THE hottest subject in our exalted chambers of gossip is neither the executive-judiciary confrontation nor new causes of tension between Pakistan and the US; it is the sudden spurt in cash flows to some television channels.
What trends this injection of money will generate within the electronic media industry remains to be seen. A huge jump in the value of popular faces in the undercover auction mart is, however, already visible.
In a sense this is not unexpected. Intra-industry competition always existed and at no point did the more resourceful television houses stop nibbling at the talent-pool of their rivals. The growth of media cartels as half-way houses on the path to monopoly control has been no secret.
The publishers of newspapers tried to benefit from the possibilities of running non-government (not necessarily independent) TV channels. They are being challenged by large educational networks. An institution with a large student body can have enough captive subscribers to sustain a newspaper and use it as a step to enter the audio-visual arena. All this is fair in the logic of capitalist development.
The influx of fresh capital into the electronic media industry has come at a time when most of the units were reported to be facing financial crises. If the lucky TV houses can now shed their worries, it should be good for them and their galley-slaves. But this will widen the gap between rich operators and their less fortunate competitors. This could also be accepted as the unavoidable price of development.
The electrifying effect on the fortunes of media persons can also be appreciated. Quite a few television heavyweights are reported to have chosen to acquire new employers. There is nothing wrong in any professional’s desire to raise his/her market value. Any transfer from one house to another presents a challenge to do better than before and the possibility of anyone in transition finding the key to greater perfection need not be ruled out. More importantly, those moving into the positions vacated by celebrities will have an opportunity to win laurels.
However, economic stability of the media or the creation of new opportunities for media persons does not seem to be the sole cause of the moneybags’ fit of generosity. It stands to reason that they want to capture the means to mould public opinion during a crucial general election.
That the coming election will be more critical than any other can be shown easily. The issues in the elections held so far were quite simple. Between 1948 and 1958 the people were required to choose, within the framework of parliamentary democracy, the party or individuals best suited to realise the goals of the freedom movement. 1958 to 1970 were barren years for democracy. The elections during the 1970s were fought on the issues of democratic freedoms and autonomy within a parliamentary framework. After 1977, and excluding the sham elections held by Ziaul Haq, the main issue was freedom from and progress without coercion and authoritarianism. The model of parliamentary democracy was never at stake. Now it is.
The choice in the coming election will not simply be between bad or inefficient democrats and good or efficient ones. The quality of governance without a change in the system will not be the principal issue. For the first time the tussle is between those who seek public good within the democratic system and those who stand for the creation of a theocratic order under a thin democratic façade.
There have always been elements in Pakistan’s politics that have worked for this change. Hitherto they were weak. Thanks to the state’s policy of hobnobbing with militant extremists and the conversion of some middle-roaders to the latter’s point of view, the challenge to democracy has become more serious than ever. This matter will be analysed in detail some other time; suffice to say that the contest between what are loosely described as supporters of Jinnah’s Pakistan and Zia’s Pakistan has entered a decisive phase.
How will the media houses and their big guns play their part in this battle for Pakistan’s soul? A new element is the preference for the Zia model that powerful institutions have started showing. Of course, no anchor person will denounce Jinnah or openly praise Zia. All arguments will involve the rejection of Western norms in favour of indigenous or belief-based values or replacing failed experiments with shartia-kamyab (success-guaranteed) formulas. How will people be convinced that the media will not promote partisan causes under the wrap of objectivity?
It is in this context that the recently generated debate on a media code of conduct assumes greater than normal significance. There is no shortage of codes of ethics. The oldest is that of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, strong on personal integrity and trade union values. The breakaway union also claims to have a code. The Broadcasters’ Association has one which assures that its members will not favour criminals. The Press Council has a fairly elaborate code of ethics. And now individual media houses are thinking of their own dos and dont’s.
All such codes are good if they are sincerely implemented and ineffective if they are meant to improve their authors’ capacity for foul play. The media houses will swear by public interest but there is no guarantee that their perception of public interest will stand objective scrutiny or will even be in accord with the people’s understanding of what is good for them. Thus the media will be on trial and to some extent Pakistan’s future will be in its hands.
The only point that needs to be stressed at this stage is that the media, print and electronic, is public space and its use solely in the interest of its keepers is not justified. So long as this space is available for the airing of all possible points of view, except for those of certified criminals, the possibilities of harm to the people will be minimal. In any other event the media will gain at a great cost to the people.