Sunday, September 19, 2010

Media and the middle class in Pakistan

Media and the middle class in Pakistan

Since the lawyers’ movement, media, judiciary and so-called civil society, representing the urban educated middle class, are complementing each other in promoting particular ethno-religious and political interests besides promoting the state ideology or at least the ideology of some sections of the society sponsored and patronized by the state based on jingoism, xenophobia, sectarianism, hatred and exclusion

“The media are the methods of mass communication and entertainment which have developed into vital political forces…At the same time there has grown serious concern that such media can themselves be methods of social control, and political influence.”
(The Penguin Dictionary of Politics)

Social researchers and scholars point out that the mainstream media typically skew their portrayals of economic classes towards the middle and upper classes, with all their privileges. They rarely represent the interests or perspectives of working-class women and men.

Richard Butsch, in his article "Ralph, Fred, Archie and Homer: Why Television Keeps Recreating the White Male Working-Class Buffoon," notes that the entertainment media tend to exaggerate affluence, and under-represent working-class men and women. Working wives in television series tend to be middle class women in pursuit of careers. Depictions of working class wives are rare. Working-class men tend to be shown as immature, irresponsible, and requiring the supervision of their "betters."

In her article "The Silenced Majority," Barbara Ehrenreich writes that the US media rarely represent the interests or experiences of working class women and men. In news and current affairs programming, the "experts" who discuss issues affecting the working classes are often white, professional, middle class men. News and information media also express biases against working-class interests: A survey conducted by City University of New York found that in two years of PBS prime-time programming, 27 hours addressed the concerns and lives of the working classes - compared with 253 hours that focused on the upper classes. The Institute for Alternative Journalism, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has reported on the negative or non-existent coverage of union activities and labour strikes in the mainstream news.

Media in Pakistan, particularly newly emerged TV news and entertainment channels, as a protégé of Western corporate media, while following the Western media’s capitalist values, have assumed the role of harbinger of neo-corporatism wherein business sector and multi-national firms have now entered into a very close alliance with the state especially the army and other political and governmental institutions under its control.

Theoretically, journalism is supposed to provide a quality of information, and a wide range of perspectives and voices, to promote participation in public discussion. But, with every passing day, journalism is more and more driven by market and commercial interests rather than an ethic of public service. More and more people are concluding that dominant, agenda-setting, mainstream media are a key obstacle to progressive social change.

Media have, in many ways, become a part of power structure and is positioned to exploit its enormous influence to advance both its own agenda and those of its state-business allies. The great mass of people i.e. workers, peasants, artistes, teachers, students etc. has minimal say on the major public issues of the day thus creating deprivation among them. One can hardly find meeting point between media and mass resistance movements. Though, the movements launched by middle class, as the lawyers’ movement in 2009, are published and telecast enthusiastically.

Mr Farooq Sulehria, in his comments on SPN blog last year, very rightly observed that like many previous years, the May Day (2009) got hardly any mention in the print media. Similarly, a superficial coverage of the May Day activities in newspapers is lacking substance, knowledge and professionalism. “Only Dawn ran an op-ed piece on May Day. The News, Daily Times and The Nation op-ed pages simply ignored the workers’ day.

Among Urdu-language newspapers, only Express covered May Day (a routine-news item but to its credit on front page). It also editorialised May Day. Jang and Nawai Waqt simply ignored it. With an exception of Dawn, no newspaper has, it seems, covered global events (at least in their online editions)…And as usual the poor worker (Mazdoor) appearing in these newspapers is either Construction Worker (RajMistri), Vendor (Chabri Wallah, Rehri wahla), or Transport Worker (Tangaban, Rickshaw driver, buss conductors etc).”

One blogger, Mr Asim, wrote on June 3, 2009, “I would like to dispel one false sense here among the professionals in Pakistan that earn more than Rs. 500,000 (annually) work in air conditioned offices, communicate in English and have working lunches in McDonald, KFC etc. They think they are not 'working class' i.e. most of them align themselves not with the 'labor - that works with their hands in factories' but like to ape their bosses and owners of the MNC's in which they work. Thus they align themselves with the ruling class in their attitudes, likes, dislikes, demeanour etc.”

