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Welcome to the circus

July 30, 2012


IN terms of entertainment value, this country’s media industry must surely hold its own against the best and the brightest.

Barely a day goes by without Pakistan being given reason to gape, yet again, at what our galaxy of television personalities consider suitable viewing and behaviour.

Earlier it was the news side that was considered problematic: too much graphic violence being broadcast, callousness while filming scenes of violence and its victims and so on. But in more recent times, as the news side sorted itself out somewhat with codes of conduct, it is the world of the anchors that has arrived centre stage. And that is a circus.

Consider the programme that is taking up a good chunk of cyberspace these days. A certain female television anchor apparently wanted to give her show a religious flavour. And what better service to do for religion than to broadcast a person embracing Islam.

So it was that prime time viewing comprised of a live broadcast during which a cleric led a young man through the steps of converting from Hinduism to Islam. By the time the credits rolled, the ranks of the army of the faithful had swelled by one. The studio audience called out congratulations and shouted out suggestions about the Muslim name to be adopted; the host, dupatta over her demure head, made meaningless but nauseating observations and the channel, no doubt, congratulated itself on yet another successful episode. (For the record, this was the same anchor who thought that good programming entailed chasing after couples in a Karachi park to ask whether or not they were married to each other and if not, weren’t they ashamed of themselves for dating?)

Any reasonable person must balk at such a breath-taking display of insensitivity and utter tastelessness. Since when did such a private moment become fodder for studio lights and microphones? Since when did religion become currency in the race for ratings and advertisements?

(Well, for a fairly long time. The Western world’s televangelists of the ’90s, primarily in the US, made it their business to create television drama out of religion: love thy God, repent — and make me rich by sending a teeny tiny little cheque to my foundation. While many such charlatans were exposed, a few prosecuted, the reality is that when there’s money to be made few demonstrate any scruples; nothing is too sacred.)

But the problem with this particular episode also was the denigration with which it treats people of other religions in the country — and contrary to what sections of society may like to delude themselves into thinking, there are quite a few. This programme was telling them: you are not of the same status; your belief is not. In the aftermath, Ramesh Kumar, a leader of the Pakistan Hindu Council, told AFP that it would encourage religious intolerance. “We are already intimidated,” he said. “The government gives little heed to the kidnapping of Hindus and forced conversion of our girls. Please don’t do things that make us more alienated.”

I’m not sure which possibility is worse: that, while envisioning it, the host and producers of the show did not realise the implications in a country where religious discrimination is already so lethally entrenched, or that they did and chose to go ahead anyway.

On the other side of the coin, in the weeks leading up to Ramazan, one had reason to be appalled by a promo about a prospective show about repenting hosted by another personality made famous by television — though not an anchorperson. As I see it, the problem was not that this lady’s past reputation and professional life made her someone who, in the eyes of the conservative, could have a fair few matters to repent over. The problem was that the promo hinged on the audience being aware of this ‘contradiction’, so to speak, and invited people to ponder upon the nature of sin in the context of this particular host. What ended up as a laughing stock, at least in the promo, was the idea that the host and the producers had any respect for religion itself.

It could have been that the show would prove to be reasonable, that the lady would prove to be knowledgeable and adept at handling appropriate guests. But we never found out, for on this occasion the creaking edifice of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority lumbered into movement. An official told the press that the organisation had received internet petitions calling for the show to be cancelled. A member of the production team said that if the people did not wish to see this show, it would be cancelled. And so, the plug was pulled.

Putting religious programming aside, the media scandal before this concerned a couple of anchors talking between on-air segments to a land baron. These recordings indicated that, at the very least, the ‘hard-hitting’ grilling session they were ostensibly subjecting him to was a sham.

These are just a few of too many examples where different sections of the media industry have demonstrated not just the desire to get ahead — make money — using any means, but also their contempt for their audience. Rarely, if ever, is any action taken; few are the signs of recognition that the media had better put its house in order.

For over a decade now, since the country’s media policies were liberalised during the Musharraf years, commentators have excused slip-ups with the observation that this is a young industry. How long can that defence remain valid? The media business has real, tangible effects on the ground, changing opinions and hardening prejudices.

Pakistan has enough elements leading it towards the dark; at least those that set themselves up as the guardians of the light should actually perform that task — or risk having restrictions placed upon them at some inevitable point in the future.

The writer is a member of staff.