Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

When journalists can become assassins, Daily Times, 15/12/12

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OVER A COFFEE : When journalists can become assassins — Dr Haider Shah

Nowhere in the world has one seen TV stations running malicious campaigns against national politicians on a round the clock basis

She was found dead in her room
at staff accommodation near the Edward VII Hospital in Central London where she had worked as a nurse for four years. Jacintha Saldanha, a loving mother of two, is believed to have committed suicide by hanging herself after the Indian-born nurse was duped by Aussie radio stars pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. What the radio pranksters believed to be their journalistic scoop ended up as a shot that put a working woman down. The case is still under investigation and the questionable role of the hospital administration after the incident may have contributed to the fatal decision by the wretched health worker. The incident, however, has renewed the calls for greater scrutiny of the conduct of journalists. The unfettered obsession to improve their radio station’s ratings by faking a call to get confidential and private information about the health of pregnant Princess Kate Middleton has caused so much anguish that the two radio presenters are now put in a safe house for their own security.

The tragic incident occurred while the Leveson report was still piping hot in the British media. Established in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, Leveson’s commission recommended a tougher regulatory regime for the print media after an eight-month long inquiry to examine the culture, practice and ethics of the press. The commission concluded that since press behaviour at times had been ‘outrageous’, a new self-regulating body was needed that should be independent of serving editors, government and business interests. Prime Minister (PM) David Cameron expressed his hesitation to use statutory law for establishing the regulatory body recommended by Leveson though he backed the essence of Leveson’s recommendation. The British PM advocates giving the print media a “limited period of time” to put a new and tougher self-regulatory system in place. His coalition partner, Deputy PM Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition leader Ed Miliband both disagree with the hesitant PM and have called for implementation of all recommendations so that the print media could be made answerable to a regulating body with some teeth.

It is worth mentioning that in Britain, Ofcom is a powerful regulator for the broadcast media but the press is self-regulated voluntarily through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The chairman of the PCC, Lord Hunt, also backs the Leveson commission’s recommendation for a “fresh start and a new body” based on legally-enforceable contracts between publishers and the new body. The Free Speech Network, on the other hand, representing the voice of editors and publishers, is against any state involvement in regulation of the print media. Challenging their view, the alleged victims of phone-hacking have launched the Hacked Off campaign and are calling for implementation of the Leveson proposals as, they contend, the voluntary self-regulation through PCC had completely failed.

In the US, the investigative journalism-led Muckrakerism movement in the early 20th century is often credited with exposing corruption and arousing social concerns about much needed reform. Pakistani media has also played an important role in sensitising public opinion on many issues of public interest. The media is not a monolithic institution and unfortunately, it has some sections that play the part of Mr Hyde. The hoax call that triggered the suicide incident and the Leveson report have a direct relevance for Pakistan as well because over the past decade, electronic media has grown in size and power and its teeth have become menacingly sharp.

There are some very good professional analysts in the popular media, but the mushrooming industry of TV talk shows has gradually grown disproportionately too big. Run as cash cows, the shows appear to be driven by the profitability motive of private media houses. This is clearly noticeable from infinite commercial breaks during a talk show. Comparing to talk shows on British TV, one finds the hosts to be highly qualified and experienced journalists. The analysts invited in British programmes are also renowned experts in their fields, either university professors or people from the relevant industry. In our case, every channel telecasts almost a dozen talk shows in a week. The problem of overtrading is obvious, with its well-recognised consequences. The small market has a finite demand so the pressure for enlarging market share becomes crushingly obsessive. The hosts appear to be conducting the programme without any homework and the frequently appearing participants have become boringly predictable in their comments. The unruly incidents of mudslinging are broadcast unethically to create an artificial demand for such shows.

Lack of respect shown to privacy of individuals still plagues the whole media industry. Victims of crimes, whether lying wounded in the street or on a hospital bed, are shown indiscriminately in a mad race for breaking news. The excessive use of satirical comedy is becoming quite distasteful. While exposing corrupt practices and maladministration is a role that the media must pursue without any fear, it has failed to distinguish between humour and license to ridicule individuals. Nowhere in the world has one seen TV stations running malicious campaigns against national politicians on a round the clock basis. Sugar and salt, when used in small quantities add taste to our food items, but when excessively used they threaten our lives. Our TV channels seem to have forgotten this realisation when it uses comedy to lure the viewers. As media has so far failed to come up with a self-policing system, calls for a tougher regulatory authority are not wholly unreasonable.

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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