Fall from grace

17 Jun 2012


‘ROUND and round it goes, where it stops, nobody knows’.

That’s the thought I’m left with in the wake of the various ‘gates’ of recent months, culminating in Malik Riaz’s allegations against Arsalan Iftikhar and the video of Mehr Bokhari, Mubashir Lucman and Al Capone.

Why should we care? Mud-slinging is a common enough practice in Pakistan and elsewhere amongst the people who pace the corridors of power. Malpractice, corruption and taking the people for a ride are old, old stories in this country, so much so that if by some miracle we alighted upon a figure free of controversy, we wouldn’t perhaps know what to do with him.

Such practices are, in fact, the meat and drink of the general societal discourse. They can elicit awe at the often Machiavellian way in which deals are struck and opponents neutralised, but they don’t often cause outrage.

No one is surprised when yet another figure does the rounds regarding the allegedly corrupt practices of President Asif Ali Zardari. There was little shock or horror when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s son was implicated in the ephedrine-smuggling scandal. Yet another story about who siphoned off money and abused not just his position but also the public trust causes no great waves.

Why, then, this outrage, this polarisation, over the disgrace of two television anchors and the swirl of controversy around the family of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry? In a country that has become inured to having its heroes proving to have feet of clay, why this sense of betrayal in specifically these two cases of a fall from grace?

Perhaps that statement provides its own answer. There are a number of points of commonality between the seemingly disparate positions of television anchorpersons on the one hand and the highest judge of the land on the other (apart from Mr Riaz, of course).

They represent the media and the judiciary, two of the country’s institutions that were elevated to the status of heroes only recently, and both at the same time. Along with the lawyers, these are the primary groups that led the impetus in the series of events that were sparked off in 2007 when the chief justice was suspended.

The media and the judiciary: representatives of change, of the new Pakistan in which the citizens would actually have a say and in which their rights and expectations would actually be considered.

The politicians are not fortunate enough to enjoy this status in the minds of people, I would argue precisely because they are a familiar, well-tested entity. Love them or hate them, in the centre or out in the cold, they have as a group been around as players for as long as Pakistan has. But the judges and the journalists — they held all the shiny sparkle of promise that is wielded by an as-yet-unwrapped candy bar.

So it is hardly surprising that when this candy turned out to be covered in lint, there was outrage and a degree of ‘no, it can’t be true’.

In the case of Arsalan Iftikhar, what is true or not is a matter of investigations and court hearings and not much can be said on that score right now.

In the case of the media, though, ‘no, it can’t be true’ does not apply. Whether or not Mr Riaz has managed to buy the allegiance of journalists, it is undeniable that the show was a set-up, akin to a story planted in the news. It’s unarguable that the powerful closed ranks to protect their own interests and if that meant duping the public, well, that was really not much of a compromise.

This show is certainly not the only one in which this has been done. Indeed, one of the first statements of defence put out by Ms Bokhari on Twitter was along the lines of ‘but everybody does it!’

We’ll not go into the journalistic ethics argument here. But isn’t this reminiscent of another recent media debacle, the ladies chasing down couples in a Karachi park? Then, too, Maya Khan initially defended herself with similar reasoning; everybody does it.

The same defence could not be taken by Dr Amir Liaquat when he, too, forgot that all the other people present on the set were not just pieces of furniture. Where two persons’ integrity as journalists has been compromised in last week’s video, his integrity as a spiritual man — a self-styled religious leader — was rent apart when he was shot expressing his true, and offensive, opinions.

Underpinning these humiliations suffered by four television personalities is, for one thing, an attitude of dismissal in terms of their audiences — the very people who elevated them to the position of stardom that they achieved. As for the politicians, for whom the voters are no more than the vehicle to their goal — get elected — so too for at least some media persons, their audiences are merely vehicles to fame and fortune.

This is the realisation that is sticking in the throats of the many that are outraged on moral rather than ethical grounds on what has emerged. And if this is true for this handful, why should it not be for everyone else in the business, the media industry as a whole, people are wondering. Underneath that is the old war injury, itching again: they don’t really care, either.

Yet these people are not blameless either. As a society, we tend to put individuals on a pedestal too easily, afford them the status of a hero far too undemandingly. Is it because we are so short of role models, so desperate for someone on whom to pin our hopes that just about anyone showing a bit of promise will do? Or is it because we, as a society, have the sort of character that makes friends easily, but walks away even more quickly once difficulties raise their head? That answer to that question will, perhaps, be clearer when we find out where the Arsalan Iftikhar case is going. Let’s just hope the game doesn’t turn out to be Russian roulette.

The writer is a member of staff.