Avoiding the populist snare


In our age of technologically globalised world, we see new questions regarding media and communication patterns, day in and day out. Some of these questions are more or less academic in nature, but there are others that need to be examined closely. Primarily, these are all ethical questions. The questions of truth and falsehood, objectivity and subjectivity, are being vehemently discussed and debated, but least implemented. In fact, there is no real answer to all the problem media are facing around the globe. The emergence of right wing populist politics globally is leaving less and less room for saner debates on the media and within the societies. These new phenomena, which are smaller in numbers, but growing steadily, are not comfortable with difference of opinion and innovation. These are backward looking ideologies that look for a golden past that needs to be reinstated. The right wing extremism, armed with rhetorical populism is establishing a stronghold on a global scale. This will affect all walks of life.

It will affect free speech and freedom of journalism adversely. Populism and extremism are rooted in obscurantism, which is a regime of radical dogmas. No matter what the form of government is or whatever social attributes a society has, the rise of populism is the death of democracy. Media and the intelligentsia have the responsibility to thwart the march of obscurantism. This has always remained an uphill struggle. Populism is radical, it is commonplace. It appeals to tradition and commonsense. Here lies its strength. And it is easier to be popular than to be honest. Many among us take popularity as righteousness. They are self righteous! Checking one’s own behaviour is the most difficult task of all. Media and intelligentsia remain the earliest victims of populism; not by going down in a battle against it, but by making the worst mistake of all; siding with it.

Populism gives heroes to extol. Events to celebrate where ‘we’ dominated ‘them’. Populism never coexists, neither do populist intellectuals and media. Confrontation and antagonism lies at the very root of a media that looks for historical events to celebrate, the wars being won, the martyrs who lost their lives in the service of the “eternal truth”. It never praises, it never accommodates, it never understands. It is always hell bent to preach and exhort, to educate the audience understand that it takes are idle recipients, captive.

The media and intelligentsia have the responsibility to thwart the march of obscurantism. This has always remained an uphill struggle. Populism is radical, it is commonplace. It appeals to tradition and common sense. Here lies its strength. And it is easier to be popular than to be honest

Keeping this context in view, we look into the working of Pakistani media, especially television. It is star studded, a celebrity anchor, host producing factory. Each and every journalist donning a television program gets transformed into a celebrity, the custodian of their ‘brand of truth’. And once this exalted position is gained, views become extreme. And when too many celebrated voices clash, an extreme discourse emanates. Caution is thrown to the wind, truth moulded to satisfy personal whims, and invectives become norm. The Pakistani TV talk shows are political. These are extreme, having formats where the last lines have been decided even before the show starts. The judgmental finality displayed by the hosts leaves very little room for a sane discourse. The one who arouses public sentiments most, is the best.

But the question that arises out of this is that why do the owners allow this? Where is the media as an institution? Where lies the good old ethics? The owners are there, but they are fascinated by the rating game. The more misery you show, the more viewers you get. But then is the question about audience. Don’t we have a responsibility towards the audience? Aren’t they traumatised by this circus of futility? Who cares! Or who knows! First, the media takes refuge in the excuse that their job is to inform. Secondly, they presume it is public demands and they are professionals, not preachers. This is not true, fortunately. Information provision is a skill and a responsibility. And professionalism is not throwing news at a hapless audience to earn more and more money. Professional television is responsible.

Professional television serves the society. It keeps the viewers close as a family, since it is the audience that one needs to win to remain successful. Sanity and support to informed decision making are the two main pillars of a healthy society that has room for pluralistic media. If media is not pluralistic and accommodative, it doesn’t have any real existence. Showing 24/7 moving pictures with a voice is not television. It is the idiot-box. Who in their sane minds would think of a respectable space in a society by running the idiot-box? The media and the media professionals have to decide to side with the truth. And truth is not constant. The truth of a professional media is the contribution to democratic ideals by giving the audience the information they deserve. And if someone hides behind the cloak of ignorance, they should better leave the profession and find another one where there is lesser responsibility. And there is no place in life with lesser responsibility. Unless one is stupid enough to land in the mad house by contributing to the idiot-box, the only way to go is to do professional television, professionally.

Published in Daily Times, October 3rd 2017.


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