Anti-Government Rhetoric Cynical Ploy For Ratings Boost

Jun 26th, 2010 | By | Category: Geo TV, Jang

Watching TV news and talk shows or reading newspapers and blogs by media corporations, it’s not difficult to answer the question of what all these self-proclaimed ‘experts’ are against. They are against the government, they are against the US, but mostly they are against Zardari. The fevered pitch with which the chorus of anchors chants their anti-Zardari talking points seems puzzling at times. But why should it? Criticising someone is a great way to boost ratings. And since these anchors are never held to account for their own actions, they have nothing to lose. This phenomenon – our own media anchors criticising Zardari in a cynical ploy to to boost ratings – is beginning to be noticed around the world.

“They gossip and take hearsay from the streets onto the TV screens,” says Owais Tohid, a journalist and former director of English-language news at Geo, which has a 24-hour news channel and three other channels. “I know how desperate they become when owners ask them to improve their ratings.”

Pakistan’s television industry is doing well despite the nation’s shaky economic picture. Foreign investment is in the doldrums and Pakistan is reliant on International Monetary Fund loans due to a weak government fiscal position. But sectors of the economy that sell consumer goods to the nation’s growing middle class have expanded in recent years, and TV is benefiting.

Annual TV ad sales jumped 20% last year to $174 million, after rising 13% in 2008.

There are almost 100 satellite and cable channels in Pakistan today, some in English but most in the local Urdu language, covering news, entertainment, fashion and sports and reaching a third of the country’s 175 million people. Scores of TV channels have been created in recent years, boosting free speech and spurring social debate.

There is big money to be made in criticism of the government. US$174 Million is over Rs 14 BILLION. Do you believe that this is coincidence only and nobody has noticed? Certainly they have.

Mr. Aslam acknowledges some anchors go too far. He says that those who take extreme Islamist or nationalist stances have seen their ratings drop; but those with antigovernment slants are popular.

And these anti-government rants have a massive influence on public opinion.

President Zardari’s approval ratings have dropped sharply amid perceptions of his closeness to the U.S., which is unpopular among many Pakistanis.

In a poll published in August, the Washington-based Pew Research Center found 32% of those asked had a favorable view of Mr. Zardari, down from 64% in 2008. Meanwhile, 77% said the growing news media was having a positive effect on the country.

This is why it is so important that the media acts responsibly and does not try to influence the courts or other institutions.

Imran Aslam who is the president of Karachi-based International Media Corp., which owns Geo Television and the Jang Group, says that, “You have to hold these people accountable. The opposition’s not doing it.” Imran has the right idea, but he is going about it the wrong way.

Holding businesses and politicians accountable is a key role of a properly functioning media. But there is a difference between holding people accountable and spreading rumour and innuendo that proves nothing but only drags people down.

Imran Aslam says that he must attack Zardari for corruption because he was never convicted. But isn’t the real answer that if he has some evidence of corruption he should take it to the courts? Instead, what we see are outrageous accusations made constantly with a complete lack of evidence. The News is becoming as bad as The Nation for printing whatever conspiracy theories they can come up with, the facts be damned.

It’s a bad sign when Aamir Liaquat Husain complains that you are too biased. And yet that has happened.

“We are not players, we are umpires,” says Aamir Liaquat Husain, who anchors a controversial religious talk show on Geo. “We should act like a neutral person.”

He is correct. Journalists and TV anchors should be neutral and unbiased observers. Like umpires, they must be counted on to give an impartial report of events, not to try to influence the game. Maybe an umpire doesn’t like Shane Warne, but he shouldn’t call him out unless he is actually out. In the same way, journalists don’t have to like Zardari or anyone else – but they do need to be fair and impartial in their reporting.

TV ratings are great for media companies, and no one complains about the additional revenue generated from advertising. But those gifts may not last forever. What happens when Zardari is no longer in office? Will they just continue to criticise in the same way whoever is there? Eventually, the people will get tired of this game. Or, worse, the media may convince a less democratically-oriented government that they cannot handle the responsibility of a free press. And then all those ratings will come to naught. Who will pay for all those expensive suits then, I wonder?

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