Sometime in 2011 a popular anchor of state-run PTV channel invite me to his primetime talk show. I had by that time taken a personal decision not to appear in these shows. But the anchor thought I refused because of PTV being perceived as a channel that did not allow free and frank comments and opinions. To make his case, he started assuring me that I could say anything I wanted in his hour-long program discussing politics without the fear of being edited. He said: “My show is broadcast live. We’re these days more liberal than most our competitors.” I still politely refused.
Live shows on dozens of current affairs TV channels in Pakistan are overwhelmingly now considered by the country’s media to be a sign of authenticity and reliability and that being live is somehow considered making the speakers more trustworthy. This is debatable. Sometimes pre-recorded shows are much more sensible and adhering to one’s editorial policy. My concern is that in live shows one tends to lose editorial control and the participants can take unfair liberties. A good example is the verbal brawl between a famous anchor/analyst and a guest politician on an Urdu-language channel. Both kept on abusing each other with free flowing foul language but the host failed to intervene. The result was ten minutes of sheer un-needed abuse. Had it been a pre-recorded interview, these ten minutes could have been easily cut out to give this space to more concrete and to-the-point discussion.
I’m sure most TV anchorpersons would tend to disagree that editorial controls can be compromised to serious levels. They might well argue that they are exposing people who don’t know how to behave on a national channel in front of an audience. But through this argument they seem to be foregoing their primary responsibility of bringing decent and ethical programs to their viewers. Yet others argue that viewers love a spectacle and conflict and hype is good for ratings. But my argument is that if ratings alone are a criteria, why not do extreme sports, dare shows? And by that argument should porn be allowed just because it would draw large audiences? The only way to deal with indecent behavior and sweeping and unqualified statements on current affairs shows is to edit them out. This would require recorded programs or live programs with significant delay mechanisms to filter out abuse and incendiary language.
Journalists in Pakistan have been under threat for decades. The mushroom growth in media has also unfortunately resulted in evolution of threats to media in different shapes and sizes. Some analysts argue that the attack on a popular TV anchor Hamid Mir in 2014 could have to do with some of his shows and his position on certain subjects but others argue that he assumed unnecessary risk through his presentation persistence on some issues. Sometimes in the rush of things some cross danger lines without realizing it – in a live environment there is a greater risk of inadvertently doing so. The attack on Hamid, as well as some other cases related to journalists’ security have more than adequately highlighted the pitfalls of live programming on Pakistani TV channels. This problem is not limited to Pakistan but other countries suffer from it too.
A seasoned journalist, Imtiaz Gul, wrote a piece recently on the problems of live TV in India. He said war lobbies in both India and Pakistan continuously focus on the issues that prevent reconciliation, and the media happily stokes differences. “A recent appearance in a live debate on one of the prime Indian channels made me wonder whether such militant attitudes can help in peacebuilding at all?” Gul said. He gave the example of Arnab Goswami, the host of one of Times Now’s popular talk shows, wherein he seemed bent upon demolishing the offer that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made two days after his election victory, adding that the media assumes the role of a conflict-stoker, instead of peace-promoter in the region. He ended his piece on the words of Senator Hogg, “The media is not a law onto itself … while they demand responsibility and accountability of the government, and they must subject themselves to the principles of accountability and responsibility.”
I think the media in Pakistan needs to start thinking about the content they generate and ways of dealing with the heightened burden of responsibility that live coverage binds media managers with. There needs to be a frank debate as to which content should be allowed live and which should be pre-recorded. A balance should be agreed upon to avoid further damages to the overall credibly of the media. There is no harm in a healthy debate amongst media practitioners about how to deal with the serious challenges related to live coverage so that the requisites of professionalisms can also be satisfied.
The author is a seasoned media practitioner and analyst based in Islamabad.
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