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Media’s mirror

October 31, 2013


IT was some time in the first half of 2009 that I got a call from my director news telling me that the newsroom was now looking for more stories from the city of Faisalabad because the people meter, the ratings tool, had just been installed in that city.

For the first time, ratings were going to be reported from Faisalabad, and all the channels were rushing to up their coverage of stories from the city so as to capture the ratings that were going to be reported from there.

So suddenly the bureau chiefs in Faisalabad started to come under pressure to increase their story counts.

Anyone who has ever worked in television news knows how reporters and bureau chiefs complain about how their area gets neglected by the folks in the newsroom, how they bring in all these wonderful stories but the folks in the newsroom don’t run them.

This time, however, suddenly the tables were turned. Faisalabad had been a bit of a backwater in the news business until then, with small bureaus and small staffs and a trickle of news coming out occasionally that held any interest outside the city.

But suddenly, there was an inordinate amount of interest in news from the city, and bureaus found themselves inundated with demands for packages and news and what we used to call ‘chunks’ in the parlance of our rundown producers at the time.

And this is what happened. All the reporters worked their contacts for news and sound bites and other tidbits. Almost all of them started reporting the same story: Faisalabad was experiencing large spells of load-shedding, and power loom owners were protesting outside the offices of the Faisalabad Electric Supply Company (Fesco).

There’s no news like live news, and almost instantly the orders came from the newsroom to send a DSNG van to the site of the protests and prepare for a live uplink.

For the first time, Faisalabad saw itself live on air on the major channels, and very quickly the size of the protests swelled. As the numbers grew, so did the amplitude, and very quickly tyres were brought out to be burned.

Burning tyres make for great footage, there’s fire and smoke and commotion all around them, and if you position the camera right, you can catch pictures of huge columns of smoke rising above an agitating mob. The newsrooms loved it, and the more they stayed live on scene, the more agitated the scene became.

The whole thing ended with the mob storming the Fesco offices. The anchors screamed about a crisis brewing in the city, as the screen showed looped footage of a mob smashing windows and chasing Fesco staff. That night the talk shows were abuzz as opposition politicians railed at the government for allowing matters to come to this.

“I saw someone there beating an electric pole with a stick!” shouted one fellow on a talk show. “That’s how mad people are over there! Good thing you weren’t there sir,” he taunted the government representative on the show, “else it would’ve been you they would’ve been beating with that stick!”

Faisalabad was propelled into the national news flow very suddenly, and the immediate arrival of the television spotlight had a very damaging impact on that city initially.

In their anxiety to satisfy the newsroom’s hunger, the city’s reporting teams created a positive feedback loop of sorts, reporting on power riots which grew worse the more they were reported on.

This patter continued for a number of years. I travelled a few times to Faisalabad during these days, including in early 2009 when the whole thing got going, and am always struck by how large the city is; yet there is only one thing anyone there wants to discuss with the media: electricity.

The riots were in most cases being organised by the same groups, and the same individuals. In early 2009, there was the Powerloom Owners Association and the Sizing Association, both consisting of owners of small capital who operated their outfits mostly in residential areas, using residential connections.

It was them, and the labour they hired on contract basis that was out on the streets, and their leadership consisting of a handful of men, who were in most regular contact with the media.

In time, the influence of this handful would decline, because newsrooms eventually got bored of Faisalabad’s power crisis and looked for other stories.

I recall speaking to one of these leaders at the time, asking for an interview. “Yes of course,” he had replied eagerly. “You’ll be coming to Faisalabad? Would you like to do the interview on the street? Would you like a protest with it?”

In time the people meter expanded to other towns too, and the expansion happened fast, so the impact of other towns coming onto the ratings meter wasn’t as dramatic as it was in the case of Faisalabad.

I know something similar happened with the lawyers movement. The gradual build-up of the power riot as a form of expression in Pakistan had everything to do with the presence of the media, and the power riot was in most cases a made-for-TV event.

The lawyers movement had the advantage of a leadership that was national in scope — the bar associations — which could serve as a vanguard for the energies that were spilling onto the streets.

The power riot found no such national leadership, only sporadic and very opportunistic local leaders who were easily co-opted or sidelined, and therefore has largely vanished from the scene. In the final days of the interim government, load-shedding had hit a peak never before seen in the country, but the streets by and large remained calm.

The media’s mirror is a dangerous tool. It reflects the reality it sees, but reflects it selectively. The television spotlight can illuminate, but it can also incinerate the reality upon which it is trained.

The writer is a business journalist and 2013-2014 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington D.C. Twitter: @khurramhusain