In terms of reporting and analysing political developments in our society, what we are witnessing on our television screens is the process of vulgarisation of the media. This reflects the process of making your content easy to understand for the masses. Modern government structures and processes tend to be highly complex, making them difficult for the ordinary citizen to comprehend.
Ironically, the media, in this situation, is injected with easily digestible polemics, abusive languages and barbs exchanged between rivals in a routine manner and tawdry twists, spins and substandard interpretations offered to explain complex political realities. A whole generation of commentators rose to prominence as pawns of popular political leaders. The content Pakistani media is showing to the society is nowhere close to standard and quality required in a democratic order to keep the populace informed in order to facilitate an intelligent and well-informed decision.
Two factors contributed to this state of affairs: Firstly, after the military government of General Musharraf liberalised the laws for the introduction of electronic news channels in Pakistan, thus facilitating the onset of big money in media market. The editorial decision making gradually passed into the hands of those managing the financial operations of media outlets. Professional journalists as editors were no more calling the shots as far as production and broadcast of news content on TV screens was concerned. This changed the very definition of news and news values. News became what was commercially viable. Political and journalistic ethics and morality was pushed into secondary status.
Secondly, in the wake of the demise of the military government led by General Musharraf, the state machinery — especially the intelligence services — started to make inroads into the news rooms of media outlets. By the time the politically-minded governments of PPP and PMLN were out of the way, and with the advent of the military backed government of Imran Khan, the news rooms were completely in the control of state machinery. This became obvious when Nawaz Sharif (I don’t count him as radical though), Manzoor Pashteen and other radicals were blacked out and their coverage banned on TV screens.
The state machinery used financial levers to take control of the newsroom. This was visibly easier in the changed post-liberalisation circumstances when financial interests came to define values and agenda of news outlets. This doesn’t mean that commercial interests didn’t exert any influence on the decision making processes of news outlets in the pre-liberalisation phase of Pakistan media. Actually it did. But the dominating culture of news and reporting rooms in the newspapers of those days was very different.
Consider this: In 1999, the whole reporting team of 18 reporters of a leading English Daily in Islamabad resigned en block when the newly appointed editor demanded that each one of them bring an advertisement supplement from the ministries they are covering. I still take pride in the fact that I was part of that reporting team, which refused to allow commercial interests of their news organisations to define their news values. Things have changed. The reporters, commentators and analysts have merged their professional work with the commercial interests of their organisations. True, the news organisations of the present day are based on a commercial model and they cannot survive without advertisement revenues. But when commercial interests come to define the news values then the process of vulgarisation of media is greatly accelerated — as it is happening now in the Pakistani society.
The state machinery used financial levers to take control of the newsroom. This was visibly easier in the changed post-liberalisation circumstances when financial interests came to define values and agenda of news outlets.
Commercialisation of news values has greatly facilitated the state machinery and its overly powerful media managers to take control of the newsrooms. Media outlets, their news values and agendas are being controlled by financial and commercial interests of the organisations. The new managers are more willing to accept what state machinery wants from them. The political minded reporter of whatever ideological inclinations is out of the way and is no more in the position to resist the onslaught on newsrooms. Amid this chaos, political freedoms and people’s right to remain well-informed are the first casualties. This has led to a new race in the newsrooms and TV screens: loyalty to one of the other parts of the state machinery has become the fastest way of ascending the ladder of success. It is not uncommon for political commentators and reporters to pose as mouthpieces of state machinery and threaten political leaders and fellow journalists.
In this period of corrosion of news values we have also seen the advent of powerful political forces on the scene, which are controlling the levers of financial power and blocking or facilitating the rise to prominence of reporters and commentators. Loyalty and demonstration of that loyalty on screen is the key to success.
An interesting and ironic demonstration of this game was seen on Pakistani screens each time Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan were ousted from power in 2017 and 2022 respectively. There was a line of commentators accusing the military of being biased against Nawaz Sharif in 2017. Another line of commentators and anchors accused the military of being biased against Imran Khan in 2022. Political loyalties, commercial interests and polemics are the factors that define what people are destined to watch on their screens. Journalistic objectivity, ethics and morality in news values can take the back seat for now.