Hajrah Mumtaz: Who Watches the Watchmen?

Mar 1st, 2011 | By | Category: Dawn, Ethics, Express Tribune

Who Watches the Watchmen?When we started this blog a few years ago, many people said that it was a waste of time because the media groups were too big and too powerful to listen to care about one small blog. But over time our assumption proved correct: People were tired of irresponsible journalism and wanted to see more accountability in media.

Recently, more people have begun to speak out against the irresponsible and unethical practices of some journalists and media groups. Maitullah Jan’s expose of journalists taking advantage of government funded Hajj facility gets to the very heart of corruption among those who are supposed to be watchdogs of society. Likewise, the column by Zohra Yusuf recommending media groups follow the leadership of Express Tribune by hiring ombudsmans to manage complaints by the public is another example of media taking responsibility for improving its own sector.

The latest column of Hajrah Mumtaz who is on the staff at Dawn is the latest example of journalists speaking up about ways that journalism can be improved if media groups will adopt some basic policies to ensure accuracy and accountability.

DURING the past couple of months, particularly in the wake of controversy over the proposal to bring the blasphemy laws under review, there has been much discussion over the airwaves about religious dictates.

The proposal, which never even made it to the stage of being tabled before parliament, has been dropped by a government that appears to be perennially on the back foot — the ways of government are often strange to behold. What concerns me, though, is that while the discussion of religion continues, an accusation is being made with increasing incidence in various columns and blogspots.

A number of writers have pointed to certain guests on different talk shows, claiming that the citations (mainly from religious sources) that these guests presented in favour of their argument were taken out of context, their meaning was altered by omitting to mention context, or were plain incorrect.

In many cases, those levelling this criticism have attached transcripts of or uploaded clips from the television programme in question, so that readers can themselves look up the original text to check whether the accusation is justified. I found it worrying enough to undertake this exercise. And in all the cases I checked, the accusation was justified.

Be that as it may, it is hardly unknown, anywhere in the world, for personalities of standing and power, particularly those of a stature to be invited on televised talk shows, to resort to glossing over facts to suit their ends, or to twist facts to their desired end.

What I find particularly worrying, however, is the role of our programme hosts who, in most such cases, evidently had neither the knowledge to pick up on altered ‘facts’ nor, perhaps, the gumption to point them out. In most cases, while X guest made Y announcement that, upon investigation, turned out to be incorrect, the host was merely sitting there nodding his or her head in agreement,.

Which leads us to the question, what good is the much-mentioned power of the fourth estate — the media — if it fails to pick up on shady statements pronounced by the people it claims to be bringing under review? The media’s ability to bring contradictions and inconsistencies to light is, after all, one of the prime sources from which it claims its power.

This is what allows the media to act as an entity that imposes checks and forces balance upon opinion-makers and the otherwise powerful. If anyone can get away with any sort of story, and the host can’t tell the difference or won’t, then what is the point of all these supposedly erudite programmes? Who watches the watchmen?

As I said earlier, everywhere in the world, people expect politicians and other powerful people to talk according to their agendas, and this often involves twisting and glossing over facts. They ought not resort to this, of course, but that seems to be the nature of the beast and people have come to accept it. Guests on television, similarly, are in many cases there to express their opinions — and sometimes those opinions are not or not entirely factual.

For these reasons, the abilities of the programme host are of crucial importance. Viewers look to the host to be able to spot the erroneous statement, the inconsistency, the prevarication or the U-turn — and this requires the host to have serious levels of knowledge about the topic under discussion.

This is where the value of a professional programme host lies, for only then can he or she meaningfully explore the subject. If the host has little knowledge about the subject, then really, it may as well be you or I, a layperson, sitting there asking the questions.

The argument could be made that every host is not expected to — simply cannot — have knowledge about all things under the sun to a sufficient degree that allows him or her to be able to challenge the experts. True. But the answer is, this is precisely why different hosts specialise in different areas.

In countries where the media industry is a little more professional, a host who specialises in current affairs and politics will rarely, if ever, host a debate on Catholicism or the relevance of religion in everyday affairs — unless the two spheres have overlapped, in which case considerable research is undertaken. There are specialists in for the environment, for public policy and governance, international affairs, economics and business, culture and the arts, and so on.

Most of the developed world has grown beyond the sort of jack-of-all-trades hosts that are the norm in Pakistan. I gave the example of debate over religious matter in the beginning of this column, but as television viewers are well aware, this is far from the only area where topics outside the purview of the hosts are taken up.

It is tempting to blame the hosts themselves, and to be sure they must shoulder at least part of the responsibility for this sorry situation — the lack of research, for one. But the real problem is systemic, and has to do with the way and the speed with which the televised media industry developed.

Media organisations hired talk show hosts, many of whom became celebrities and most of whom are paid salaries in accordance with this status. If you’re paying an employee such large sums, there is obviously the expectation that (s)he will handle whatever topic is given.

Yet a more constructive model may be to employ a greater number of specialists. The pie might have to be divided into smaller slices, but organisations as well as their audiences would benefit. A crime reporter is not expected to also be writing theatre reviews or political commentary; such expectations ought not be thrust on, or appropriated by, television personalities either.

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  1. […] Follow this link: Hajrah Mumtaz: Who Watches the Watchmen? | Pakistan Media Watch […]

  2. I think some people in Pakistan have quite a lot of illusions about the fairness & balance of the Western Media.

    People should read this article by Jonathan Cook where he makes the point that propaganda is so ingrained that it changes the entire context of arguments even in seemingly liberal & free publications. For example, it is never questioned that the US/UK leaders lied to their public to go to war. It is always assumed they were misled.

    Read it here: http://www.counterpunch.com/cook02282011.html

  3. Media appeared on the wizard of society as a sole competitor. With the opening of a chapter of media freedom in Pakistan it was restrained by a dictator but after the restoration of democracy and freedom of speech the media mammoth got a quantum speed. It was a better move but unfortunately Pakistan media failed to set priorities to reshape the society that was split in many school of thoughts. Lack of media ethics and code and conduct also played a vital role in betrayal of media.
    After setting its hegemony a specific section of media assumed the leading role which ultimately took the shape of king maker. Devoid of ethics and boundaries media mongers with incorporated interests added fuel into already religion, cast, creed and faith based divided society. It played a critical role in inciting violence against certain schools of thoughts by promoting extremism and dogmatism. The backdoor meetings of some media pundits with extremist elements very much substantiate the mindset of media mongers in spreading violence. Whatever the objectivity of media was, it proved fatal for the already suffering society of Pakistan.

  4. ’یہ قاتل میڈیا ہے‘
    آخری وقت اشاعت: پير 10 جنوری 2011 ,‭ 16:39 GMT 21:39 PST

    سلمان تاثیر کے قتل اور میڈیا میں ان کے قاتل کی کوریج پر سینیئر صحافی اور ایکسپریس اخبار کے ایڈیٹر عباس اطہر سے گفتگو

  5. Jang Group Intentionally Maligns Saudi Arabia & Nawaz Sharif through ONLINE. http://chagataikhan.blogspot.com/2011/03/jang-group-intentionally-maligns-saudi.html

  6. Jang Group says that Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered by US CIA:) then why didn’t the JUI (F) Stood in silent for Bhatti in National Assembly – Jang Group is paving the way to hide the Murderer Mullahs behind cock and bull story of CIA – Taliban say they did it but agencies also looking at Xe, RAW – By Shakeel Anjum Friday, March 04, 2011 http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=4380&Cat=13&dt=3/4/2011

    Could this Jang Group justify its campaign Aman Ki Asha with RAW’s parent country

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