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Masters of the (Pakistani) universe

June 16, 2012

ANCHORS in the dock, owners’ resources being questioned, secrets tumbling out, rumours flying — the media is supposed to report the story, not be the story.

But since things here don’t quite follow a plan — at least one that makes much sense — the great media debate is what we have this week.

(Next week or the week after, it’ll be something else, since attention spans here are short and a new jester will pop up to confound and titillate.)

There’s a reason it’s the anchors, the masters of the Pakistani media universe, who are flailing in the mud and flinging it at each other at the moment, and even in these days of unusual candour they won’t tell you what that is.

But if you’re not one of them, the reason is clear as day: there’s no institutional check on a star anchor.

You only really get a sense of what that means and how damaging it is when you see other, more tightly controlled news organisations do it the right way.

I once happened to watch an international star at work at close quarters. She wanted to talk about X; her producer asked:

why this issue and why now? She wanted to interview Y; her producer asked: why is this person relevant and what do you want to ask?What was interesting — for someone who has seen how it’s done here — is that the producer had real power. The producer, plugged in to head office, part of a strictly monitored and accountable chain, had a veto.

If the producer wasn’t convinced or wanted things done differently, there’s nothing the star could do. Yes, there’s some give-and-take and a savvy star is very persuasive, but if the producer was unmoved, that was that.

Here in Pakistan, a channel boss once lamented that his biggest problem was exercising editorial control over the big talk-show hosts. Star chooses who comes on, star chooses the topic of the evening, star chooses what he wants to ask and which tangent he wants to go off on.

The staff, including that all-important producer, assigned to work with the star are often little more than personal assistants, there to please and facilitate rather than to press for good journalistic practices and accountability.

Most are visibly star-struck and it’s not unusual to see a star with a producer or sundry other staff in tow, admiringly looking on while their star hobnobs with the political, military and social elite.

Yes, if a star crosses an editorial line too often or too blatantly, there are recriminations. Angry emails are exchanged or if the misdeed is particularly egregious, a face-to-face verbal ticking off is delivered.

But there are limits to which management can go, and the star knows it.

A star host gives you three to four hours of content (counting repeat telecasts) four or five days a week. The show pulls in big money for the sums shelled out — the panel of guests is assembled for free; sets are still fairly basic by international standards; and the technical support and hardware doesn’t cost vast sums — so some other channel is always more than happy to lure an unhappy star to a new address.

Of course, owners are far from helpless, high-minded sorts. They give the star a long editorial leash and grant them direct, privileged access (useful for a star who wants to throw a tantrum, which they often do) because there’s a quid pro quo at work.

The boss has a business interest — sometimes the financial health of the channel itself — at stake; a pal is in trouble and needs to get his message out; a particular party needs support (and in this game, count the army as the biggest, most well-organised of political parties); or the boss fancies himself as a kingmaker or backroom operator — for such purposes you trot out the star anchor with ratings of gold to push the boss’s agenda.

For the most part, the news business here is a business first and then about journalism, a commitment to informing the public and about genuinely holding a government to account (which excludes beating up on a government to benefit its rivals).

You scratch my back, I scratch yours — the viewer is none the wiser.

(Newsrooms are for the most part still very different animals from talk-show sets, and folks on the news, as opposed to opinion, side are more likely to fight and win the good fight — though there are limits there too.)

With an arrangement as messy as that and the stakes so high, the wheels are bound to eventually come off.

Add one final element — call it the anchor personality element — so vividly on display in that interview, the faux-journalistic ménage à trois everyone can’t stop talking about, and you end up with a spectacle that makes the heart sink and the stomach churn.

Some of the stars you almost feel pity for, controlled as they are by forces beyond their understanding and desperate as they are to just be at the party; others you feel contempt for because they’ve learned to play the game to the advantage of the only

one who matters to them: themselves.

So it was in that interview. One star is eager to please, to do the best she can to keep her seat at the table of high intrigue, to please her fickle fans and prove her worth to the big boys who play out their adventures on a national stage.

The other is sneering and full of contempt, secure in the knowledge that you win some and you lose some but you always bounce back if you play the game harder and more aggressively than the rest.

Insecure or cocksure, they are the masters of the Pakistani media universe.

The writer is a member of staff.

twitter: @cyalm