VIEW: Power without responsibility —Lubna Ramay
Pakistan is a poor country, with an illiterate majority. The electronic media, which is a force to reckon with today, has a certain role to play. Unbiased and objective reporting is the need of the hour. People who are already ignorant must not be fed with a diet laced heavily with prejudice and lies
I remember reading this book titled Power Without Responsibility by James Curran and Jean Seaton way back in 1990. I was in Cardiff doing my post-graduation in journalism from the University of Wales. My professor Jeff Mungham, who taught editorial writing, specially asked us to read this book as part of our course. The book in brief dealt with the freedom of the print and electronic media, and the responsibility that comes with it. ‘Free’ print and electronic media was still an alien concept for me. I started my career in journalism in 1984, from an English daily that came out from Islamabad. Those were oppressive times for everyone, especially for journalists. A free press was still a pipedream. I was more familiar with news blocks, censorships and press advice. Indeed, when I read the book mentioned above, I felt deeply sad — it was not something I could relate to. Democracy had newly returned to Pakistan, and journalists’ struggle for freedom of expression had just begun.
Freedom, at the time I read the book, meant to be able to write and say anything and everything under the sun, fearlessly, without any censorship and press advice. Little did I know that I was naïve and, of course, 20 years younger. The realisation of the significance of Curran and Seaton’s book came suddenly to me one day as I was surfing through different news channels. I was no longer comfortable on my leather couch. My mind went back to Cardiff in our ethics class, where professor Moorecraft was trying to convince us all about the perils of unbridled freedom. It was all the more important, he said, to exercise restraint when one is powerful. “With no power comes no responsibility,” wrote Seaton. Responsibility comes only with power and it is true not just for journalists but for everyone. Pakistan is a poor country, with an illiterate majority. The electronic media, which is a force to reckon with today, has a certain role to play. Unbiased and objective reporting is the need of the hour. People who are already ignorant must not be fed with a diet laced heavily with prejudice and lies. Sadly, some of our TV news channels are successfully playing into the hands of various political parties. Needless to say, these parties or politicians have their own axe to grind. The common man is easily swayed by the blatantly partisan viewpoints of the media (read electronic media). As a result, they are unable to form unbiased opinions, in fact are unable to use their common sense to differentiate between the good and the evil, unable to get to the truth, which should be the ultimate responsibility of the press and the electronic media.
Unfortunately, the electronic media is misusing its power, which, in turn, is having an extremely negative effect on society. The reporting borders on sheer sensationalism (creating panic), and the talk shows are a display of disgruntled emotions and, at times, just pure malicious mud-slinging by our respected politicians. It is almost embarrassing. The anchors take a thrill out of quarrelling politicians. The verbal clash between politicians has become an everyday affair. Who wants to watch squabbling politicians on their TV screens when the people of this poor wretched country are dying every day in bomb blasts, floods, targeted killings, robberies and plain old poverty?
The reporting during the recent Air Blue tragedy is another sad example of the media’s callousness. Most channels were mercilessly competing to be one up on the other. It was more about which one of them reported the tragedy first, and what all they went through while climbing the Margalla Hills than about providing on-the-spot information. For instance, initial reports said that there were some survivors as well. None of the channels bothered to verify the report but blindly followed the channel that first reported it. This was sheer insensitivity towards the families of the victims. In the end, it seemed it was all about the valour of these brave soldiers of journalism. What about the families of the victims who were continuously being shown the horrific graphics of the plane bursting into flames against the mountain? At times like these, what is needed, above all, is sensitivity towards the aggrieved. No one wants to watch the heroics of the reporters.
Sadly, the ‘powers’ that can play a constructive role in creating healthy mindsets and moulding society towards enlightenment are doing just the opposite. Vested interest and sensationalism take precedence over educating the masses. As if the corrupt governments over the years had not done enough damage, the upstart media is now equally guilty of sowing the seeds of discontentment among the people of this country. Discontent, in turn, is creating anarchy. The gruesome example of it is the brutal murder of two young brothers in Sialkot. Again, the TV screens flashed the footage of this ‘oh so very sad incident’ over and over again. Every channel has a new angle to report, without proper investigation. Whatever happened to investigative journalism?
The coverage of floods has lost its momentum. The focus of the media has now shifted from the Sialkot brothers to the spot fixing scandal involving Pakistan’s cricket team. Why is there never a follow up? The breaking or rather the heartbreaking news in Pakistan is no novelty. The footage of burnt flesh and blood flashes on the TV screens on a daily basis, but there is no follow up of any of the heart ‘breaking’ news that might give some hope to the viewers. The electronic media is thus very successfully promoting disaster culture.
With all its power and clout, the electronic media can play a very significant role in moulding public opinion and lifting the hopes of a society that has lost all hope of happiness and stability. Power without responsibility is as dangerous as the beasts who murdered those handsome brothers in Sialkot. At least the only positive thing that has come out of our irresponsible journalism is that I know better now. The Virginia Slims slogan echoes in my mind: “You’ve come a long way baby.”
Lubna Ramay has been working as a professional journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org