IT’S budget time and the channels are abuzz with activity. For the next three days this will be all there is on air, an annual ritual that comes with a flurry and disappears just as quickly.
Once a year a window opens on the economy, and that’s all the media talks about. What you don’t see, however, is what goes on behind the scenes as the transmissions are planned and executed. Since I’m no longer involved in television, I stand released from my vow of secrecy. So here’s the lowdown.
First of all, the line-ups. In all the channels, a list is created with the names of all the people who must be called as guests and booked before someone else gets to them first. Some names are fixtures and are hounded by all the channels. Others are called mainly for their entertainment value, and they are flagged as such. “Call XYZ for sure! He’ll go on about taxes on his sector, and make sure ABC is sitting there too. He’ll shut XYZ up and it’ll be funny.”
But what many outside the industry don’t know is that there is what we call a “10-minute list.” These are the names who’ll be ready to come on 10 minutes’ notice, so eager are they to be on television. (I’ll leak that list someday, but this is not that day.)
Others come but bicker over trivial matters, such as their designation. This gets tricky because the ‘nameband’ that appears on screen under the guest’s name has room only for a limited number of characters. And some of the characters that are brought on as guests have designations that rival those from a Mughal court, and won’t fit. At some point, some associate producer makes the mistake of asking the person to choose which designation they want and an argument ensues because the fellow wants all of them.
One person, for instance, insisted that he be credited as “Immediate past chairman of the XYZ Association.”
Could we do without the “immediate past” bit and just write “former” instead?
“No. There’s a difference. There are many former chairmen but only one immediate past chairman,” came the reply.
“What difference does it make?”
“Well, if it makes no difference, then maybe I should just leave. That will make no difference either, I’m sure.”
The solution was simple. We reassured the fellow that his full designation would appear on the screen, and then we just wrote “former chairman” anyway. He never knew.
The big problem is the economists. There are only a handful of them in Pakistan, and they don’t get along with each other. Their views are well known to channel insiders, but there are hardly any alternatives. And many of these economists censor themselves heavily on air for fear of angering government or donor-community representatives and thereby putting their consulting contracts in peril.
Those who can speak a little freely are in high demand and need to be booked early. But the other thing is, the media will label anybody an economist. Retired bankers often come on air and talk about fiscal deficits and GDP growth rates, for instance, and their ‘nameband’ will announce them as an economist. I tried on a number of occasions to explain to my erstwhile team that a banker is not an economist, but to them it sounds like I’m splitting hairs.
“What’s the difference, sir? Who really cares?” used to come the response. Indeed, that’s the bottom line that permeates the entire budget transmission: who really cares anyway?
While industry representatives are tripping over each other to get on the screen, bankers are almost impossible to get — unless they’re retired, in which case you have to be careful because mostly they’re using their appearance as an opportunity to butter up someone who is still in the game in the hopes of landing a plum post-retirement gig.
Chartered accountants are in hot demand too, but it’s incredible how inarticulate they are. There is one who is articulate, deeply knowledgeable of fiscal affairs, speaks without fear and enjoys an unblemished reputation. And he’s in such high demand during this time that he literally spends his days going from one channel to the next.
Having listened to industry leaders of all stripes talk on and off the record for years now, it’s clear to me now that most of them have nothing to say beyond their specific vested interest. A few can talk about larger issues, but that class of businessmen which has the vision to take a wider view usually doesn’t like coming on screen and is rarely heard from in our media.
The worst is the politicians. If businessmen can’t talk beyond their vested interests, then politicians seem incapable of speaking at all. They deliver only speeches, and only rhetorical ones. Try this exercise: name one person from any of the political parties that you think is credible and knowledgeable about economic matters. The best such panel that I was able to put together in all my years in television comprised of Naveed Qamar, Ishaq Dar and Omar Ayub Khan. And even here, most of the discussion remained rhetorical.
One person you’ll never see discussing the economy on screen is the finance minister — in fact, nobody from government at all. I really wonder what’s up with that. This is the key time to engage with the media, give those interviews and shape the discussion around the important issues. Instead, our economic team prefers to keep its head down and let the blowhards have all the say. Any surprise, then, that the state of discussion on economic matters is so dismal in our public discourse?
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy.