RED ZONE FILES: The Dar disaster

Published December 3, 2020
Former finance minister Ishaq Dar speaks during an interview on BBC's Hardtalk. — BBC screengrab
Former finance minister Ishaq Dar speaks during an interview on BBC's Hardtalk. — BBC screengrab

It is hard to decipher which is worse: what he said, how he said it, or when he said it. What is relatively less hard to decipher is this: the combined might of PTI’s sundry mouthpieces could not have damaged PML-N more today than the havoc wreaked by former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s interview in BBC’s show Hardtalk.

If the PML-N peers hard into the smouldering wreckage of that interview, it may find some important questions lying buried in the debris:

a) Who authorised Ishaq Dar to do the interview? b) Why did the person who authorised the interview not realise the magnitude of the blunder he/she was indulging in? c) Did Dar seek any help in preparing for the interview? If so, from whom? d) What was the objective of the interview? Was this debated within party circles? e) Did party leaders in Pakistan know in advance about the interview? If so, why did they not advise against it? If not, why were they not informed about the interview? f) Will Dar now be taken to task by the party leadership? g) Is PML-N ready to learn from the Dar disaster or is it smug in its misplaced overconfidence? h) Who in the party will now be tasked with damage control? Is it even possible to do so? i) What will PML-N do now to divert public attention from the Dar disaster?

Those who watch Pakistani politics closely knew a disaster like the one that Dar did was only a matter of time. Media discipline is an oxymoron within our political parties. These parties revolve around personalities and this leads to a personalised form of discipline that discriminates between those who are closest to the leader and those who are less so. What makes matters worse is the absence of institutional checks on senior party people’s whims. A common reaction is: “Who dare teach me what to say?” With no clearly defined roles within intra-party setups and no finely delineated hierarchies for specific decision-making, political parties provide enough rope to their senior people to hang themselves with. Dar did just that.

People in PML-N are aghast. Privately many are shaking their heads in disbelief. Even senior people in Islamabad and Lahore had no idea about the interview till it fell on them like a stink bomb. They know this sets back their narrative when they need to strengthen it for what they deem as the final stretch of the campaign against the government. The Lahore jalsa is less than two weeks away. The opposition needed this time to build momentum by stepping up the offensive and keeping the government on the ropes. But now they may lose precious time trying to clean the Dar mess. Unless…

Yes — unless the party decides to throw Dar under the bus. Well, not in the sense of disowning him (he has powerful family connections), but in letting him deal with his debacle and not jumping in full throttle to counter the criticism. We will know soon enough from the party responses on display.

There is much elation in the Red Zone. For a beleaguered and besieged government, Dar has walked in like Santa bearing Christmas gifts. If the motley crew of PTI mouthpieces are grinning from ear to ear, they have reason to. Dar has bowled them a gentle full toss on the leg side. Wham!

And yet there is more to it than just a disastrous media appearance by an overconfident and under-prepared politician. Amid the cacophony of intense polarisation, the fundamentals of political communication — both inside and outside the Red Zone — are taking a battering. The cost to democracy is a steep one.

Take the official media, for instance. The state broadcaster PTV has recently been gifted a new chairman by Prime Minister Imran Khan. In one of his first statements after being nominated to the post, lawyer and TV personality Naeem Bokhari said the opposition had no right to be on PTV because it was a government channel. A few days later, the prime minister defended him in an interview. The issue is not that a new chairman is clueless about the role of the organisation he is heading, but that his boss too seems oblivious of what a taxpayer-funded broadcaster is meant to do in a democratic society. This acute lack of understanding about media, communication and its value to citizens filters down within the rank and file of the government. PTI leadership’s complete focus on bombastic press conferences and abusive statements as the sum-total of their media strategy and communication has sidetracked it from its primary responsibility of introducing structural reforms within the official information set-up.

This was a task taken upon by retired Lt Gen Asim Bajwa when he had joined the official media team as SAPM for information. Bajwa understood the deeper requirements of strategic communication at the official level. He had plans to introduce sweeping reforms within the expansive official information set-up. Had these plans been fleshed out and executed, the official media landscape could have transformed for the better. However his departure from this position seems to have shut this door for now. Very few in government understand modern communication like he did. This leaves the official media landscape in disarray.

The information ministry is a dinosaur and irrelevant to the demands of modern communication. It is a relic of a past that has little value in the present and almost none in the future we can see. The role of the information minister has been dumbed down by successive governments. Today the minister is judged by his bosses for his abrasive rhetoric and not for producing effective three dimensional communication that straddles all media platforms and produces content which can find traction among all audiences in all demographics.

PTV, Radio Pakistan, APP, and Pemra — all these bodies are crying out for reform because in their present form they are democratic anachronisms. PTI and all other parties need to understand that these taxpayer-funded media organisations are meant to cater to the interests of the citizens and not the government. Credibility fuels the power of communication. Sans this, it has no value. Official media in its present form has zero credibility, and therefore little effectiveness. Why is the Pakistani taxpayer paying for communication organisations whose communication has no effectiveness and little relevance to their lives?

This skin-deep understanding of media and communication has led to a bloated team of spokespeople who are often equally clueless about communication as a tool for citizens’ empowerment. No surprise then that there is constant tension between PTI media managers housed in the PM office, those inhabiting the information ministry, those sulking away in the PTI party hierarchies, those with access to Banigala and those that are members of the official spokespersons team. Noise has substituted substance at the taxpayer’s expense.

The opposition hardly fares better as evidenced by the Dar disaster. The hulking party structure of the PML-N has diverted little resources to its media and communication and often people like Information Secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb end up fighting a lonely battle. In the PPP too, haphazard communication in the form of press conferences and talk shows marks the beginning and end of the party’s media strategy. It is a sad reflection on the workings of our political parties that something as critical as communication continues to suffer from shallow understanding, poor effectiveness and incompetent handling.

The Dar disaster may soon become a generic term for media debacles that are waiting to happen on all party fronts. Be warned.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2020


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