Sunday, September 19, 2010

Profit is primary concern for media houses: Mahir Ali

Profit is primary concern for media houses: Mahir Ali

‘Can one expect a bunch of journalists to get together, pool their resources, collect funds from sympathetic individuals, and launch a newspaper or magazine (as most of the monthly Herald's journalists did back in the '80s, when they launched Newsline)? It's not impossible’

“It sometimes seems the more channels there are, the less there is to watch,” says Mahir Ali. For the readers of Pakistan’s English press, he hardly needs an introduction. He writes a weekly column forDawn that simultaneously also appears on famous left-wing site Znet. Presently, based in Sydney he is working with The Australian. In an interview with Viewpoint, he discusses the state of Pakistani media. Read on:

Please tell us about yourself.

I was born a few months after the Ayub regime captured The Pakistan Times, so I didn't get to see my father, Mazhar Ali Khan, operating as a journalist until I was about 10, when he began writing for a Dhaka-based weekly called Forum. He subsequently served as acting editor-in-chief of Dawn for a year, before going on to found Viewpoint in 1975. My mother, Tahira Mazhar Ali, was a part-time political activist all along, primarily as an office-holder of the Democratic Women's Association.

I went to school in Lahore and attended universities in the USSR and Britain. My first proper job was as a subeditor with Dawn in Karachi, followed by a stint with The Frontier Post in Peshawar. Thereafter I spent many years at the Khaleej Times in Dubai. Since 1997, I have worked for The Australian in Sydney.

The Frontier Post (TFP) emerged as a progressive broadsheet at a time when progressive ideas were on the retreat in Pakistan. You were the TFP editor. How would you explain the rise of TFP in early 1990s?

I wasn't the TFP editor - merely the editor of its weekend magazine, a 20-page tabloid. The newspaper was edited at the time by the incredibly decent Mr. Aziz Siddiqi and the news editor was the equally experienced Mr. Hassan Musanna. The Post was easily the most progressive English-language newspaper at the time. It was never terribly clear why its owners positioned it thus. I wouldn't go as far as to describe its emergence as a rise - it was the only English daily published in Peshawar at the time (1986-87), yet The Muslim had a bigger circulation in the city.

Do you agree with the notion that journalistic standards in Pakistan have declined particularly in case of vernacular press. If yes, how would you explain this decline?

The press in Pakistan is certainly considerably freer than it used to be. It doesn't, of course, follow that journalistic standards have improved, but I'm not sure that they have declined either. I cannot say what the standards may have been like in the 1950s, but I've found them fairly low ever since I started paying attention to newspapers back in the late '60s.

In last about ten years, we have seen a mushroom growth of TV channels. There are roughly 80 TV channels. Do you think this explosion has helped expand the knowledge base?

It sometimes seems the more channels there are, the less there is to watch. What surprised me at the beginning of this explosion was the number of dedicated religious channels. The mushrooming is in some ways a positive development. There was only PTV when I was growing up, and it became more or less unwatchable during the Zia years. So, alternatives are certainly worthwhile, particularly in countries where the state channel is so tightly controlled by the government of the day. (In some countries the publicly owned channels tend to be the least biased!) But proliferation per se is hardly an advantage, not least because the loudest and most sensationalist of them are likely to be more widely watched than others. Television can certainly serve as an excellent medium for expanding the knowledge base, but only rarely has it served that purpose anywhere in the world.

I spend only a few weeks in Pakistan each year and watching TV isn't a priority during those periods, so my experience of the endless channels is very limited. But what I've seen has, by and large, been fairly unimpressive - bar the occasional discussion or documentary on Dawn TV.

Pakistan is facing economic crisis, environmental catastrophe, superstitions are rife, feudalism is holding country back, women and religious minorities are discriminated, national question is acute, workers are denied their basic rights. These issues hardly find a mention in mainstream media, particularly Urdu-language media. Your comments.

I can't say I'm terribly surprised. All forms of media are controlled by business houses, whose primary concern is to make a profit. Which is not to say they don't have a political agenda, but it's invariably a reactionary one.

A few progressive and liberal voices we hear in Pakistani media often find space in English-language media. Masses do not read or watch English-language media. In the past, one had Imroz, Lail o Nihar, Fatah, Musawat , to name a few vernacular papers. Does this mean the Pakistani progressives and liberals have been disconnected from masses?

Imroz and Lail-o-Nahar, if I'm not mistaken, were part of the Progressive Papers - whose owner, Mian Iftikharuddin, was by any standards a highly unusual media entrepreneur. Fatah and Musawat were products of the era when the PPP's progressive credentials were at least somewhat credible. They were all products of their times. That history is unlikely to be repeated. Can one expect a bunch of journalists to get together, pool their resources, collect funds from sympathetic individuals, and launch a newspaper or magazine (as most of the monthly Herald's journalists did back in the '80s, when they launched Newsline)? It's not impossible. But to make it a commercially viable proposition in these days of tight competition would be very difficult indeed.

I'll take your word for it that progressive/liberal voices find no outlet in the vernacular press. I'm not sure what that is so, but it could be based on assumptions about what their readers expect or prefer.

There is a strong impression, and for good reasons, that Pakistan media have been peddling conspiracy theories. Scientific and rational approach is almost non-existent. Also, such conspiracy theories have helped Talibanise the mass mind. Your comments.

Conspiracy theories sell newspapers/attract TV audiences. They are a cheap thrill - there's no need to investigate anything, let alone to produce evidence. Evidence to the contrary can easily be ignored - or cited as part of the conspiracy. In some cases it's probably intended to produce paranoia and to push Talibanisation, in other cases it may be unintentional.

Media in Pakistan and India have also been accused of jingoism every time there was a trouble between the two countries. How would you assess the role of media in Indo-Pak conflict?

I wouldn't say all media in the subcontinent go in for knee-jerk jingoism, but that does often seem to be the default position of most outlets. It's not unrelated to the deeply ingrained prejudices on both sides - the tendency being to pander to them rather than seeking to overcome them.

All mainstream media outlets sound the same when it comes to foreign policies, economic outlook, army, Taliban, Kashmir, etc. It is like the USA. Mainstream papers reciting from the same psalm. Only at a different pitch. Dissident voices are kept at bay. There is ‘manufactured consent’. Should we call this ‘manufacture of consent’ freedom of media?

There are subtle differences - as in the US - but the sense of manufactured consent is fairly strong. The same could probably be said about most countries.

Alternative media not merely in West even in other parts of the world playing an important role. In Iran for instance. Today, Persian is third biggest language in the cyber world. In Pakistan, activists and journalists have hardly moved beyond email lists. Web-based radio channels and televisions are unheard of. Urdu or other Pakistani languages remain an oddity in the cyber world. Your comments.

It depends on so many factors, from the level of literacy and the percentage of households with computers to reading habits. I'm sure the trend will grow, but it will take time.

Adnan Farooq did his Masters in Political Science and has worked with daily The Nation, Lahore and daily Jang, Lahore. He has also volunteered for Milieudefensie, Amsterdam. Friends of the earth, Europe, on environmental issues. He has been working with ON FILE, an Amsterdam-based publication run by journalists from all around the world. He studied Conflict Resolution at University of Amsterdam and is living in Paris. He is the editor.

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