Cyril Almeida: Culture Warriors


Cyril AlmeidaTHE culture warriors, of the kinder variety, have struck back. Anchors sacked, mullahs barracked by entertainers, the fight is on, at least on television.

Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t last very long.

That’s because the cast of characters involved is a bunch of jokers, puppets on strings, twirling and twisting in fervent obeisance before the only god that matters in such affairs: ratings.

Look carefully, though, and you’ll see the real heavyweights — the ideologues, the big-picture-small-mind guys, the sophisticated manipulators — are quiet.

They’ve figured out that further sparring isn’t such a good idea right now. Which is why they are off talking about PPP-PML-N confabs and musing about corruption and governance and other ‘safe’ stuff.

The funny thing about ugliness is that it doesn’t like to look ugly.

Since Taseer’s assassination, Pakistan has looked pretty ugly. And it’s looked ugly in full view of a horrified global audience.

That’s the kind of backlash that will scythe through the naïve.

But keep your head down, hold your tongue, avoid talking about what you really feel, no sudden or silly moves that give the other side an opening, and you’ll live to fight another day.

Which is what the real big boys are doing at the moment.

The reticence is rooted in certain realities of the media here.

In the quest to shape public opinion, there are two basic lines of attack. One is the day-to-day fare. Pandering to populist lines and downplaying certain perspectives, by unobtrusively tweaking the balance of the images, sounds and words the audience is presented with, a particular kind of worldview is projected.

It’s done in the name of the target audience, the ‘awam’, but it’s really about shaping the public rather than informing it.

The other line of attack is the black-swan event. Musharraf’s sacking of the chief justice, Lal Masjid, BB’s assassination and now Taseer’s killing — these are your unexpected, high-impact, high-possibility events. These can be tricky if not handled properly.

Lal Masjid was the ultimate godsend for the right wing in the media.

A ‘liberal’ dictator in bed with the Americans had ordered an assault on a place of worship full of people trying to rid Pakistan of bad moral and social influences.

And the bungled military operation and scores of civilians killed made it utterly indefensible, even at the level of idea.

The right-wing media went to town over Lal Masjid because they thoroughly understood its potential for sowing certain perceptions. And they could do it with impunity because of the military’s epic cock-up. Dead bodies are hard to argue against.

Taseer’s killing, though, was different. The ‘awam’, led by the mullahs, immediately showed what it thought of the murder and the wider issue.

No indoctrination necessary here, because the message had already been absorbed.As the saying goes, Pakistan ka matlab kya?

Since the days of Zia, everyone knows the answer to that.

In fact, the Taseer slaying opened a door for the other side. The crime and the aftermath had rightly stirred up passions, and anyone in the media naïve enough to flirt with or engage the hate on the right would become vulnerable to a ritual sacrifice.

Here’s another little-known truth about the media: it isn’t entirely as crazy or right-wing as the loudest voices and most obnoxious opinions in prime-time slots and op-ed pages suggest.

There’s actually some introspection, common sense and commitment to certain ideas, however vague. Of course much of that tends to be ex post — after the event — and therefore is reactionary in nature.

X writes Y during a black-swan event or P says Q, something particularly egregious, during regular fare, which then creates an opening to push back, reprimand, censure or even fire for a catalogue of previous outrageous sins that have been mentally bookmarked and indexed for future action.

Timing is everything.

And much of it tends to come from powerful figures inside the media establishment. People the viewer or the reader has probably never heard of. Channel bosses, news directors, editors, bureau chiefs, people who understand the nature of the beast they are straddling and seek to restrain its worst impulses.

Of course, the majority of the time the advantage lies with the right. Which is why silence is useful sometimes.

Wait out the awkward moments and resume your ideological war when the threat has abated. The paroxysms of the ‘liberals’ are only rarely threatening and subside quickly enough.

What comes next isn’t hard to fathom. Soon enough, it will be business as usual.

A combination of a population raised on a diet of hate, mistrust and distorted beliefs; a state system that is invested in perpetuating certain kinds of mindsets; a political class that is too self-absorbed to think about overhauling state and society; and the imperatives of ratings, subscriptions and ad revenue — all these
factors combine to ensure a certain kind of media output, the dominance of a particular kind of worldview.

Therein lies the problem: part cheerleader, part follower of societal trends, the media is both hostage to, and trying to shape, society here.

Extracting the poison from one without extracting it from the other is a non-starter.

But there are no real culture warriors on the other, good, side ready to take up that fight.

The ones who do speak up are irrelevant; the ones who could be relevant are quiet.

The heavy hitters on the right in the media know this. Which is why they are quiet right now. The future is theirs.

Cyril Almeida is a staff writer for Dawn. This column was published on January 28, 2011.