IN George Orwell’s celebrated classic Animal Farm, the founding slogan of the animal collective ‘all animals are equal’ metamorphoses by the end of the novel into ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. In short, the promise of egalitarianism is suffocated by a power-hungry clique that propagates hollow slogan-mongering to sustain its dominant position.
Another Orwellian dystopia is outlined in the novel 1984, in which a huge authoritarian bureaucracy dumbs down the critical capacities of ordinary people via an all-powerful media, and a thought-controlling language called ‘Newspeak’.
In the seven decades since both stories saw the light of day, the make-up of modern societies has been irrevocably altered by surveillance technologies and the corporate media. Whether or not Orwell intended to provide a blueprint for the evolution of the dark side of capitalist modernity, it can be argued in retrospect that he did exactly that.
This past Sunday, Imran Khan mobilised more people in Lahore than he has managed at any other point since his first Minto Park demonstration in October 2012. The corporate media has of course been instrumental in the PTI’s emergence as a major contender for power over the past two years, and its love affair with Khan has peaked over the past few weeks as evidenced by almost uninterrupted live coverage of the dharna in Islamabad.
The media now has the capacity to turn day into night.
It is thus in keeping with the script that Sunday’s gathering in Lahore was gratuitously covered and generated plenty of excited comment about Khan’s regenerated challenge to the Sharifs.
However, the PTI’s jalsa was not the only political event of note on Sunday. Pakistan’s long-maligned left also staged an impressive — albeit much smaller — show in the capital Islamabad. Remarkably, only the state-run PTV covered the leftists, while the private media networks that regularly proclaim themselves to be the vanguards of democracy chose to completely ignore them. Presumably the lure of Imran Khan — even from far away in Lahore — was simply too much for even a few TV cameras to grace the leftist gathering.
Given that the populist right wing regularly employs the language that was once the exclusive preserve of the left, one would think that at least a handful of journalists might have piercing questions to pose about the extent to which the right wing is really committed to a revolution benefiting popular forces, and also why the left should be taken seriously in an era where what it has to say does not appear — on the surface, at least — to be too different than just about everyone else.
But alas, journalism is not what it once was; the critical, thoughtful professional of yesteryear has been replaced by the savvy networker who conforms to all the rules and regulations of the well-oiled machine that is the modern media corporation.
Since 2007 ‘experts’ have been talking up the democratising impacts of the private media. In practice, however, media corporations repeatedly demonstrate their allegiance to the mantra that ‘some animals are more equal than others’. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri guarantee high TV ratings and therefore advertisements. Conversely, the left simply does not sell.
It is hardly surprising that Pakistan’s media moguls harbour no interest whatsoever in arguably the most significant gathering of the country’s battered left in a couple of decades. But it is staggering that working journalists chose not to show up in spite of their bosses’ disinterest.
In the past, particularly during the Ayub and Zia dictatorships, a critical mass of journalists themselves influenced by progressive ideas made great sacrifices to publish dissenting views, and get the word out about the left’s activities. It would appear that such journalists are now a dying breed, if not totally extinct.
Accordingly, there is very little opposition from within media circles to the corporate juggernaut that Noam Chomsky famously suggested ‘manufacture consent’. The nexus of political establishment and media corporations that is the bedrock of American political economy is fast becoming so in this country as well.
Certainly, the media now has the capacity to turn day into night. Hence people can believe that corruption will be done away with in 90 days and revolutions can be made on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue by a cleric in a container. This is ‘Newspeak’ par excellence, and our job is simply to make up the numbers.
Those on the left who are not fazed by the absurdity of it all offer the best hope of averting an Orwellian ending to the story. That the mainstream press has clearly thrown in its lot with the forces of reaction is by the by. What matters is whether or not a critical mass of opinion develops within society at large to challenge ‘Newspeak’, or if indeed we will continue to accept that some animals are more equal than others.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2014