Earlier this month when he addressed students at Hampton University President Barack Obama said that the 24/7 media environment “bombards” people with all kinds of content some of which doesn’t always “rank that high on the truth meter”.
He then went on to hold new technology including iPods and PlayStations responsible for serving up information that “becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment rather than a tool of empowerment (or) a means of emancipation.” This he said was putting new strains on people and democracy.
Obama is not the first leader to voice concern about the new forms of media. Just before he stepped down as Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair famously described a media transformed by technology and the pressures of the 24/7 news cycle as driven more by “impact” than accuracy, because impact gives competitive edge. He also said that the media mixed views with news and blurred the line between opinion and fact. Fierce competition made the modern media “hunt in a pack” because of the fear of “missing out”.
Blair drew fire from the British media, just as President Obama’s remarks were portrayed as a rant against technology by, among others, The Economist. The magazine described the distinction he drew between good information (that empowered) and bad (of the misleading or distracting variety) as false.
This, of course, will not end the debate across the world on aspects of the media: whether its newer forms help or hinder democracy, empower or distract people, educate or mislead the public, encourage sensationalism instead of balance and promote cynicism rather than confidence in the political process. Blair, for example, said what troubled him most was the media’s problematic relationship with public life, which he characterised as sapping “the country’s confidence and self-belief” and undermining the leadership’s capacity to take the right decisions.
This critique may well have been a wounded politician’s swipe at a media that had so ferociously attacked his policies. But they nevertheless raised important questions – as do Obama’s comments – about the role of the media and its relationship with politics and governance.
These questions are particularly pertinent in Pakistan where the new media is both loved and lamented (depending on the vantage point of the person and proximity to power); lionised and castigated; sometimes regarded as indispensable to enhance democratic accountability, while at other times depicted as a partisan and a purveyor of scandal, paranoia and conspiracy theory.
Certainly the tendency of some in the broadcast media to present politics as theatre or entertainment devalues the political process and lowers the level of debate. By making even the significant so mundane it also ends up wounded by its own weapon.
On balance however, the net impact of Pakistan’s new media has been positive. It has animated public life and political debate, enabled greater citizen participation, provided a voice to the weak and powerless and a platform to those seeking redress for injustice. It has performed the three key tasks of an independent media reasonably well: as watchdog, agenda-setter and gatekeeper of the public space for debate and discussion.
Its dominating presence today is transforming political life, governance and the dynamic between state and society in ways that are not yet fully comprehended by journalists and politicians alike given the wide ramifications of the changes it has been effecting.
But while there has been much public focus on the media’s conduct, little attention has been directed to the other end of the equation: how political leaders and government officials have been engaging with this new, more powerful and hyperactive medium.
Because the media explosion has been so fast and furious, governments, whether at the centre or in the provinces, have been unsure and faltering in responding to the challenge. Few public officials have shown the confidence or learnt the skills to harness the media in the task of governance – not of course in the sense of making it an official handmaiden, but in leveraging the media to enhance governance by being able to communicate with people across the length and breadth of the country, test ideas, mobilise public consensus for policy actions and promote well-informed and competent citizenship.
Government officials have often displayed an old-world approach, by seeking to use the media for their own public relationing rather than to communicate policy. Nor has the government yet understood how to get its message across. Staying ‘on message’ has also been hard because the government has lacked a coherent message to convey in the first place.
Officials have struggled to keep up with and react to stories or agendas set by television channels rather than take political initiatives to shape that news agenda. Chasing headlines has become common. So has an excessive craving for the constant affirmation of the cameras.
Many have been slow to recognise the peril of overexposure. That may be because the constant parading of ministers on talk shows is seen to compensate for the government’s uninspiring performance. But the outcome is quite the opposite: a surfeit of official rhetoric that serves to accentuate the deficit of policy action.
Frequent TV appearances or press conferences create the compulsion to make rich claims. This carries another risk: raising expectations that cannot be fulfilled. The repeated pledges made last year by the minister for water and power that the government would reduce even eliminate load shedding are a case in point.
Running commentaries on foreign relations have had a similar effect by raising unrealistic expectations and leaving people flummoxed when a much proclaimed upsurge in ties with a particular country is suddenly set back by a single event.
Managing foreign policy is delicate business. Portraying every diplomatic engagement as a breakthrough leaves officials in the embarrassing position of having to explain a subsequent downturn which the media then gleefully proclaims as a breakdown. The compulsion to show an ‘achievement’ after every visit impairs the serious conduct of diplomacy.
Just because a microphone is pushed in front of them doesn’t oblige political leaders to say something especially if they are not adequately prepared. Nor do they need to hold forth on matters beyond their domain. But the inability to resist offering instant responses is reflected in the contradictory pronouncements ministers frequently make on the same subject. The latest example is the defence minister’s statement speculating on an extension in the army chief’s tenure which was promptly contradicted by the prime minister.
The temptation to constantly appear on television or make headline-making remarks exposes politicians to another risk: to speak before they think. This lands them in awkward situations that they have to untangle from at an avoidable political cost. A recent example is the prime minister’s declaration on Hyderabad’s status which evoked an angry response from the MQM and forced a retreat.
Government leaders have sought around the clock coverage in the mistaken belief that this will substitute for governance. It is as if making all the right noises on television is by itself enough to ensure governance and obviates the need for action. But coverage can neither ‘produce’ governance nor substitute for it. The obsessive preoccupation with publicity can distract officials from their real responsibilities and end up exposing them as all talk and no action, creating an image of the government as one whose words resonate louder than its deeds.
What has also become a familiar part of the government’s repertoire is to roll out its combat troops to face issues raised in TV talk shows. The view that the shrillness of combative spokespersons will drown criticism overlooks the fact that it is calm and reasoned argument not angry rants that win the day on television.
It is true that engaging with a 24/7 medium poses daunting challenges for governments everywhere. But the lack of vision or governance philosophy and a paucity of professionalism make that task infinitely harder for governments that worry more about publicity than governing.
Dr Maleeha Lodhi:The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.