DAWN - Features; September 28, 2002

28 Sep 2002


Leafing through the book of life

THE Lahore Arts Forum (LEAF) had a readings session on the third Tuesday of the month at the Lahore Cultural Complex near the Gaddafi Stadium. The only annoying thing for those who go to attend such functions is the attitude of the burly ones who come charging to collect money for parking your vehicle. I wish some one could make them behave.

Scheduled for the evening’s programme were Dr Wazir Agha, Yasmin Gul, Muhammad Jawad and Mian Ijazul Hasan, the painter. He had been asked to handle the arts capsule but failed to turn up. As such, his time was consumed by Shahid Shaidaee, a former banker and a poet. He recited a ghazal with the following matla’a, or opening verse:

Abr shehron pe hein barsey kia kia

Gaon barish ko hein tarsey kia kia

Not a happy thought, this. Reminds me of the days when poets used to lament the lack of attention to the needs of the mazdoor and the sufferings of the rural folk. That was supposed to be progressive poetry and those writing in it were dubbed communists. But then, Shahid Shaidaee is no communist.

Anyway, Muhammad Jawad was the first to wield the mike that evening. This young man who teaches philosophy at the Punjab University also happens to be an accomplished singer. He maintains such close relations with books and makes comments about their contents that he has come to be regarded as a literary critic as well. However, that day he presented a short story under the heading, Boorhi Kahani. It was about the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour and the variations which come about in the life of a person.

These readings sessions are supposed to be a trilingual affair in Urdu, Punjabi and English, but somehow the slot for English remained unoccupied that day. There must be some good reason for that as Muzaffar Ghaffar is quite finicky in this respect.

Then came Yasmin Gul. This young lady started off by reciting a nazm in free/blank verse. It could be a prose poem for all I know. All these newly invented terms leave an old man like me totally confused. The poem started with: Mein choo rahi hoon... sadaon ke marmareen ajsaam, and went on indefinitely. However, after that she read out two of her ghazals which provided quite some relief. Said she:

Jo banam-i-tahaffuz hua so hua

Ab mujhey is qafas se reha kijiey

Aap kay dar pe zanjeer toa khainch di

Faisala kijiey faisala kijiey

We no longer have the personal literary essays of the kind written by Stevenson, Belloc, Chesterton, Lynd and many other English men of letters. In Urdu, however, Dr Wazir Agha has revived the genre under the name inshaia. He was the prime invitee of LEAF that evening and read out an interesting piece under the heading, Road Roller. In an articulate manner, much to the amusement of the audience, he made a comparison between a human being and a road roller and ended up by saying that a man sometimes wishes that he were a road roller.

Dr Wazir Agha can well be regarded as a trilingual poet. His Urdu poetry is well known but the English translations of his own poetry as done by him go to have him accepted as a poet of English as well. And now he has started writing poetry in Punjabi. That was something I heard from him for the first time and I felt sorry why I had not heard it earlier. It was captivating, the rhythmic words producing a strange effect:

Adhi raati khirr khirr hassey thandi thar hawa

Fajrey bukkal mar kay rowey zar-o-zaar hawa

* * * * * * *

ZAFAR Ahmad Chaudhry joined the Royal Indian Air Force soon after graduating from the Government College, Lahore. He rose to be an Air Marshal, the highest rank at the time, and retired as the commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Air Force. However, during his distinguished career he remained in touch with literature. He even went to attend literary meetings in Karachi when he was there as a relatively junior officer, and then at Sargodha where he commanded the PAF base.

It was only after retiring from service that Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry found time to do some serious writing. He has so far come up with four books, all in English. Starting with Mosaic of Memory, he wrote Miracles do Happen and then An Airman Remembers. All these are autobiographical. His last published work is Plaint and Response, a translation of Allama Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa. And now he is writing his memories in Urdu for a wider readership. It is not a mere translation of his first three books but, as I understand, would have some added information as well. — Ashfaque Naqvi

Controlling the world: MEDIA REVIEW

READERS might be surprised, or perhaps they wouldn’t be, to know that around nine large US-based transnational corporations — Time Warner (owns CNN), Disney (owns ABC), Bertelsmann, Viacom (owns CBS and MTV), News Corporation (owns Fox and Star Plus), Sony, TCI, Universal and General Electric (owns NBC) — control the majority of the world’s known television channels, newspapers and radio stations.

Since it is the business of corporations to make profits, such a concentration of ownership is obviously not good for journalism since corporate interests are bound to take precedence over editorial independence.

