Spinning the ministers

Published April 9, 2024
The writer is a journalist
The writer is a journalist

THE Punjab information minister was on television the evening ‘fee-gate’ blew up.

For those unaware of this great Lahori scandal, it erupted when it emerged that a federal minister, Ahad Cheema, had pushed for a fee waiver for his sons, who had moved to Islamabad but were retaining their seats at school, while the principal of their school was resisting this.

Having automatically become a ‘scandal’, it was picked up by television channels in the evening as an example of a government using its influence to interfere in an institution’s affairs. And when scandals arise, government officials have no choice but to defend.

It was no different for the Punjab information minister, who got into a heated argument with a talk show host who had decided to pick up the cudgels for the school. The minister fought bravely as she tried to first argue that the federal minister and his family had suffered imprisonment and hardship recently — without explaining if this meant he had to be compensated in whichever way possible, or that, as he was now financially constrained, he needed assistance — and then deemed some people associated with the school to be pro-PTI.

As with all television arguments, there was no time to flesh out the arguments, especially as the anchor also had much to say. It was political talk show theatre at its best — with heated arguments and little else.

The federal information minister had also appeared on television and defended ‘fee-gate’ just hours before news came that he had called the principal of the school on behalf of the prime minister in a bid to defuse the situation.

Lest anyone thinks I am about to express detailed views on the travails of an ‘elite school’ and is readying their brickbats/ tweets, that is not it. This is more about the jobs, or rather suffering, of those appointed information ministers in our governance structure. The proliferation of television news channels has reduced most information ministers to the role of glorified spokespersons.

In fact, it’s hard to even say ‘glorified’ because, as the examples show, there is little glory in defending each and every government decision, or what appears to be a government decision, without even a strategy in place. It’s more a case of ‘theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die’.

The information department doesn’t have much space left to play a role with regard to policy.

So we have an information minister trying to argue that Ahad Cheema suffered in jail, and hence his kids need a fee waiver; another one who argued that a disappeared journalist was not a journalist as if that made his disappearance any less serious, and a third who tried to argue a helicopter ride was cheaper than using a car. A recent caretaker information minister claimed that X (Twitter) was working if one had a VPN when asked about the ban on social media platforms.

It is doubtful that any one of them had any input in these decisions or was able to express an opinion on how to handle these ‘thorny issues’ to those who were making these decisions.

Other than these non-stop television appearances, many of them also become the first point of contact for beat reporters and news directors, ensuring news tickers and the coverage of press conferences.

This is simply administrative, or rather even drudgery; indeed, it is as much about information or communications as the responsibilities of most bureau chiefs and news directors are about journalism.

Perhaps the only glory that comes with the job is that, as these ministers have a role to play in doling out state largesse to media houses, they are spared criticism; but this, too, is short-lived, as are these portfolios at times.

None of them seem to have any policy roles to play. Partly because it appears the information department doesn’t have much space left to play this role; it has been reduced to patronage. And as the past five or six years show, whatever legislation has been put together, such as Peca — which deals with electronic crimes — it has been pushed from elsewhere and its implementation as well. All one can remember of most information ministers is their appearances on television talk shows (or more close-ups than necessary in official footage, underscoring the extent of their power and influence).

This is not just true of the hapless souls who end up in this government position but also many of those appointed as information secretaries of political parties. Once again, their job is as Tennysonian in nature as that of information ministers.

There is a point to this rant, I say to those who have made it thus far. This top-down approach explains why none of the other political parties have been able to catch up with the PTI’s social media game, despite talking about it non-stop for years. For they use this same top-down approach to build social media teams and the result is also the same. The social media teams end up being subservient to the party heads, following their orders rather than working independently and creatively. And their responsibility is about simply spreading it without any thought for efficacy or larger messaging.

On the other hand, the PTI social media is perhaps as free and chaotic as the Wild West (of social media). The team includes volunteers and professionals who understand communication as well as the technical side and appear to work independently of the political side. If there is a hierarchy in the PTI, it is not one in which the politicians are superior. This is the reason for its success and the lacklustre performance of the rest.

In other words, if political parties need to become part of the world of modern communications, the first step should be to demolish the information minister’s post. For this step is an admission that media management is not about buying your way to praise.

Once this is absorbed, the parties may also understand what the responsibilities of a secretary information might be; and it’s not simply to appear on television and defend the indefensible. Or write captions or tweets for innumerable pictures without a larger strategy.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2024

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