How TV Dupes Our Public
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
September 27, 2014
IF today, with remote in hand, you randomly
flip through channels on your TV, or browse through nearly two dozen online
newspapers, you will see video clips or photos of Pakistan Air Force jets
pounding targets in North Waziristan, artillery firing into the mountains, or,
perhaps, some other celebration of Operation Zarb-i-Azb. But hang on! You rub
your eyes. Our jets bombing Islamic fighters within the territory of this
For 10 years after 9/11, Pakistanis had
lived in a delusionary bubble. A majority had been brainwashed into believing
that terrorism in Pakistan was the work of some “foreign hand”. So, even when
various militant groups angry at Pakistan proudly claimed suicide missions
against military and civilian targets, they were ignored. No Muslim could kill
another Muslim, was then the prevailing logic. Surely Pakistan’s eternal
enemies — India, Israel, America, or maybe even Afghanistan and Iran — were
The foreign hand myth was nurtured by
overpaid and wilfully ignorant TV anchors, together with their chattering
guests, to the point where it became the only truth in town. Their invited
guests such as retired Gen Hamid Gul, his son Abdullah Gul, and numerous
cohorts confidently pronounced that suicide bombers were uncircumcised
non-Muslim agents of foreign powers. None had inspected the leftover meat.
The foreign hand myth was nurtured by
overpaid and wilfully ignorant TV anchors.
Memories may be short, but readers may also
recall the televised harangues of public figures ranging from comedian-minister
Rehman Malik to cricketer-demagogue Imran Khan. America was then the only
terrorist in the world. So, when Taliban supremo Hakeemullah Mehsud was killed
by a Hellfire missile in November 2013, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar raged
furiously while Cricketer Khan suffered a near apoplectic fit. That Mr Mehsud
had declared war upon the Pakistani state and personally decapitated Pakistani
soldiers mattered to neither.
And then, poof, it all changed! Along came
Zarb-i-Azb. Suddenly the foreign hand disappeared. Suddenly it turned out that
the real enemy was the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Suddenly the nauseating daily
appearances of its supporters vanished from millions of TV screens. Suddenly
popular TV anchors could not remember what they had been saying for months and
years. Suddenly no one, including anguished Cricketer Khan of anti-drone fame,
could see the still circling (as of three days ago) drones in our skies.
A new consensus is now in place.
Manufactured to suit new conditions, it forced terrorist supporters off TV
screens. But how did it happen and who ordered it? If this was a scripted
change, who wrote it?
I do not think a simple answer exists, or
that the change could simply have been ordered from above. The ISI/army’s
psy-op against the TTP may have been helped by the arrival of a new and bolder
army chief. But the full story is surely more complicated.
No military has the strength to create a
national consensus by itself. Even during the Third Reich, where the Nazis
could coerce and terrorise at will, they knew a plain diktat could not work on
the entire German nation. Therefore propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels
demanded that his 3,000 full-time subordinates at the Ministry of Popular
Enlightenment and Propaganda submit, with full evidence, detailed reports about
the mood of the German people. The Führer would watch anxiously, and then
decide if the price of food could be raised.
Pakistan’s army is powerful but nowhere as
powerful. Its ability to influence popular opinion is limited. Those who think
otherwise should revisit the years around 2004 when it was exceedingly
unpopular. Soldiers killed in battle in Fata would not even receive proper
burial rites because village imams refused to perform their funeral prayers. They
were not called, as today, Shaheeds.
So what explains Pakistan’s mood swing and
the media’s new tune? Hopefully someday someone will write a PhD thesis on
this. Meanwhile, some insight can be gained from a seminal book, Manufacturing
Consent, which explains how American public opinion is shaped to suit the needs
of the American establishment. Authored by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, it
provides an analytical framework exposing the basic institutional structures
and relationships within which the US media operates. Examining case after
case, the writers reveal how the media serve, and propagandise on behalf of, the
powerful societal and corporate interests that control and finance them.
The search for profits, as in the US, also
drives Pakistan’s TV channels. But, the difference is that the Pakistani
establishment is badly fractured from within and so its directives are often
contradictory. Therefore, released from all regulation as well as ethical
pressures, private channels freely exploit social pathologies while suspending
conscience and good sense.
This is exemplified by how they dealt with
terrorism until recently. Few channels condemned atrocities that, at one point,
were a daily occurrence. Moreover, they aided and abetted terrorism by
conferring respectability upon terrorists. For example, until recently the correct
Urdu word for terrorist — ‘Dahshatgard’ — was not used on television
channels. Instead, linguistically unjustified and watered-down equivalents like
‘Askariat-Pasand’ and ‘Intiha-Pasand’ were invented.
Ratings-hungry TV channels eventually
brought catastrophe to Pakistan. Their popular anchors gave space and sympathy
to murderers and terrorists, and broadcast every lie, rumour, and idiocy that
could sell. You just have to mentally flip through some sickening images of
past years: one stood outside Lal Masjid echoing the calls of the
insurrectionists; another gloated over the Mumbai massacre; a female anchor
seemingly instigated governor Salmaan Taseer’s murder; a fourth justified
Malala Yousafzai’s shooting.
Although the flirtation of Pakistan’s
private TV channels with terrorists is over for the time being, their mischief
continues. For five weeks almost all channels have been giving 24/7 coverage to
protests which otherwise would have long fizzled. This effectively gifts
billions of rupees of advertising time to an aggrieved loser of the 2013 elections,
and a mysterious cleric with an unknown agenda. Worse, by broadcasting — in
fact, showcasing — the abusive language used by Cricketer Khan in attacking his
opponents, the ‘free media’ reduces the quantum of civility in Pakistan every
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.