VIEW: The media mafia —Andleeb Abbas

Courtesy to "Daily Times"

The popular anchorpersons’ power to make or break opinion creates an arrogance in them that is displayed through condescending sneers and mocking jeers, inciting their guests to lose their cool and be reduced to a laughing stock

Extremism in every form and of every nature is equally dangerous. In a society that seems to have lost its balance, most things seem to lose control too easily and too soon. Whether it is religious beliefs, political ideologies or social norms, there is a bipolar tendency in such unbalanced societies to be either aggressive or passive, either fanatically expressive or indifferently silent, causing volatility of behaviour, manifesting itself in destructive conflicts and uncontrolled aggression.

The media in Pakistan is just like the genie out of the bottle. While it has played a powerful role in exposing the flaws of our society, its obsession to scandalise everything and anything has more often than not made it cross all ethical and professional limits. Although we all commend the media for taking nearly every big shot to task, we also must condemn the media for causing immense damage to many innocent people due to their inability to verify and portray the truth. The reason behind this irresponsible behaviour is twofold: first of all, it is the desire for many of the investors in this industry to act as media moguls and, second, it is the relative immaturity of the media industry itself.

The electronic media has seen a mushroom growth in the last few years. From ATV to PTV, you now have almost all alphabets being covered by a regular introduction of more and more new channels. The investors in this industry are of two varieties: one party of investors belongs to the group of businesses that are already in the print media and wanted to expand into the electronic media and thereby accumulate commercial and political clout; others are investors who have no idea of the media industry but are looking for opportunities in growing industries to invest and add to their revenue kitty. Industry growth is always skewed in Pakistan, as most businesses just spot a growing industry and jump in without analysing their own strategic capability to match the core competence required for running that particular business. The result is a mad ‘me too’ race, where anybody with money and connections enters, overcrowding the industry and leading to its premature decline. We have already seen the textile industry suffering from an overdose of ‘me too’ investment and we are now witnessing the same phenomenon in the electronic media industry. Most of these investments are not well thought out or carefully planned. The only focus in the mind of these investors is to be able to set up and start a channel with scant attention to how to make it sustainable.

With little vision and strategic planning, all the channels are simply cloning each other in ideas and programming. Most of them are providing ‘talktainment’. The race in these channels is to prize away a popular talk show host at an exorbitant rate and steal his/her viewership from its competitors. Since they cannot provide anything different to their audience, the only strategy to compete is by being the first to give breaking news that is dramatised to the extent of ‘breaking’ the nerves of its viewers. It is this lack of variety and strategy that has led to their desperation in giving news that is not authentic, in creating a scandal out of nothing, of inciting people into unnecessary agitation and negativity and in twisting a lie to make it look like the truth.

The pursuit of viewership at all costs has recently been exhibited in the spate of allegations against hospitals and the alleged negligence of doctors. While we all know the pathetic state of affairs in our hospitals, it is insane to assume that all deaths taking place in hospitals are due to the negligence of doctors. The recent incident at Jinnah Hospital is an eminent example of a desperate attempt of the media to make news out of no news, consequently endangering the lives of many others. A patient was brought to Jinnah Hospital in the last stage of cancer. As she was hardly gasping for life, the treatment provided by any hospital at this stage would have been insufficient to save her. She did not survive long and her relatives, though sad but resigned, were taking her dead body away when a media journalist ‘advised’ them to make a hue and cry to get some media-worthy coverage. The minute one channel started covering it, all the channels converged and, without verifying the facts, started outdoing each other by forcibly trying to enter the emergency ward. When the doctors stopped them, a confrontation emerged where physical and verbal abuse took place between the journalists and doctors. On being ordered to stay out of the emergency ward, the journalists went out, gathered force and equipment and came in and bashed the windows and staff of the emergency ward. Thereafter, a war between the two parties took place, resulting in the journalists filing a case against the doctors and a complete boycott by doctors in hospitals for three days, resulting in agony to many patients and their families. Such incidents not only cause significant financial and physical damage but also erode the credibility of the media, making them look like opportunists who are no better than the politicians they tear apart in every talk show.

Another aspect that has become too hot to handle is the power of the few big time anchors. Some of these anchors, due to their huge viewership, consider themselves kingmakers and literally blackmail channels and their political guests into payoffs on their terms for trying to influence viewers in favour or against them. Their ability to twist facts and colour stories is not just unethical, but almost criminal. Their power to make or break opinion creates an arrogance in them that is displayed through condescending sneers and mocking jeers, inciting their guests to lose their cool and be reduced to a laughing stock.

To prevent the media from becoming a destructive mafia, it is imperative that a committee be formed comprising PEMRA, channels’ representatives, and legal and media experts who should construct a strict code of conduct specifying the norms of reporting and clearly laying down the process of verification and authentication of information. This code should also contain a code of anchoring etiquette. The code should specify the penalties associated with non-conformity of members to these stated requirements. The code needs to be signed by all members and enforced without discrimination to streamline the behaviour of those guilty of serious ethical and behavioural infringements.

Media plays a very powerful role in the development of any society and we have seen the positive impact it has had in creating the right awareness and direction in the masses. However, if it lacks the discipline to draw a line between what is fact and what is fiction, what is true and what is false, what is responsible freedom and what is reckless wildness, it needs to be harnessed through policies and regulation to prevent it from becoming another mafia which becomes a victim of its own mad pursuit of power rather than playing its true role of empowering the powerless.

The writer is a consultant and CEO of FranklinCovey and can be reached at