domestic mediaabreast withhis activity. As the country’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia I was alsoaccredited to the OIC, known for its masterly inactivity. Before the first session, an experienced diplomat briefed me on my role: “deliver a hard hitting speech and ensure that it makes headlines back home”. If the media puff is now the measure of performance, at times even its substitute, no wonderit has turned its head.

The malady is indeed not our exclusive domain. Even in countries that do notsolely rely upon this instrument to propagate delivery, or where people have better things to do than being sofa spuds, there are complaints about selective reporting, spin-doctoring, and the media’s propensity to blackmail people in high places. In our case, what has aggravated the malaise is its rapidproliferation thathas inevitablydilutedquality. Too much power and too little substance are a deadly combination.

A respected journalist of the old school onceenlightened me on the curse of “ratings” that has led to this rat race in which one-upmanship was now the name of the game. Concocting or sexing-up stories was bad enough but still not solelya Pakistani affliction. The way our electronic media has gone haywire with the talk-show pageantsmust however be anindigenous phenomenon.Indeed, the issues are many and our people curious. In search of clues they surf the media landscape, but what they get in return is recycled banalities. The reason is obvious: there are now scores of channels that must fill-in hundreds of slots with“experts and analysts”.

That makes media the great equaliser. Someone, whose only claim to fame is services rendered to an illustrious conman, is now an authority on geopolitics and shares the discourse with the best in the business. Given the right of free speechno one canbegrudge that,except to think about the right of others to get something worth their while.

The range of damagecan best be described by the media insiders, and thankfully someof them have done precisely that.I have no idea why none of them would try to correct the course, except mumbleabout the need for internal accountability and code of ethics. Maybe it’s time some outsiders picked up the gauntlet!The problem seems to bethat the onlymeansavailable to mend its ways is the media itself.But then isn’t thatthe norm? We often seek cure from the cause.

TUMHINNAIN DARD DYA HEY, TUMHIN DAVA DENA” (you caused the pain,and only you can provide the cure), is part of our folk wisdom. “You broke it, you fix it”, is the American rule to reassemble the humpty. This homeopathic recipe must be vintage. Long ago one read somewhere that the best antidote against the snake bite came fromits poison. Of course this monster is not going to detoxify itself. No one does, especially whenintoxicated by power. But if wethinkit was doing more harm than goodthen the onus of sanitising or if necessary defanging it lies on us.

By its own admission, the first and foremost duty of the media is to inform.Anyone halfway familiar with its anticsknows better than takingits info-coups seriously andawaitsconfirmation or what is more likely, a denial. The cynics use a simple device: “if it is on the media, it must be wrong”. There are good chances that they would be proven right. But a large number, even when repeatedly bitten from the same hole, lump up whatever the media spits out. They are beyond help.

In another area, though the noblest of all media missions, we’ve been spared the media’s half-baked recipesby default. There used to be some good programmes on education and social issues both on radio and television. No more; possiblybecause the viewers these days prefer to be enlightened onthe myriad of live issues, mostly political. That providesthe media just the right pretext to be extravagant with our time and the sponsors’ money. And if that has led to our addictionwith these talking circuses, the ailment needs to be studied more carefully.

Some common causes are obvious:too many “experts” blowing too much hot air and largely going around the subject. A wise person would switch over toWorld Wide Wrestling. Some would rathergettheir kicks right from these slanging bouts. Manyinnocent soulshowever hang in there in the vain hope that some words of wisdom would trickle down. Instead, they are subjected to a pattern perfected for the idiot box.

It usually starts with some seemingly endless rant about the sins of the past, and depending on whom one dislikes the most- the US, the Army, the politicians or the Mullah-being blamedforall the mess. Indeed,one would have gladly suffered some ‘historical perspective’provided it led toa logical course for the future.Instead, what we get is a wish list, morelike a laundry list, of truisms that do no good to man or beast. Even more distressing are the canned questions that are essentially to nettle the speaker: why wasn’t something done sooner; or what did you do when you were in power? Time we had a history channel.

Lately, we are being repeatedly reminded that whereas allothers who count in our strategic calculus- the West, the Indians, the Taliban, eventhe detractors within- have their narratives all firmed-up, we have not. One is of courseaware of the power of the narrative but the notion that all of us must agree on a single account is neither possible nor in fact desirable. Some despotic regimes tried thatin the past by shielding their people from dissenting views, but the gains were short-lived. America has been more successful but only after sustained and subtle efforts and then toobecause the system providesenough succour to its citizens to earn their more or less unthinking loyalty.In our case the state narrative triggers more scepticism than conviction. To win people’strust we may have to invoke their indulgence.

The prevalent perception in the country is that we are not in control of our destiny and an exterior earthly manoeuvre steers whatever happens here. It provides a convenientexcuse to do nothing. We may have had our way on a number of major issues-the China policy of the 1960s, relations with the post revolution Iran, andour nuclear programme- but the obsession with foreign factor is endemic. Merely a verbal threatby an American no one, or some cartographic innovation from the Wild Westpredicting our doom,hurlsour media in the overdrive. Theagenda would be discussed for days on end till the instigator becomes a household name. And just in case some turmoil followed for whatever reason- and there are always many- the notion that a hidden hand was calling the shots is reinforced. Resignation and apathy loom larger than before.

To hold the media responsible for this depressing state would be giving it too much credit, nor can it stand-in fora credible state system that would line up the nation behind its story.At best the media can help air a few well reasoned narratives and let the people come to their own conclusions. Overtime,they would know better than fall for these infernal designs. The idea is to stimulate a sprit of enquiry in our people rather than conditioning them to admitcapsuled knowledge.

Just one media group with a couple of sound hands and minds needs to show the way and the others will come tumbling after. Otherwise, like in countries where the smug arrogance ofthe big media houses has driven people increasingly to rely on social media networks for credible information, here too the mainstream media would lose its primacy as an opinion maker.

I have no idea if this new rage would serve usany better, but it wouldat least serve the present one right.

PS: the 24/7 coverage of the protest movement in Islamabad that rolled in on this Independence Day proved once again that whereas the ‘foot-soldiers’- in this case the camera teams in the field- always do a good job under trying conditions, the thinkers don’t even try to catch the zeitgeist.


[1]The author is a former Director General of ISI.