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Caught on camera

December 30, 2018

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ON Aug 14, 1984, president Ronald Reagan told the American people: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I have signed legislation to outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The president was, of course, joking. As he prepared for his weekly radio broadcast, when he thought his microphone was still being adjusted, Reagan didn’t know his words were being heard by the world. There was uproar, his rival candidate in the Democratic Party began tearing him apart.

The reason why I recall this 34-year-old faux pas by one of America’s most pro-Pakistan presidents is because of some readers’ reaction to Dawn’s lead story on Dec 9. Titled ‘Rashid caught on camera mocking “picnicking” Fawad’, the story reported Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid’s remarks while talking to one of his deputies. Sheikh Rashid was heard saying Prime Minister Imran Khan had asked him to take over the information portfolio from Fawad Chaudhry. The story then reported the views of the flabbergasted information minister, who wasn’t exactly ‘picnicking’ in London.

Even though it was a quotidian story, I received critical comments, with one reader asking: “Do you really think it should be [a] headline [… in] an international newspaper?” Another critic praised Dawn for “being an excellent all-round read”, complimenting us for the paper’s “code of ethics in reporting and commenting” which he admitted was “of a high order”. But, he said, “a slip-up of a personal nature, not too uncommon in our political environs, was made into a headline […]. Well, well, I feel this is way below the dignity in journalism that Dawn personifies and prides itself in.”

Newsmakers’ gaffes serve as comic relief.

That other newspapers carried it too, with at least one other English daily as its lead, would be a poor argument on my part. All public figures — not necessarily politicians — are newsmakers. It makes news even when they say nothing when ‘saying’ was required. But if they do spew wisdom the cameras and mikes catch, the ink slingers will do their job. More important, in the kind of grim political atmosphere that exists in the country, human interest stories based on autoschediastic outpourings serve to inject a bit of comicality, which doesn’t take away from his or her station in life, even if the ‘station’ is not necessarily very noble.

We have numerous examples. In November 2011, shortly before a G20 summit in Cannes, French president Nicolas Sarkozy described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a ‘liar’. The man listening to him, president Barack Obama, reacted in a way that showed his tacit approval of his host’s opinion of the Likud leader.

“I cannot stand him. He’s a liar,” said Sarkozy, and the American president remarked, “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.” Our sympathy to the latter!

Evidently, Sarkozy’s staff handed mikes to the two presidents, believing the journalists had not yet been given headphones for a bilingual press conference. What followed was a fabulous story, for the world came to know what opinion the two gentiles really had about a man whose very name would send a chill down their spines.

In Pakistan, the Sheikh Rashid-Fawad Chaudhry episode was not the first of its kind. Last month, a video caught Federal Minister for Housing Tariq Bashir Cheema telling PTI leader Jahangir Tareen, “Sir, control [governor Punjab] Sarwar! He will not let your chief minister continue.”

There were no less than 160 comments on Dawn’s web edition on the Sheikh Rashid-Fawad Chaudhry gaffe, most of the comments focusing on the two ministers’ many virtues, some­­times in language not very flattering. One reader said: “Sheikh Rashid, stop being a bully. […] If the PM called you it is between you and the PM. No one else needs to know.” Another opined: “They talk a bit too much. Replacing Fawad with someone who is not a member of PTI is not a wise move.” And a brief one: “egos are bristling.”

Let me change the subject. One reader complained that Dawn’s weather forecasts go wrong. Well, Dawn doesn’t make predictions on how the elements will behave on its own. Whether the winds and the clouds do or do not move according to the Met office forecast, the credit (or discredit) goes to the weather-forecasting agency.

Finally, we have to talk about a subject we cannot brush aside: the price of the newspaper. One of our readers protested against the recent price hike and asked why Indian newspapers were cheaper. One reason is obvious: India produces its own newsprint; we do not.

Pakistan had a newsprint factory in East Pakistan, but we lost it (47 years ago this very month). So the newspaper industry in Pakistan has to rely on imports, and it goes without saying that the newsprint price reflects trends in international trade, besides the dollar-rupee parity.

The writer is Dawn Readers’ Editor.

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2018