The Game Of Screens

Posted on May 7, 2016 Articles

“TV has become sick.” Indian TV journalist and anchor Ravish Kumar opened his show a few months ago with this dramatic pronouncement. Throughout the show, a black screen with Devanagri script replaced the visuals as Kumar’s voice protested the rise of intolerance in his country and political television’s contribution to it. While the overall impact for a viewer was quite dramatic, it totally failed to change the trends in Indian media where jingoism and absolutism now rule the screens.

But why stop there? From America’s Fox News network to the news channels in Pakistan, television debates are killing intellect in societies all over the world. TV screens abhor deeper intellect, nuanced discussion and thirst for knowledge. Poor ratings are cited as the common excuse to avoid more lucid and temperate programming. Academicians, researchers, original thinkers and more cautious analysts, we are told, slow discussions down. So what we get in exchange is shallow, highly opinionated, often emotionally charged debate. Consequently, what we have witnessed is the rise of a class of political shamans. Tiny men with huge egos. And often huge agendas. They are the judge, the jury, the executioner, the funeral director and the night watchman at the Pearly Gates. The custodians of our morality, our vice and virtue department, our subconscious, our unconscious and our conscience. If they say we have a right to live, we heave a sigh of relief and if they say we die, we die watching our backs in fear. They excommunicate us, declare some of us better humans, others vandals and go back home with the satisfied smugness of a serial killer. And look at the faces that absolutism produces. It gave America a narcissist who calls himself The Donald. India got Modi, Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu and Pakistan? You will have to relent for a moment to know the name even though many of you must have guessed it by now.

We are told political television is the new conscience of society. You must have seen how relentless this ‘conscience’ is in ripping apart politicians if the politicians turn out to be moderates. However, this selective conscience stops functioning the moment it is faced by a fanatic. Where the smallest of human rights abuses were not forgiven during Congress rule, the Indian media today dotes on a prime minister who has been accused of letting religious fanatics kill thousands from a minority community for political gains. The Israeli press, which often was quite rough with Labour and other moderate political parties, does not have any problem with Netanyahu’s intolerance. A media that did not let Barack Obama rest even for a second does not see the Frankenstein’s monster it has unleashed with the same impatience.

Let us also examine the common excuse given. That this is what sells. Should we believe that a common man on the street has become so bloodthirsty that he cannot live with his neighbour of a different ancestry or faith? Surprisingly, despite constant encouragement to this effect by our televisions, the man on the street has shown remarkable restraint. So the ideas being preached are in direct conflict with his core personality. Why would he want to watch something of this sort? He is being made to. But by whom? Every state has two personalities. That of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is the latter which subconsciously shows its impact in the declining quality of political debate. This split personality disorder can be attributed to their fear of decline, political opportunism, unlimited ambition or sheer bloody-minded adventurism. It is poisonous for societal harmony.

In Pakistan, we witnessed the ascent of these shamans during Musharraf’s last days in office. Some were trying to bring him down, others defending him. Since then the faces have changed. Musharraf, Tahirul Qadri, Imran Khan and the list goes on. Why so many faces? Because they have not succeeded yet. But the deathly message remains the same. If not stopped in time, the outcome of this brutal game might be more lethal for us than for any other country in the world.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2016.