The new emerging power centers in Pakistan namely judiciary, media and urban middle class are working closely to maintain status quo in the country. Since the lawyers’ movement, media, judiciary and so-called civil society, representing the urban educated middle class, are complementing each other in promoting particular ethno-religious and political interests besides promoting the state ideology or at least the ideology of some sections of the society sponsored and patronized by the state based on jingoism, xenophobia, sectarianism, hatred and exclusion.

Intriguingly, the worthy judges’ observations, and sometimes the judges’ discourse, make headlines in the media and so-called “investigative stories” filed by particular media persons provide the material for suo moto action for the superior courts. From NRO to fake degrees and corruption scandals targeting civilian political class are glaring examples of the supply wanted by one another. Is this not surprising that the Supreme Court or high courts did not take notice of some news channels ridiculing and humiliating unabatedly constitutional institutions and persons duly elected by the people to constitutional offices including the head of the state for many months? President Asif Ali Zardari has been constitutionally elected securing more than two-third votes in the parliament and more than 95 percent votes from the three provincial assemblies of Sindh, Balochistan and the then NWFP.

Agha Haider Raza, in his article “Our Middle Class” published in The News on 18 February, 2010, says, “The ballooning electronic media facilitated the born-again variety of a middle-class conservatism by adding another batch of religious talking heads. These figures ideologically and commercially cater well to the bourgeoisie's zeal and political leanings…but the interesting thing is that this time round this initiative is largely cut off from the country's mainstream political parties, and has taken the shape of electronic lobbying (blogs, SMS, emails, etc.). What is even more interesting is that though these cyber and TV lobbies are portraying themselves as an alternative movement, these foyers are mostly riddled with a fusion of convoluted leaps of logic, a knee-jerk attitude and a conservative ideological mindset that was actually constructed by the 'establishment' and politico-religious parties of Pakistan decades ago. Consequently, what we have at hand as urban middle-class 'activists' are actually figurative sheep (single-filed mobs). Now many have also grown fangs of the retro-reactionary-revolutionary variety.”

He further says that unless this section of the middle class decides to work within the mainstream political edifice of Pakistan and participate in the evolving democratic apparatus, instead of being repulsed by it, it will remain an irritant, having only a nuisance value. At best it can become the harbinger of a TV lounge revolution, and nothing beyond.

Amazingly, Rafia Zakria, in her article “Wooing the Middle Class” published in Dawn on November 18, 2009, suggests, “If America is to woo Pakistanis it must focus its energies on the Pakistani middle class. If there is one crucial mistake in the current American plan to woo Pakistanis it is the failure to recognise the Pakistani middle class as the target audience towards which any campaign must be directed...Furthermore, given that the public consumption of news and information is a staple of the Pakistani middle class, investment in media is an ideal avenue…Such investments would refocus American rhetoric from its current single-minded focus on Al Qaeda and the Taliban towards substantive support for those already on the cultural, economic and ideological front lines.”

In a letter to the editor published in Dawn on August 19, 2009, one M. Jalal Awan from Sargodha, a town in central Punjab, comments that surfing the plethora of private TV channels that have spawned like bunny rabbits over the past decade, one notices a striking lack of maturity and objective reporting by most of them. TV show anchors and talk-show hosts with the most bizarre lingo come up with strange logics and meander endlessly over any topic under the sun alluding a confidence that is typical only of a road-side rambler. They fool the public 24/7 with spicy stories and half-baked truths, stirred with their own expert opinion for good measure.

The contents of news stories, columns, articles occupying daily larger part of the space and time in print and electronic media in Pakistan comprise rumours, speculations and predictions about powerful groups vying for power in the state and society. As far as business interests of media houses are concerned, even a political story is entirely a business story—in the sense it enhances the rating when anchor succeeds in making a talk show a wrestling bout. It also serves making a political action meaningless as politicians depend more and more on media than their constituency and voters. Then, there is no wonder that the great mass of the people represent only 5% of the coverage.

Mazhar Arif is a senior journalist, media critic, researcher, writer and people’s rights activist presently working as Executive Director, Society for Alternative Media and Research (SAMAR), an organization seeking space for voices of the voiceless in the media and engaged with promoting media literacy to enable readers, viewers and listeners to understand and analyze media contents.

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