OVER A COFFEE: Muckrakery and perception management —Dr Haider Shah
A good example of perception management can be found in the living legend of Nelson Mandela. Even though he is the symbol of the South African struggle against apartheid and of the new nation, he stepped down from the presidency to help in institution building instead of cult following
Ever since the media in Pakistan started showing its newly developed teeth, we have seen a steady rise in the list of complainants. Ironically, the benefactor, General Musharraf, was the first victim of his own creation — the electronic media. Then came the turn of the Zardari-led government, which has not been very successful in overcoming credibility problems despite being a legitimate government. After a few recent embarrassing episodes, the security establishment has also joined the queue of whiners charging the media of a smear campaign against national institutions on the behest of ‘anti-state’ elements.
Disgruntled victims of media coverage often react by charging the media of yellow journalism. But when investigative and bold journalism results in the unmasking of a corruption-ridden institution or brings a serious issue to the attention of the national conscience, the correct label is ‘muckrakery’ — a name given to the early 20th century movement in the US, which helped in making corruption and injustice major public policy issues. Writing in popular magazines and newspapers, many muckraker journalists unearthed institutionalised corrupt systems with the help of sensational reporting. The term ‘muckraker’ was popularised by President Roosevelt who referred to these determined reformist journalists by citing a character from Pilgrim’s Progress who had rejected a crown for his muckrake to focus on filth. Unlike both yellow and objective journalists, the muckrakers were imbued with the spirit of reformation and political action and used journalism to make corruption and injustice mainstream issues of public discourse. Their relentless work helped a lot in cleaning the US’s public life from rampant corruption in both public and private sector organisations
The media is not a monolithic organisation. It has people representing various viewpoints, political agendas and vested interests. While Pakistani muckrakers are doing excellent work on the social reform campaign side, there are many others who have used their writings and electronic media coverage to radicalise our general population. They keep pouring oil over the raging flames of jihadi extremism. The government has to therefore listen to two kinds of voices: one coming from genuine muckrakers, and the second from noisy jihadi journalists or analysts. While the latter can be ignored, as they are practically unhappy with all governments, it is the disapproval of the former that should be taken seriously by any popularly elected government. This takes us to the importance of perception management for good governance.
Accountability is sometimes defined as managing expectations well. In public life, perceptions are often more powerful than reality. No political party can therefore remain oblivious to popular perceptions. They take steps to dispel a negative perception or enhance a positive one. For instance, when Sonia Gandhi was requested to become the Congress leader after the party needed an electoral boost in 1997-98, the BJP led anti-Congress forces initiated a campaign targeting her Italian origins. As a good public perceptions management move, Sonia did not assume the office of prime minister or president even though her party won the election under her leadership, and instead chose Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. In 2006, Mrs Jaya Bachchan was disqualified from parliament on account of holding an office of profit. Her supporters accused Sonia of double standards as it was claimed that she also held an office of profit because she was the president of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Sonia first tried to defend her position but when she felt that public perception was not favourable, she resigned as an MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) and after relinquishing her chairpersonship of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, she got herself re-elected in the by-election to manage the negative perception. In the UK, in 2004, the then British Home Secretary, David Blunkett, resigned, stating that questions about his honesty were damaging the government after reports emerged that he had asked for expeditious disposal of a nanny’s visa application. Another good example of perception management can be found in the living legend of Nelson Mandela. Even though he is the symbol of the South African struggle against apartheid and of the new nation, he stepped down from the presidency to help in institution building instead of cult following.
In Pakistan, we see that, of late, many organisations have become sensitive to public perceptions and approval ratings. For instance, recently, the Supreme Court (SC) recommended an extension of Justice Ramday’s appointment. Despite Justice Ramday’s good reputation, the move was widely criticised and the SC judges were gracious enough not to press upon a move that carried a negative perception. Similarly, when the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution against the media in the wake of the fake degrees coverage, universal condemnation followed. As a part of perception management, the PML-N leadership was sensible enough to retract the step in humility. Unfortunately, the same kind of sensitivity to public perceptions is conspicuously missing on the part of the PPP-led government. It is no secret that Mr Zardari carries a negative perception of corruption since the Benazir days, not only in the national but also in the international media. As a part of perception management, like Sonia Gandhi, he could have appointed a PPP leader with a cleaner image like Manmohan Singh as the prime minister and president and himself remained the party leader. This would have dispelled the perception that he was obsessed with clinging to power to safeguard his dubious financial dealings. Appointments of individuals with questionable integrity to key positions also have not helped in dispelling the negative perception associated with his personality. If today muckrakers are relentlessly after him, it is proof of the poor perceptions management policy of the government.
In this glittering age of social networking and a fiercely independent electronic media, a cunningly contrived Machiavellian governance model alone is not helpful. All institutions have to be sensitive to public perceptions and should address negative perceptions promptly and effectively. Action speaks louder than words. The perceptions management policy should therefore carry both right words and appropriate actions.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com