What Should The Media Do Now?

In the words of a social critic and a renowned journalist, it is imperative to have properly functioning media “to keep our leaders honest and to arm the powerless with the information they need to protect themselves against the tyranny of the powerful, whether that tyranny is political or commercial.”

The vital question at the moment is: What should the media do now, when a democratic process has been initiated in Pakistan thanks to a vibrant civil society and the lawyers’ movement? Should it struggle for the battle of hearts and minds of Pakistani people in promoting a democratic culture and help in the founding of truly democratic political and national institutions in the country?

The other important and interlinked questions are: How should such a thing be done? How can such a lofty political enterprise be accomplished? How do you win people’s hearts and minds? How do you counteract the ongoing tyranny of the powerful, invisible and yet present at every step of national life, historically rooted in political culture and by virtue of the societal structure? How do you constructively engage with a television media that, because of its electronic wizardry, instantly elevates modest, mortal human-beings to celebrities? How do you deal with these prominent media personalities – how do you prevent their personal “egos” from overshadowing, confusing and contradicting important national issues (for example, PJ Mir already advertises his TV program by focusing on himself interviewing several heads of state)? How do you encounter the emergence of popular mass culture and its love affair with cheap sensationalism? How do you stop the media being influenced by commercial interests (already TV commercials appear in the middle – in mid-sentence — of a PM interview and interrupt national news broadcasts)? All of these issues are real, massive and increasingly important – that is, if we as a nation wish to continue on our journey as a democratic civilized society to an enlightened future (but definitely not to the “enlightened moderation” of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf!).

Political scientists, social critics and media theorists will give us a number of solutions and advocate several conceptual ideas to resolve issues that are implicit in situations such as ours.

The developmental media theorists call for the media and government “to work in partnership to ensure that the media assists in the planned beneficial development of the country.” Obviously, in such a partnership some kind of government regulations will have to be put strictly in place and the important role of criticism in the media will thus diminish. The advantage of such an arrangement is that the media can help support government development efforts, assist in economic development and aid society at large. However, the greatest disadvantage is the short-circuiting of the democratic process because it prioritizes government stability over democratic progress.

Another group of the social critics want the media and government to work “in concert” to ensure the beneficial development of a nation. Unfortunately, this kind of arrangement will require increasing government involvement in the operation of the media. It can result in the creation of a government supra-advisory body to guide and direct the functioning of the media. The question is: Will the media willingly submit itself to growing government intervention and surrender its absolute freedom to conduct itself the way it wishes in the context of a democratic environment? Given the history of control over the media in Pakistan and the flourishing of a democratic culture, this option seems incompatible with present trends.

The concept of democratic participant theory advocates the media reviving grass-root cultural pluralism. This, in turn, helps in the creation of innovative small media which is ideally controlled by small group members. Consequently, it results in the increased participation in media management and enhances cultural advocacy. The idea is useful in the sense that it can offset the massive influence of economic interest groups and advertising on media functioning. In such a way, the media can promote the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of a nation like Pakistan.

Can the media in Pakistan assume a role in the political system to revolutionize the political culture of this country? Perhaps this approach seems more appropriate in context of Pakistan’s democratization process – after all, without fundamental changes in the socio-political-economic structure of our society, the possibility of a leadership emerging out of a people’s consciousness and being completely focused on the masses’ welfare remains absolutely remote. What contemporary Pakistan needs is the start of a historical process in which the media changes and embraces both a revolutionary and evolutionary role – a role in which it challenges the traditional political structures and helps in the creation of an innovative national consciousness embedded in democratic norms and the accountability of the political establishment to the people.

In this sense, the media has to play a vital role in Pakistan’s future existence, survival and economic-political-cultural progress. Notwithstanding the rhetoric, is this sort of media role possible in Pakistan? Realistically speaking, it is a major challenge – nearly insurmountable given the increasing power of the forces of pure capitalism taking hold of the Pakistani economy and consequently of its electronic media in particular.

My last question is: Why is Pakistani electronic media so elitist orientated? The same generals, the same VIPs, the same politicians, and the same judges are interviewed again and again. This is an example of an opiate mentality. Isn’t it? Where are the fresh faces, the innovative ideas and the diverse platforms so cherished in a democratic set-up?

And yet we have hope – optimism that a socially, culturally and politically responsible media might conduct itself with dignity, resourcefulness and accountability to take a course towards its own evolution and hence take a leap in the direction of revolutionizing Pakistan’s politics.

Will it? Frankly I do not have an honest, definite answer for you. We have lived in murky waters for too long – we have been accustomed to mental slavery and power control – instantly breaking away seems difficult…

And yet, human behavior is unpredictable…!

Dr. Haider Mehdi writes from Pakistan. He can be contacted at: hl_mehdi@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Haider.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. D. R. Munro said on April 17th, 2008 at 5:46am #

    What should the media do now?

    Self-destruct. If there was an real desire for real change in the media, it would not be allowed to owned and controlled by a handful of billionaires and corporations.

  2. hp said on April 17th, 2008 at 8:02am #

    This is the media.

  3. Hatuxka said on April 17th, 2008 at 10:15am #

    here in the U.S. we get as commentators “the usual suspects”, David Gergen, David Gergen, and David Gergen, you know, people like that who are considered wise men whose advice, Repub right wing presidents and Democrat right wing presidents have relied on to make our country what is today

  4. Sunil Sharma said on April 17th, 2008 at 10:15am #

    I think DR means mainstream media. We here at DV try to avoid the self-destruction thing . . . doesn’t always work but we try.

  5. D. R. Munro said on April 17th, 2008 at 4:45pm #

    Yeah, I should have clarified, I did mean the mainstream media, the media that most people see.

    Yeah, we should try and avoid the self-destruction thing here.

  6. Don Hawkins said on April 17th, 2008 at 5:58pm #

    This is the media.

  7. D. R. Munro said on April 18th, 2008 at 6:26am #

    Is there an echo in here?

  8. Don Hawkins said on April 18th, 2008 at 10:34am #

    Farmer John comes to Echo
    John: Echo, where are you!?
    Echo: Are you, are you!?
    John: C’mon, get out!
    Echo: Get out, get out! [after a moment] Can’t you hear I’m here?
    John: I’m here, I’m here?

    Google is a wonderful thing you just have to know here to look.