Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Paying For The News

Much has been made about the impact of Bradley Manning’s Wikileaks and the implications of its revelations for governments, diplomats and armies around the world. The release of several documents and videos exposing the stark contrast between the private and public functioning of institutions has been a deeply embarrassing affair for all involved. However, the one faction that has perhaps been most damningly indicted by the expose and its aftermath is the news media.
Essentially, it showed that in both Afghanistan and Iraq, journalists had been caught napping, and had been unable to get their hands on even a fraction of what Wikileaks was able to expose. The fact that the new records showed 15000 previously unreported civilians deaths in Iraq should have come as an embarrassment to the news media. It means 15000 civilian deaths escaped the collective notice of their dedicated newshounds covering the war in Iraq. This further suggests that either the news media is pathetically ill-equipped to do its job of acting as a watchdog, or is not as fiercely independent as one may like to think.
Allow me, now, to take a bit of a leap and suggest that major news corporations are not independent. I might come into conflict with a few, but I think most people agree that even the most seemingly balanced of news corporations are, at some level, engaging in a certain level of propaganda. They act as mouthpieces to voice a certain viewpoint, and are less than generous in airing conflicting viewpoints.
These viewpoints may be guided by ideology, nationalism or perceived social welfare. But one major reason a news outlet may choose to spin its news is quite simply financial. Specifically, news channels are, at least to some extent, beholden to whoever is paying them. This threat to the independence of the news is a complex problem and has been around for a long time.
In the book Compulsive Viewing, about his life in Australian television, Gerald Stone marks the 16th of August 1974 as the day of independence for Australian television news. This day became notorious for something that didn’t happen, rather than what did.
A joint committee of the Australian senate had tabled a report which accused soap producing giants Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever of misleading advertising as well as using their collective eighty per cent market share to maintain profits at an unreasonably high level, and recommended that they cut back both their claims and their profits. All three of the major commercial television channels in Sydney failed to report this. Two days later, a program called Media Watch on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation called them all out on this, suggesting that television executives had leaned on their newsrooms to steer clear of the story in order not to offend their sponsors. These accusations resulted in an inquiry by the Australian Broadcast Control Board which gave birth to what he calls the ‘journalistic magna carta’. Essentially, the board threatened to revoke the licenses of any news channels found guilty of suppressing news. The result was the emancipation of the newsroom from executive financial interests. Obviously, the act could never be objectively complete, but the precedent was set.
This brings us home, to the fast-burgeoning and now rampant news media in Pakistan. From the obvious rating-chasing, sensationalist, caution to the wind attitude of our news outlets, it is fairly apparent that these channels have little to fear in the way of government regulation. Quite apart from stories of journalists being up for sale, and the general rumours of corruption that surround almost all facets of our lives – the Mubashir Luqmans and Mehr Bokharis, the Aamir Liaqats and so on, who seem to emerge from each scandal unabashed and unscathed, there is another angle that needs close examination. The Mubashir Luqman/Malik Riaz incident was a glaring example of a businessman using the news media to further a personal agenda. It was highly publicised and vociferously condemned on all channels (well, almost) as being against all journalistic ethics.
However, more recently a much more alarming accusation has been made against the Pakistani media by Usman Peerzada. The by now famous falling out between the Rafi Peer group and USAID consisted of USAID publicly accusing the Rafi Peer group of financial mismanagement and cancelling their association with the group over the production of a local version of Sesame Street. Obviously, it is not possible to comment on the veracity of these allegations, but the ensuing counter-allegation made by Usman Peerzada is that their side of the story was quashed because several news channels are heavily reliant on USAID for funding and could not afford to go against them. He points to the failure of any news channel to air three separate press-conferences held in three different cities, and attended by representatives from these channels.
This is no small accusation. It suggests that local political and commercial interests are not the only ones controlling the media, and consequently influencing public opinion – foreign governments are at it as well, and are perhaps more adept at doing so than anyone else.
While Peerzada’s accusation is serious, it is not entirely shocking. First Geo, and now Express News have been happily giving Voice of America time on their channels for years now. The fact that Voice of America is the mouthpiece of the US government and is cited in the Wikipedia article on Psychological Operations by the United States as an example of White PSYOPS (which is factual and official and meant for foreign audiences only) is not too troublesome. Most of the content of this programming has been generally harmless, but what are the sums of money involved in the deal, and what influence does it allow them to yield at these places?
There have long been reports of the US government flooding money into Pakistani media outlets, such as the clip from Russia Today that’s being doing the rounds declaring Obama’s 50 million dollar “PR move”. This was followed by news that journalists at Express and Dunya News were drawing salaries from a Non-Profit organisation that in turn received funding from the State Department. When this story was highlighted, and their failure to disclose questioned, officials on both sides downplayed the oversight.
Incidentally, the US is quite obviously not the only one who has some interest in getting a foothold into Pakistani media. Radio Pakistan also has a number of hours dedicated to Chinese broadcasts.
Recently, of course, perhaps unsatisfied by their success with the media so far, or simply to fortify it, USAID has stepped up their ad campaign. It started with a somewhat disappointing photo exhibition that toured the country. I had hoped to find someone to explain their work, or at least some literature about USAID, instead it was photographs of various institutions in Pakistan they had helped out, without much detail. Everything that was already up on their website in slide show form as an ad for the exhibition!
The most recent step of course is the ‘Roshan Pakistan’ ad campaign that nobody in Pakistan can escape. It’s on news websites and the ads on television showing the very common sight of Americans sitting at roadside hotels watching cricket matches with the locals!
According to the USAID website, “U.S. foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America's interests while improving lives in the developing world. USAID carries out U.S. foreign policy by promoting broad-scale human progress at the same time it expands stable, free societies, creates markets and trade partners for the United States, and fosters good will abroad.”
-A useful and, no doubt, noble marriage of purposes. But it is not necessary that both will always go hand in hand. On occasion, the objectives of US foreign policy and the interests of the Pakistani people will diverge, and it is at these points that a strong US influence on Pakistani media outlets may prove to be most troublesome for the Pakistani government and its institutions. Similar is the case for other foreign involvement in local news media.
Of course, it could all be a drop in the ocean. One of the reasons Gerald Stone cites for greater independence in the newsroom in recent times is the greater availability of sponsorships. If one sponsor threatens to pull funding, they can always move to another. It may be the case that this is the situation in Pakistan too, that USAID funding of news media is not significant enough for it to wield influence. In any case, Peerzada’s accusations warrant at least an investigation into the sources of funding for all major new organisations as well as the structure of their relationship with their donors.

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