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FOR THOSE TIMES WHEN "DURKA DURKA MOHAMMAD JIHAD" JUST WON'T CUT IT

 

Entries in aliens (1)

Wednesday
Jan112012

Pakistan's invisible news

In most places with a relatively free press, editors decide what goes on their pages (or websites) based on what they think will interest their audiences most.

So, in the UK, for example, when Prime Minister David Cameron opted out of a European plan that would have involved tighter regulation for the UK's financial services industry, media reaction was fairly predictable.

The Guardian (leftie liberal, generally pro European Union) - Casting Britain Adrift in Europe

The Telegraph (traditionalist, anti European Union) - ... In Splendid Isolation

The Mail (sensationally right of centre, anti most things foreign) - The Day the PM Put Britain First

(The notable exception here is the Express, once the world's largest circulation newspaper, which cant seem to go two days without a xenophobic story about immigrants or a conspiracy rant on the death of Princess Diana?!)

In Pakistan, things are a little more complex. Editors, of course, do want people to read their newspapers, but at the same time they have to navigate much more complex environments. Newspapers and television channels will be part of a larger conglomerate, which might print news and comment but may also buy advertising as well as produce it. At the same time, the owners of these businesses will have their own relationships with political players including the military, feudal landowners and the rest. In addition to this, no one really knows how many people read or watch anything. At the same time, as in many other countries (but without the legal restrictions in more structured media environments) cost plays a large part in how issues are covered. Ie. People arguing in a studio is cheaper to organise than an investigation.

Londonstani wouldn't pretend to understand what the exact decision making process is for Pakistan's media editors, but the end result is a propensity to cover stories that lend themselves to a simple X vs Y formula, focus intently on political manoeuverings (cheap to cover) and fit within a simple emotive narrative.

As a result, what's on the front page of a newspaper is of questionable news worth to your average Pakistani. For example, after a considerable respite from bomb attacks over the past several months, yesterday saw an explosion in a market in the Khyber Agency kill about 30 people. Pakistan's English-language newspapers are carrying this pretty major story on the back page, while the two Urdu-language newspapers Londonstani looks at daily (including the biggest circulation daily) have a small headline.

It could be argued that downturn in recent months or not, bombings are depressingly familiar in Pakistan and do not generate headlines anymore. More likely, the story has been pushed off the front page by political wrangling between Pakistan's highest court and the sitting government over the validity of the legal get-out-of-jail card that let politicians avoid old corruption charges and paved the way for a civilian government replace former military ruler Parvez Musharraf. An editor may say that this legal battle directly affects the survival of the government and is therefore of vital national interest. But, frankly, the government has been on the verge of falling for the whole time Londonstani has been in Pakistan (since October 2009). So, its not really all that new.

More likely, those who own the newspapers and TV channels will have their own positions to promote regarding whatever political spat is playing out at the time. But, the importance of an easy narrative shouldn't be understated. And by "easy narrative", Londonstani doesn't just mean something that a journalist finds easy to portray to his/her audience, which is just part of it, but also something that fits an already existing perception.

So, NATO forces killing Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan border elicits huge amounts of attention and generates much coverage because it slots neatly into the "The US is really our enemy. The US is trying to destroy us. The US takes our lives for granted" perceptions that already exist. However, those same Pakistani soldiers kidnapped, tortured and killed by militants generates nothing like the same sort of fury. The reason being, Londonstani would sugget, that editors aren't sure what wider context the story would sit in. "Who are these militants? Are they Indian funded agents trying to besmirch the good name of Kashmiri or anti US freedom fighters? Aren't the militants just retaliating for what our military has been doing to them at the behest of the Americans? Why would militants who claim to be true Muslims want to kill the soldiers of the army of Islam?"

This isn't to say Pakistani media is rubbish. It remains rambunctious and robust. Opinion pages are routinely filled with nuanced and detailed discussions about tries with India, accountability and governance, which in many other more stable countries would be deemed to "boring" for a mainstream outlet. For example, see today's article by former ambassador Maleeha Lodhi on building confidence with India.

The result is that if you only have the newspapers or news channels to go on, you get a skewed idea of what is really affecting people's lives. Right now, in Pakistan, it's not terrorism, political infighting or military-civil relations that will push the country towards meltdown. It's more likely to be a simple, unsexy, energy crisis. But people outside the country will have to look pretty hard at the Pakistani media to find references to a problem that's bringing rioters out onto the streets, causing unemployment as factories shut, leaving even the wealthy without heat as night-time temperatures dip to near zero, and shutting major arteries between cities. Dawn as a good, but short, article on the situation. 

Anyway, Londonstani (as a media consultant) has a potential solution in the form of a ready-made, instantly deployable, sexy narrative.

To be deployed in any media environment when you face a boring issue of essential public concern:

(thanks to Chris Allbritton)