The high point was the lawyers’ movement and the first restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry. TV news had come of age in Pakistan. The low point came immediately after — Lal Masjid and the wretched pandering to the obscene and dangerous.
Either way, the truth was out: the news was never going to be the same again.
And it hasn’t been the same.
The Axact debacle matters because of Bol. If it weren’t for Bol, Axact would be just another dodgy business at worst and a template for the young and unscrupulous at best — use the power of the internet to part a fool and his money in distant lands? Yes, please.
Axact became Axact because exactly everyone in the state structure who was supposed to do their job, didn’t do their job.
But for some reason Axact decided to get into the business of media. And for that reason we have now a most stunning media crises — an implosion that dwarfs the Malik Riaz-Arsalan Iftikhar scandal, the bidding wars of the May 2013 election coverage and the Hamid Mir-ISI debacle of last year, possibly combined.
The Axact debacle, now Bol implosion, has laid bare everything that’s wrong with the media today — and some of the things wrong with the state, too. Why was it the NYT that had to break this story, folk have wondered. Why couldn’t the Pakistani media report on a Pakistani story to a Pakistani audience?
Because the old media wouldn’t have, while the new media can — but it wouldn’t have mattered if it had. Old media is bound by a quaint code of honour: don’t talk about your competitors and don’t get ahead of the news. New media is bound by no such code — but imagine if one of the channels had run the Axact story.
Imagine if Geo or Express or ARY or Dunya had lined up a bunch of ex-Axact employees and got them to confess on air. In detail. About the degrees and the websites and the sales agents and all the rest of it.
BREAKING NEWS. Flashing red screen. Breathless newsreaders. High-profile anchors gravely intoning on air. The whole shebang. What would have happened?
If Bol had been on air, it would have launched a ferocious counter-campaign instantly. Lies. A conspiracy. We’re a legitimate company. Everything is in order. It’s our rivals who are illegitimate and corrupt. Look, here are the documents.
Here’s the proof. They’re a bunch of crooks.
BREAKING NEWS. Flashing red screen. Breathless newsreaders. High-profile anchors gravely intoning on air. The whole shebang.
One channel would be accusing Bol, Bol would be accusing its accuser — and the viewer would be left to toggle between the two. Most would have watched the chaos for a bit and then switched off the TV and gone to bed. Let those fools fight it out, the viewer may have shrugged. I just want the news.
But Bol isn’t on air and it was The New York Times that launched the devastating attack, causing everyone else to pile on. Still, Bol may have emerged bowed but not broken, diminished but not destroyed, had Axact not made the parvenu’s error of failing to convert dodgy origins into more respectable roots first.
Now Bol is dead — a brand too toxic and too damaged by association for anyone to go near. Not for a long time at least. And in its death, Bol has confirmed what has been visible for a while: that much of TV is already beyond rescue — inhabiting a space that long ago lost touch with anything that had to do with journalism and propriety.
That the media wars are really about a nexus of business, politics and influence peddling where no one really gives a toss about the public interest — and few care if that becomes more and more apparent.
Because, ultimately, the news channels have a captive audience. For reasons of economics — papers are too expensive, cable is staggeringly cheap — and for reasons of human nature and politics — a lot of folk will always want to know what’s going on around them and most Pakistanis will want to know what’s going on in politics — news channels will always have an audience.
No matter the credibility, no matter the biases, no matter the scandals — folk will keep watching. They have to. They have no choice.
And that will keep drawing in the Axacts. Because who else would? The old guard, the self-declared keepers of the flame, will always keep their heads down. The new-media vanguard has learned all the tricks and is elbow-deep in the muck already. Who else but the thuggish and the thick-skinned would be inclined to wade in now?
And, oh, how easy it is for them to wade in now. Because the story of Axact — and the abortive story of Bol — is also a typically Pakistani story: poor regulation, weak institutions, a declining state.
Axact became Axact because exactly everyone in the state structure who was supposed to their job, didn’t do their job. Either they weren’t there to begin with or weren’t interested in doing their job or didn’t have the resources to do their job or were actively thwarted from doing their job.
Poor regulation, weak institutions, a declining state — Pakistan.
Just don’t expect to hear about any of that on TV. TV is too busy setting the agenda — when it isn’t tearing itself apart.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2015