Constructive criticism schooling

July 20, 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AFTER the PTI official handle on Twitter warned journalists against ‘intentionally, unintentionally’ endorsing the enemy’s stance, speaking in its language, and likened criticism of the government to treason, would you blame any columnist for being circumspect.

Frankly, I took to this path after considerable research and reflection made me realise that similar language has been used by the public relations department of a powerful state institution where journalists were told to be positive.

Not only was this wise counsel extended in the greatest national interest but names and photographs were also displayed on a big chart of journalists who were not living up to the officially declared ideals and standards of patriotism. This was to shame them, to make them mend their ways.

I don’t want my mugshot appearing on a huge board at official briefings for media and, even less so, splattered across patriotic TV screens/social media because I am simply not made of the stuff that can withstand that kind of attention, let alone official heat.

Also, how could I follow any path other than the righteous one after the prime minister’s ‘focal person on digital media’ told Dawn reporter Ramsha Jahangir that the idea behind the series of tweets on the media and journalists’ role was not to ridicule but to ‘educate’ the media in constructive criticism.

The really positive aspect of NAB’s zealous work is that where it does not have evidence of corruption it still arrests the accused...

The prime minister’s focal person on the media is presumably more focused on his job requirements than the prime minister’s focal person on polio whose tenure has seen a lot of PR initiatives but clearly not enough focus on the job at hand as polio virus infections have registered a rise.

Thus, having been schooled in constructive criticism, I am committing myself to focusing on the positive. Let me begin by lauding the ingenious means deployed to lift the morale of the bureaucracy. It reportedly sagged due to the scrutiny and actions of the National Accountability Bureau. NAB, under its fearless chief, the dashing retired Justice Javed Iqbal, has got hold of a magnifying glass to examine PML-N and PPP politicians from head to toe to find evidence of corruption and has not spared bureaucrats it has found complicit in the loot and plunder by politicians.

The really positive aspect of NAB’s zealous work is that where it does not have evidence of corruption it still arrests the accused and interrogates them from a kissing distance to detect signs of guilt; and pounces on them when vulnerabilities are found.

Reverting to the morale of the bureaucracy, insiders say it has been at its lowest for decades. This has translated into many senior civil servants not taking any decisions; they are leaving unsigned even the most sensible of proposals for fear of NAB and recriminations in the future.

Mind you, our bureaucracy is very hierarchical and status conscious. So, in a stroke of genius someone decided to boost its morale by reinforcing the hierarchy, a lever that is often used to great effect where our good and mighty civil servants are concerned.

One newspaper has reported with photographic evidence that a couple of ministries (I am sure this is a pilot and if successful will be rolled out elsewhere too) have introduced elite toilets. What it means is that some of the loos in the ministries have now introduced a rank/ grade threshold for users.

Bio-scan, fingerprint readers in this case, locks have been installed. Only the secretary or additional secretary-level official in the ministry will be able to use these toilets. However, to reinforce their elite status, the same level officer will be offered similar facility in other ministries on a reciprocal basis.

In our dedication to the positive, we will not discuss what this does to the morale of the rest of ministry staff who must outnumber the elite officials, one to several hundred, and still be forced to use abysmal facilities.

But the positive angle to this story is that once the team leaders’ own morale has climbed out of the pits where it has been languishing for so many months they will be able to innovate and come up with inspirational initiatives of their own to motivate their depressed subordinates.

Sticking to our enlightened positivity, the former prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was arrested by a NAB team at the Lahore toll gates of the Islamabad-Lahore motorway as he arrived in the provincial capital to attend PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif’s presser.

In this digital age, it isn’t clear why the US-educated Abbasi asked for the hard copy of the warrants of arrest signed by the intrepid Javed Iqbal when the leader of the NAB squad showed him a WhatsApp image of the document.

Even usually cautious and conservative institutions are said to be at home with WhatsApp for communications. But Mr Abbasi was not satisfied. He waited in his car till a photocopy arrived from the bureau’s local office, when he should have been grateful that only he was recovered from his car by the raiding party.

Did he not remember the last time an opposition leader was arrested from this motorway some 15 kilograms of heroin were recovered from his vehicle which was — though it is still not clear given the various official accounts — packed in a suitcase or briefcase.

I have been hurting ever since I heard of the monthly Herald’s closure and wanted to write about it. But all that comes to mind are angry, subversive thoughts at how even the last outposts of free media are being taken out. Ergo, given my changed ways, I will pass.

Having banished all negative thoughts from my mind, I will also not discuss why Dawn’s editorial leader, and undoubtedly the team, won one of the most prestigious global media freedom awards this week.

If you accuse me of being an ostrich, you need to be schooled in constructive criticism; you may well need a crash course, actually.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2019