How did these transnational media giants come about in the first place? Right till the 1980s, much of the media in North America and Europe was national in character and there was considerable state ownership. However, several years of deregulation and privatization, goaded by multilateral bodies like GATT and its successor, the World Trade Organization have led to a situation where a handful of media monopolies have established a stranglehold on the flow of information.

This is quite ironic specially if one considers that the rationale most governments gave for deregulating the media sector was that it would make possible greater competition, improve both the technical and content quality of the programming and hence would be a boon for audiences.

Once the deregulation happened, accelerated in large part by the passage in the US of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a cabal of big business, high-flying investors, emerging media barons, willing policymakers and apparently blind industry regulators ensured that ownership of much the media, both in the US and to a great extent outside it, came to rest in a few hands.

According to Robert W. McChesney, author along with John Nichols of It’s the Media, Stupid, Disney and Time Warner have almost tripled in size this decade, in effect ensuring that their competition will pretty soon all but be defeated. And it’s not just that these corporations dominate the print or the electronic media, they also have stakes in cable, film production, book publishing, music, retail stores, and even amusement parks. Hence, it pays to be large, to be a conglomerate since other media firms that are not conglomerates with highly diversified holdings will never be in a position to compete.

The major players are General Electric (GE) which five years ago had sales of $80 billion. GE owns one of America’s most popular networks, NBC, whose many shows can be seen every day by millions of Pakistanis through cable, current favourites being Friends and Fraiser. Then there is Sony (sales of well over $50 billion) which owns Columbia & TriStar Pictures and has major recording interests; and Seagram (sales of $15 billion), owners of Universal Studios and with major interest in music.

Under these top 10 companies is a second tier of around three or four dozen medium-sized firms that do between $1 billion and $8 billion a year in media-related business, the professor of communications at the University of Illinois writes.

These firms tend to specialize in niche markets, be they global or regional, and about half of them come from North America. These include corporations like Westinghouse which owns CBS, the New York Times Co., The Washington Post Co., Hearst Publications, Dow Jones which owns The Wall Street Journal, McGraw Hill, Reader’s Digest and Ganett which owns USA Today. The rest come from Europe, with a few based in East Asia and Latin America.

What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that the top 10 companies hardly seem to be all that competitive with one another, suggesting that a reasonably high level of collusion is in place that ensures a steady stream of robust revenues. For example, McChesney points out, each of these top 10 firms has joint ventures with “on average, two-thirds of the other first-tier media giants”.

Clearly, such a system is bound to be driven by commercial considerations. McChesney quotes the CEO of Westinghouse from an interview he gave to Advertizing Age in 1997: “We are here to serve advertizers. That is our raison d’etre.” He says that even within the US, there is hardly any public debate, much less outrage, over such a high concentration of media ownership. Many discerning Pakistanis would probably think that is only to be expected given that the impression most of us have of an average American is not all that charitable.

A brief on just one of the top 10 media giants should give perhaps a slight indication of the immense power these corporations wield.

Time Warner: With its acquisition of Turner Broadcasting, it became the largest media corporation in the world. It has 200 subsidiaries worldwide and by the middle of this decade over half of its revenues are expected to come from outside the US. Time Warner had an annual sales growth rate of around 15 per cent during much of the 1990s. Time Warner is also one of the largest movie theatre owners in the world, with approximately 1,000 screens outside the US.

The company is reputed to have the world’s largest film, television and cartoon libraries. Other holdings include a majority interest in WB, a US television network that reaches 25 per cent of American households; America’s largest cable system controlling 22 of the largest 100 markets; several US and global cable television channels, including CNN Headlines News, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, The Cartoon Network and CNN-SI (a cross-production with Sports Illustrated); partial ownership of the cable channel Comedy Central and a controlling stake in Court TV; HBO and Cinemax pay cable channels; a stake in PrimeStar, a US satellite television service; Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema film studios; a library of over 6,000 films, 25,000 television programmes, books, music and thousands of cartoons; 24 magazines, including Time, People and Sport Illustrated; 50 per cent of DC Comics, publisher of Superman, Batman and 60 other titles; the second largest book-publishing business in the world, including Time-Life Books and the Book-of-the-Month Club; the Warner Music Group; the Six Flags theme park chain; The Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves professional sports teams; and hundreds of retail stores.

After its merger with America Online, the rechristened AOL-Time Warner is now worth an estimated $350 billion, more than the annual GDP of many countries.— OMAR R. QURAISHI

(email: omarq@cyber.net.pk)