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Sunshine and rain on Talat Hussain

March 19, 2012

English drizzle welcomed Pakistani journalist, Talat Hussain, to Cambridge this weekend. Hosted by the University’s Pakistan Society, Hussain had come to provide some insight into the media in his country. He was candid and refreshingly self-critical and he gave permission for me to write about the encounter.

Hussain began, rather defensively setting out how media had brought about positive change and how he felt that it genuinely provided a voice to the impoverished, poor, and marginalised – offering them a ray of hope. “Without the media would you ever hear the voice of the Baloch?” he said. He was perhaps right to be defensive – when I shared news on my Twitter and Facebook pages that I would meet Hussain, people urged me to pin him down on why the media couldn’t do more to support Pakistani development, and why the Pakistani media weren’t more vociferous in challenging and exposing the corrupt elite and politicians. As if Hussain needed more evidence of the cynicism some audiences might feel towards the Pakistani media, someone in the crowd pressured him to explain the special handshake between the Pakistani judiciary and the media. His response was to defend the judiciary, but wry smiles spoke a thousand words.

I shared with Hussain one challenge I felt as a writer – motivated by a desire to see Pakistan in a more balanced positive light, I am often accused of being saccharin sweet on the nation and ignoring the ills of Pakistan. My response is that I have a very straightforward mission to shine a spotlight on the better things – to combat the sea of negative reporting on the country. Hussain acknowledged that the negativity of the media had damaged the nation’s self-esteem, and even went as far as to say it had helped to plunge Pakistan in form of “collective grief”. Referencing Arundhati Roy, and her theories of “crisis journalism”, he said the media would find it difficult to turn back. He also attempted to explain how Pakistan had a different view of “balance”, with a slight distaste for a grammar of the media that had been “inherited from the west”.

What struck me was the inherent problem in attempting to get a broadcast journalist to offer a reasonable, balanced view. They will naturally seek the difficulty or flash points in any situation. The tendency is to sensationalise – and despite claiming to be driven and regulated by the demands of the consumer, responsibility should be taken to ensure that creative ways to present less negative stories are explored.

I was disappointed – but not surprised given his flotilla experience – that Hussain made generalisations about Israelis. “Israelis are…” is as offensive to me as “Pakistanis are…” – and although I haven’t lived in Israel for many years, I feel safe in my own assumption that not all Israelis hate all Arabs. It was a view that undermined Hussain’s promotion of the Pakistani view on balance.

His flotilla experience has clearly impacted Hussain – and he offered many words of wisdom on the Arab Spring. He was right to indicate that it was too soon to tell what change, if any, had been made. And he raised an interesting point that Pakistan had already had its own Arab Spring – two in fact – when they ousted military dictators in the 1960s and in 1988 when Zia-ul-Huq was killed in an air crash. Hussein pointed out that these revolutions were bloodless. My tendency (and mission) is to get excited by such a positive take, but thinking about it, in Pakistan’s short history it has seen more than its fair share of military dictators, in periods which I am sure some Pakistanis would agree were far from bloodless. Furthermore, the words “brink” and “military coup” have been used more than once in recent times not just by the media, but by Wikileaks, and the US State Department. The “we are better than them because…” argument never really works for me – and it’s one Pakistan needs to get out of the habit of.

When Hussain pointed out that Pakistan’s very beginning was forged by ordinary barristers and lawyers – not bloodthirsty revolutionaries – I thought of that “handshake” and wondered why Hussain was not acknowledging the tragic messy birth of a nation through the blood soaked soil of partition.

You see, I’m not all saccharin sweet on Pakistan. It’s not about being unrealistically, or unfeasibly positive – it’s about presenting a dramatic viewpoint that is uplifting and inspiring.

Hussain echoed my own thoughts on Pakistan being an over-diagnosed nation. He likened it to going to see a doctor, who repeatedly told you that your system was failing, but never doing anything to help. However, Hussain himself failed to offer any solutions – and given his job as one of the analysts – he is unlikely to. He did suggest that “new media” would help shape the new Pakistan, as opposed to misunderstood “mainstream media”. He suggested that the mass media had much less influence than people thought, using as evidence his experience of media use in Sindh and the Southern Punjab – and there is more than empirical evidence to back this up. Hussain cited the rise in access to mobile phones and the increased use of blogs, social networks like Facebook (now available in Urdu) and Twitter. Hussain’s own activity on Twitter (or lack of it) indicates that he is new to this means of engagement. Engagement it is – a very different media from “broadcasting” – and we should welcome him to it. The fact that traditional media pundits might struggle in this forum was demonstrated by Hussain’s apparent confusion as to how I knew what my readers thought.

Perhaps the most touching and most profound thing Hussain said, was his account of a disaster in Islamabad. Turning up to produce a TV report on a collapsed tower, he explained how he was confronted by trapped women and children and contorted bodies. Hussain’s tone changed and his gaze steadied in front of him, “words cannot describe the tradegy that my eye saw in one glance”.

Desperately frustrated by his inability to help, he handed the camera to his driver and began attempting to drag people out of the rubble. As he told the story, he lowered his gaze and murmured, “it didn’t do much good”. Flood victims, he said, were often angry that TV crews were first on the scene, when what they wanted was help: food; medical help. As a result of these experiences, Talat Hussain, the journalist, has set up a charity. He was humble about it.

So although he may have painted his own industry in grim colours – referencing the new Pakistani “mini Rupert Murdochs” who control mass media in the country, and his own “wannabe” journalist peers who like the sound of their own voice – it was the story of his compassion and efforts to pull fellow countrymen from the rubble which spoke loudest on that rainy afternoon in Cambridge.

When Hussain describes his feelings for Pakistan as schizophrenic – 50 per cent elated and hopeful and 50 per cent doom-ridden – I would ask that at least the media reflect this. Don’t simply cover the story of the collapsed tower, and the deaths and the destruction; cover too, the story of peoples’ attempts to rescue and make good. It is actually more engaging – and more likely to inspire and bring about change.

I look forward to welcoming Talat Hussain again in Cambridge – maybe one day when the sun is shining.

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found here and on facebook.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.