IF you want to experience an avalanche of unpleasant visual phenomena, all you need to do is turn on the television. As I write this, three-quarters of the screen is devoted to a speech being given by the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. Every now and then the camera pans across the meeting or focuses on the speaker of the National Assembly, who sits bored and unshaven atop his perch.
The third of the screen in which this is not happening features not one or two but three separate bands of tickers. The top one rolls with bright flashes of yellow, again and again announcing tidbits from the speech, sometimes actually taking up half the screen in a flashing square.
Then there is the ticker that provides its own visual trickery, with words rolling as catastrophes of all kinds are announced almost with a sort of glee. No sooner has one begun to focus on this mess than it cuts off mid-sentence to the ‘news headlines’. Often these ‘headlines’ are not headlines at all, but commercial breaks that throw out promises of luxury living, beautiful hair, or good cooking oil at the viewer.
So used are viewers to the visual mess that is the Pakistani television screen, that they usually note little of all this. The tickers, the perpetual crescendos of dissonant music, and the brightly flashing squares and ribbons and rectangles have in many ways become normalised in Pakistan. When the frenzied media cannot find much news to broadcast, it settles, instead, on these, whose constant visual assault on the viewers’ eyes and brains and peace of mind is perhaps meant to create a persistent sense of anxiety and expectation.
Politics became entertainment long ago, but it is at best bad entertainment, and in Pakistan it is terrible entertainment.
It all takes an ever-darker tone when things actually do go wrong: torrential rains, earthquakes and, of course, terror attacks are covered by reporters instructed to speak in a shrill and loud tone, often as if they are themselves trapped in the jaws of death. The seated news anchors in the studio do their part happily; embalmed beneath thick slabs of make-up, many among them let their voices do what their congealed expressions cannot, loudly proclaiming the small smattering of facts they may have before them.
Talk shows are usually no less of a disaster. We all know that politics became entertainment long ago, but it is at best bad entertainment, and in Pakistan it is terrible entertainment. The politicians who star in these shows — and there are a handful of them from the now ruling PTI and the PML-N who are regulars — do not bother with any of the usual decorum. Most of them are men, and they sit with legs splayed, hands folded and speak without any consideration for being articulate.
There is a difference between dribbling out the talking points handed out by their respective parties and providing actual news analysis. Currently, there is much of the former and almost none of the latter, so much so that if an actual analyst does end up on Pakistani television, people are baffled and confused.
Then there are the gendered lines along which the talk-show sector is divided. It is mostly men who are on political talk shows; the female interlude (mind you, interlude, and not perspective) is provided by young women who while they may be on the show, play a small role in it. Their function, it seems, is only to fit the role of someone who can afford to ‘challenge’ the great old men by asking a ‘why’ or a ‘how’ or a ‘because’.
The morning shows are considered the women’s realm, but there too one comes across problems. If women taking part in political talk shows are relegated to the position of decorative objects, the hosts of many of the morning shows are obsessed with decorative objects — embodying them and turning others into them. It is sad that women can be complicit in the reduction of women into such objects, but so it is.
A disturbingly cutesy atmosphere prevails, not least because in Pakistan only young women (read women under 25) are ideal. Because of this, the hosts of these shows must pretend to be perpetually 25, effecting the sort of artificial youth that the country demands. Acting older or actually being older is hardly ever permitted, nor is the seriousness or gravitas that would accrue to someone who is actually beyond 25 years of age and proud of it.
Given this obsession with being young and ‘jolly’ and ‘smart,’ where the latter means not mentally astute but being physically thin, many of the shows can be described as hours-long misery of recipes, gossip and often the narcissistic preening of the host.
The critique of television is essential because television is an important, arguably the most important, element of the visual culture of the country. The reduction of political talk to the ramblings of the usual suspects who do the rounds of shows on every channel, the reduction of women’s discourse in an age which not too long ago boasted such literary greats such as Ismat Chughtai and Quratulain Hyder, and the mindless frittering offered up on the highly popular talk shows form a tragic spectacle. Then, of course, is the subliminal hell a viewer endures when loud clanging non-headlines and brightly flashing tickers assault the hearing and seeing faculties.
The channels, actually all channels, that engage in this should have mercy on the poor viewers consisting of men and women already beset with the barrage of problems that is life in Pakistan in 2018, and perhaps consider something a bit more sedate, a little less frenzied and a bit more merciful on the people whose living rooms they inhabit.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2018