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Who watches the watchmen?

February 27, 2011

DURING the past couple of months, particularly in the wake of controversy over the proposal to bring the blasphemy laws under review, there has been much discussion over the airwaves about religious dictates.

The proposal, which never even made it to the stage of being tabled before parliament, has been dropped by a government that appears to be perennially on the back foot — the ways of government are often strange to behold. What concerns me, though, is that while the discussion of religion continues, an accusation is being made with increasing incidence in various columns and blogspots.

A number of writers have pointed to certain guests on different talk shows, claiming that the citations (mainly from religious sources) that these guests presented in favour of their argument were taken out of context, their meaning was altered by omitting to mention context, or were plain incorrect.

In many cases, those levelling this criticism have attached transcripts of or uploaded clips from the television programme in question, so that readers can themselves look up the original text to check whether the accusation is justified. I found it worrying enough to undertake this exercise. And in all the cases I checked, the accusation was justified.

Be that as it may, it is hardly unknown, anywhere in the world, for personalities of standing and power, particularly those of a stature to be invited on televised talk shows, to resort to glossing over facts to suit their ends, or to twist facts to their desired end.

What I find particularly worrying, however, is the role of our programme hosts who, in most such cases, evidently had neither the knowledge to pick up on altered ‘facts’ nor, perhaps, the gumption to point them out. In most cases, while X guest made Y announcement that, upon investigation, turned out to be incorrect, the host was merely sitting there nodding his or her head in agreement,.

Which leads us to the question, what good is the much-mentioned power of the fourth estate — the media — if it fails to pick up on shady statements pronounced by the people it claims to be bringing under review? The media’s ability to bring contradictions and inconsistencies to light is, after all, one of the prime sources from which it claims its power.

This is what allows the media to act as an entity that imposes checks and forces balance upon opinion-makers and the otherwise powerful. If anyone can get away with any sort of story, and the host can’t tell the difference or won’t, then what is the point of all these supposedly erudite programmes? Who watches the watchmen?

As I said earlier, everywhere in the world, people expect politicians and other powerful people to talk according to their agendas, and this often involves twisting and glossing over facts. They ought not resort to this, of course, but that seems to be the nature of the beast and people have come to accept it. Guests on television, similarly, are in many cases there to express their opinions — and sometimes those opinions are not or not entirely factual.

For these reasons, the abilities of the programme host are of crucial importance. Viewers look to the host to be able to spot the erroneous statement, the inconsistency, the prevarication or the U-turn — and this requires the host to have serious levels of knowledge about the topic under discussion.

This is where the value of a professional programme host lies, for only then can he or she meaningfully explore the subject. If the host has little knowledge about the subject, then really, it may as well be you or I, a layperson, sitting there asking the questions.

The argument could be made that every host is not expected to — simply cannot — have knowledge about all things under the sun to a sufficient degree that allows him or her to be able to challenge the experts. True. But the answer is, this is precisely why different hosts specialise in different areas.

In countries where the media industry is a little more professional, a host who specialises in current affairs and politics will rarely, if ever, host a debate on Catholicism or the relevance of religion in everyday affairs — unless the two spheres have overlapped, in which case considerable research is undertaken. There are specialists in for the environment, for public policy and governance, international affairs, economics and business, culture and the arts, and so on.

Most of the developed world has grown beyond the sort of jack-of-all-trades hosts that are the norm in Pakistan. I gave the example of debate over religious matter in the beginning of this column, but as television viewers are well aware, this is far from the only area where topics outside the purview of the hosts are taken up.

It is tempting to blame the hosts themselves, and to be sure they must shoulder at least part of the responsibility for this sorry situation — the lack of research, for one. But the real problem is systemic, and has to do with the way and the speed with which the televised media industry developed.

Media organisations hired talk show hosts, many of whom became celebrities and most of whom are paid salaries in accordance with this status. If you’re paying an employee such large sums, there is obviously the expectation that (s)he will handle whatever topic is given.

Yet a more constructive model may be to employ a greater number of specialists. The pie might have to be divided into smaller slices, but organisations as well as their audiences would benefit. A crime reporter is not expected to also be writing theatre reviews or political commentary; such expectations ought not be thrust on, or appropriated by, television personalities either.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com