Empty chatter

Published July 9, 2015
The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.
The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

THE literacy rate declined by 2pc, reported the print media in mid-May quoting the Pakistan Standard of Living Measurement Survey. One would have expected the media and society to talk themselves hoarse and the political opposition to take advantage of the revelation. Nothing of the sort happened. Feeble mentions here and there were lost in the drumbeat of the metro’s inaugural and the annual budget. No one thought of doing a talk show on why literacy declined.

While celebrating the uninterrupted growth in foreign remittances for over 15 years, we turn a blind eye to the fact that children of overseas labourers are raised in the absence of fathers, young wives live without husbands and elderly parents have to do without children. The social consequences of remittances do not merit a talk show.

While celebrating every year the increment in allocation for the Benazir Income Support Programme, the latter’s impact on poverty alleviation is rarely debated. How about linking the programme to sending children to school? No talk show again. The katchi abadis and the homeless day labourers living on green belts and verandahs of shopping centres are also not worth a talk show.

Why aren’t so many important issues talk show material?

The Right to Information Act has been enacted in Punjab and KP. Given the high level of corruption in the country, one would have expected a flood of requests. Journalists, in search of juicy stories, were expected to rush forth with requests for information about this or that project. Nothing of the sort happened. Why? How about a talk show to find an answer?

While Punjab has access to sovereign guarantees required for foreign borrowings, other provinces face difficulties on this count: Sindh couldn’t manage a sovereign guarantee for its circular railway while KP faces difficulties in obtaining guarantees for its hydel projects. This too is not talk show material. Why?

Electoral rigging is discussed endlessly on TV but electoral reform rarely debated. A useful starting point could be, how about public funding of political parties to curb the politicians’ desire to recover the money spent on electioneering? Would such public funding, practised in over 50 countries, work in Pakistan? Again no talk shows on potential electoral reforms.

Foreign agencies like Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s and IMF are upbeat about the country’s recent economic performance; local independent economists, however, seem sceptical. Why this divergence in views? No talk shows on this either.

While we debate endlessly the concessionary SROs and the need to tax agricultural income, nobody asks why are there tax exemptions for some categories of government employees? Why was the need felt to reintroduce the two-plot policy for Grade 22 bureaucrats, after being revoked in 2013? Is this an effort to co-opt bureaucrats? No talk shows again.

Why do we have only the kind of talk shows that we have? Why not talk shows on the kind of less discussed issues referred to here?

Airing a good talk show demands an anchor’s expertise in the subject, the channel’s money and the staff’s effort. Ideally the anchor, producer and the participants would have discussed the subject in advance and each would have enough time to prepare.

Instead, this is how a typical talk show is arranged. For a talk show at 8pm, a colleague of yours, known to someone among the channel’s staff, gets a call at 4pm that day. We are having a live talk show on the budget today, we would like you to participate, says the person at the other end. No! No I can’t handle TV, please don’t ask me, responds your colleague. Ok! Do you know someone who can? Next you get a call with the same request. You ask, what time is the show? 8pm, sir, three and half hours from now, you are told. You respond with an, oh! Isn’t the notice too short? Sir, you are an expert on the economy, you can speak off the top of your head, you don’t need preparation, says the person at the other end. Flattered, you agree.

You reach the TV studio 15 minutes before the scheduled time; after some make-up you are ushered into the relevant studio, where the anchor is already present. You realise that yesterday you saw him hosting a show on ‘guess why Zardari left for Dubai’, the day before that on ‘why PTI kept mum on 35 punctures before the judicial commission’ and the previous day on ‘the future of MQM’. You also recall having seen him a couple of months back anchoring shows on ‘who fired the first shot in the Model Town incident’ and ‘has Imran Khan re-entered wedlock’. Today he will host a talk show on the nitty-gritty of the budget. Brave indeed!

The writer works at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.


Twitter: @khawaja_idrees

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2015

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