It is not the easiest trick in the world but focusing on professionalism can offer a solution that respects both the opposing strands. And yet, in the absence of strong self-regulation within the industry, most of the media in Pakistan finds it easy to skirt professionalism.
Ironically what this engenders is a growing vulnerability to pressure from powerful sources, including errant state actors. While it compromises public interest, it also makes it difficult for the few media houses that want to stay professional, hence becoming vulnerable to be targeted.
The general disregard for professionalism — including downright wanton bias — by most of the media houses is troubling.
Most of the talk shows on TV being offered nowadays, in lieu of election coverage, for instance, are a poisonous menu of bias, hate speech and general intolerance for pluralist perspectives. Personal views are presented as facts and opinions masqueraded as analysis.
With very few exceptions, most media houses, including TV and newspapers, have resigned, for profit or under pressure, to compromising the interests of their audiences and prefer to provide maximum, but unfair, coverage to some parties than others.
Imran Khan gets the lion’s share of coverage — everything he does in public is beamed live. Whereas even the heads of other major parties — such as Bilawal Bhutto, Shahbaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali, Hasil Bizenjo and Mahmood Achakzai — struggle to get similar time live on air.
It is remarkable that Bilawal’s multi-day election rallies and mammoth turnouts in Sindh in recent days have been all but blacked out by some of the media.
And yet others, like the often bile-spewing Sheikh Rasheed, get more air time than most party chiefs combined.
Other promising alternative platforms such as the Awami Workers Party, Barabari Party Pakistan and strong independent voices like Jibran Nasir stand no chance. People have a right to hear these alternative voices; the media has no right to black them out. The supposed benchmark for election coverage by the media, the Media Code of Conduct issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan, is a non-starter.
It directs the media to implement an idealist framework that is impossible to enforce, least of all by the media regulator Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, which simply does not have the capacity, clout or credibility to nudge the TV channels into a broadly professional direction.
State regulation is never preferable anyway because it engenders censorship. But self-regulation is not working either. News bulletins, for example, on most channels are out to deliberately caricature news items with a discernibly infotainment bent complete with film songs and cartoon jingles.
While talk shows in prime time — there are 147 daily talk shows on 49 channels — are mostly stuffed with the usual suspects comprising either third-tier political party representatives with the habit of only criticising their political opponents, or an army of retired military officials who unfailingly focus on caricaturing politics and politicians — none of them has a nice thing to say about Nawaz Sharif, for instance — while the hosts are, with a few exceptions, often remarkably shallow with their thematic contexts.
The Press and the Nation rise and fall together, they say. This adage rings strongly true because the inability of the media to self-regulate professionalism is matched only by the inability of the average journalist to resist self- or imposed partisanship, sensation and hysteria — resulting in the media becoming part of election-related confusion rather than the purveyor of clarity. That the media influences public behaviour is amply clear — what happens on the talk shows in the evenings daily is an ample reflection of how the election is being conducted across the pulpits and the streets and at homes.
In general, reporting responsibly has never been the forte of Pakistani media, especially private TV channels.
But without self-regulatory bodies like PBA, CPNE, APNS and PFUJ agreeing on a joint mechanism to implement the various codes of ethics and conduct they already have, and a self-accountability on this implementation — like those in the US and most western European states — the media in Pakistan will persist in compromising public interest and continue being manipulated by the vested interests into vulnerability, even blackmail.
In the meanwhile, the quality of Pakistan’s elections will be directly proportional to the professionalism of the media. The Writer is a media analyst. The article first appeared in Dawn.com