Drip, drip

Published January 16, 2022
The writer is a political and social commentator.
The writer is a political and social commentator.

AUDIO leaks clearly runneth into the new year, a splash here and there, so that the spillage becomes harder to clean up.

The latest audio leak from PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz is a conversation between her and former information minister Pervaiz Rashid about which commentator on Geo TV’s analyst-based shows is biased against the party and what to do about it. An add-on to the leak is Ms Nawaz instructing someone on which journalists to send a basket of gifts to, although the contents are unclear.

Mr Rashid’s condemnable descriptors for commentators who use a certain kind of tone and language about his party aside, the leaks are a rich study in terms of content, timing and political context. They are also an indictment of political and investigative journalism in Pakistan.

All political parties, in power or otherwise, seek some measure of control over narratives in the media through the classic carrot-and-stick approach. Carrots include financial inc­e­n­tives (such as government ads), under the table money (bribes), free foreign trips, gifts of various value, placement on channels and access to powerful people and information.

Not all journalists drink the access Rooh Afza.

More telling is how often the stick is used. Call it aggressive or punitive, it can range from withdrawal of government ads, instructions to ad agencies, ‘managing’ distribution and circulation, or making phone calls to censor. At the coercive end of the spectrum are threats, and physical violence. Ultimately, the stick is what tends to lead to a more pliant, self-censoring media unable to challenge the powerful. Tellingly, political parties tend to use the carrot more than the stick.

The three leaks featuring Ms Nawaz are all related to her media management, ostensibly proving the popular Islamabad axiom that if the PML-N were to come back to power, she would control the media even more fiercely than while her father was prime minister. But consider the context in which these audio clips became public: press freedoms have been severely eroded during the Imran Khan or hybrid regime — journalists have been disappeared or attacked, dissenting anchors taken off air, stories and interviews killed through phone calls, etc.

The leaks then offer a kind of choice: which leader would be a bigger media predator? The question then is: who benefits from these leaks and why are they just about the media? Further, who or what entity is their source?

Moreover, the haste with which these leaks were broadcast on certain news channels illustrates how WhatsApp journalism and access journalism continue to trump thoughtful and investigative journalism in Pakistan. An audio leak without forensic analysis, always broadcast first on specific news channels, without the affected party’s response, or without legal advice, is nothing more than an allegation.

These allegations are one form of access journalism. Without any added journalistic value, they serve the agenda of the party leaking them. There is no pressure on the media platform to confirm or disprove the allegations because it’s cheaper, easier, and therefore a hard habit to break.

Plus, the leaks come with the promise of more ‘exclusives’. Ease, impact and the bait of more keep the flow going. In the absence of effective application of the right to information, for instance, journalists benefit from the bait of more exclusives.

In his memoir Reporter, American journalist Seymour Hersh described an invitation for a chat at the CIA headquarters. Then president Bill Clinton was believed to be ready to pardon an Israeli spy, on whom Mr Hersh had done an investigative piece. The intelligence community was against the pardon, and showed Mr Hersh material that would’ve built a ‘narrative’ against it. Getting exclusives is hard, and being handed one made Mr Hersh queasy. “I was very ambivalent about being in the unfamiliar position of carrying water for the American intelligence community,” he wrote in his memoir. Well known for big investigations against the intelligence community after 9/11, his work demonstrates the cardinal rule of journalism — uncover stories that the powerful do not want known.

Incidentally, the debate on which journalist receives what gifts from which political party — a lifafa (cash) or a tokri (kind) — has been more gotcha than nuanced. The social practice of sending cakes or fruit baskets is quite widespread. Ideal? No. A crime? Also no. What’s more important is the value of the gift — which rises with the degree of attempted control.

News audiences tend to simplify journalistic bias as a direct result of these tokris or lifafas. In reality, partialities are more often driven by a complex combination of the carrot and stick. Accusing journalists of taking lifafas has also become a lazy way to discredit or disagree. It’s worth remembering, however, that not all journalists drink the access Rooh Afza. Indeed, audiences that accuse journalists of taking lifafas also tend to reward access journalism over investigative journalism because it confirms their own biases.

The writer is a political and social commentator.

Twitter: @AmberRShamsi

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2022

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