A lesson from Pakistan

Topics Pakistan  | Television

Not everything that happens in Pakistan is reprehensible and condemnable. Occasionally there are things that are admirable and even, to be honest, examples we should emulate. Now, if you think this point is contentious, let me give you what I believe is a perfect illustration. And it comes from a field where you might think we have little to learn from our neighbour, the ethics of television anchoring.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the country’s television regulator, has taken a step that we in India badly need to follow. Anchors, it has said, must limit themselves during discussions they’re conducting to the role of ‘moderator’. How very true. A PTI report from Islamabad says the PEMRA code of conduct stipulates that “the role of anchors is to moderate the programme in an objective, unbiased and impartial manner, excluding themselves from their personal opinions, biases and judgements on any issue”.

That’s unquestionably the case and it couldn’t have been expressed more succinctly. Alas, Pakistani anchors are not the only ones to flout this rule. Ours do so as well, blatantly, repeatedly and without any realisation they’re crossing a redline that’s strictly verboten to trespass.

The fact this happens in a variety of different styles doesn’t alter the case that in every instance it’s wrong. For example, it’s equally unacceptable for an anchor to say, “I’ll accept that. It sounds right”, or “What sort of defence is that? It makes no sense at all”. I’ve heard the first on NDTV. The second, more frequently, on Times Now and Republic.

Actually, PEMRA makes one other point. It has also said that anchors who host regular shows “should not appear in (other) talk shows… as experts”. Again, I couldn’t agree more. First of all, television anchors are not experts. The so-called expert knowledge they have on any subject has been obtained from other sources. Second, this would reveal their personal bias and undermine their neutrality when they return to be anchors again. Frankly, you can’t play two roles. In this instance, they end up doing credit to neither.

Sadly, our anchors often pretend to be experts. Even some of the best fall into this error. Each time they do they speak as if they’re authorities and, wittingly or unwittingly, reveal their preferences and prejudices. The saddest part is they don’t realise how much this undermines their original role as allegedly neutral and objective moderators. 

However, I would go further. Anchors also need to be conscious of the language they use. You often hear people who are only charged but not convicted called criminals. They’re not and that description is neither fair nor accurate. Second, anchors frequently report details that may not be confirmed facts as if they are. Critical qualifying words like ‘allegedly’, ‘supposedly’ or ‘reportedly’ are rarely or never used. Consequently, an impression of accuracy is conveyed which is simply misleading.

Now who would have thought these are lessons we would learn from Pakistan? The common but mistaken opinion is that theirs is a journalism of a lower order. We’re convinced they neither have freedom of speech nor do they understand or observe the rules of journalism. The recent order from PEMRA shows how wrong we are. 

I would recommend the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, the regulator for India’s private news channels, contact PEMRA to get the details of their order and expeditiously issue it to every single channel. Thereafter, each time an anchor falls below the required standards of objectivity and neutrality he or she should be called out in a formal statement. I’m pretty certain fear of public shaming will be sufficient to ensure anchors do not colour their studio performance with their own opinions or behave partially towards those they agree with and objectionably to those they don’t.

Now, I know I have often been guilty of what I’ve written about so you might wonder what gives me the right to cast the first stone? Simply mea culpa. Because I know I’ve made faults I can spot them in others and also recognise the need for an authority like NBSA to step in and correct them. Sometimes it needs a sinner to recognize the sin. Peccavi!

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