May 26, 2012
KARACHI: The signs had been there for some time and now it has happened; Pakistan’s media bubble has burst. That euphoria that the news media was going through a renaissance has long since dissipated, the anticipation of new jobs and glittering careers has diminished and the belief that all is fine has vanished…poof!!
Nothing is okay with the state of Pakistan’s media and has not been so for some time now. Whether electronic or print, the media in Pakistan, much like elsewhere in the world is going through a ragged time.
Sackings, downsizing, lay-offs, delays in a salary, uncertainty, office politics, lack of funds, incompetent or reluctant staff, lack of professionalism, government pressure, corruption, personal and vested interests and vulture-like opportunists have all taken their toll on the surprisingly robust and encouraging situation that existed from 2003-2008. Thereafter, it’s been a steady downhill journey.
Some of the big stars of Pakistan’s journalism are on their way out; others have already been shunted out, some because of their ludicrous antics and others because of austerity measures dictated by better sense and discouraging economy and some because they are the victims of bad circumstances.
Yet, there remain a stubborn, shameless few that Pakistan’s media cannot afford and should not afford… men who have been detrimental to the well being of the industry and who have always put their personal agendas before the welfare of the ‘real media workers’; men with egos as large as a bull mammoth and with salaries that go into the multi-multi lakhs. These men have to go.
It has been the ordinary media worker that has suffered most from the steadily declining health of the media industry, sub-editors, proof-readers, reporters, layout artists, Producers, assistant producers, cameramen and video editing staff. They are never heard, never taken into consideration. Mere chaff… that is what they have been reduced to.
What exactly happened?
All bubbles have to burst, ours did, and we are to blame.
There were signs of good things to come when the competition hot up in the early 2000s with the arrival of Geo and Aaj on the scene to be followed quickly by others, Business Plus, CNBC Pakistan, Express News and others.
Suddenly there was a huge demand for experienced electronic media journalists and as there were not enough to go around, poaching from newspapers began. Big names and not-so-big names were grabbed. They became analysts with salaries 10 to 20 times more than they had been earning.
Sub-editors and reporters on the fringe of recognition after years of struggling suddenly found themselves in demand. Their salaries leapt from Rs10,000 to Rs50,000 and above within the span of three years.
Job-hopping ensued in the struggle for bigger salaries. By the time CNBC Pakistan and Express TV came on the scene people who had been getting 10-15 thousand started demanding Rs60,000-75,000.
I recall one guy from Geo, an assistant producer, who had been getting Rs22,000 being chased by another TV channel that eventually gave into his demand and prepared a contract giving him Rs100,000 per month as a senior producer. But as Geo got wind of this negotiation they acted, offering him Rs40,000 to stay on and then threatening him with legal action because of a two-year bond he had signed with them. Worse still, he was threatened with dire consequences via the MQM if he left Geo.
Those were days that Geo would not tolerate the thought of their carefully garnered and trained staff leaving. Nobody at Geo was sacked unless a monumental mistake had been made. The competition was tough and getting tougher. Aaj lost quite a few and suffered in production and content. Indus and Business Plus too lost their fair share.
And so it started, TV channels started hiring whoever they could get resulting in half-trained or incompetent staff. As a result production and content began to suffer. This was bound to happen.
The vicious circle continued as all vicious circles do.
Suddenly, there was also a huge interest in journalism from individuals with no formal journalistic background who barged their way into reckoning and into newsrooms and newspaper management through personal connections, influence from the top, bribes and some even through sexual favors. Yes that too!!
Suddenly newspapers found themselves struggling for competent staff. The good ones had all jumped the electronic media bandwagon. Something had to give and the standard of content and language in both Urdu and English newspapers suffered as a result.
People who had been on the verge of being shunted or retired out suddenly found themselves in seats of authority. Common sense dictates mediocre begets mediocre and this is exactly what happened.
The standard of the print media plunged dramatically.
Meanwhile, a new trend started with ‘consultants’, advisors and ‘experts’ being brought on board to ‘ring changes’ and make the media more competitive. These people were brought in at the drop of a hat to ‘streamline’ TV channels and newspapers.
They came at ludicrous salaries, stayed at five-star hotels, were indulged and indulged. Marketing and management people, saw this as an opportunity too, and minted/pocketed money as they wished.
It was an open party; a celebration of making quick bucks whether you knew anything about the profession or not.
One hard-drinking journalist with no prior TV experience was hired to run a TV channel as director programs. His insecurity, lack of knowhow and constant politicking and beefing up his team with his friends ensured that TV channel never really got off the ground. He did manage to make a pretty packet though before being forced out and so did his friends.
Another TV channel hired a CEO for Rs1,700,000.00 and he later bumped this up to over the two million figure before the owner of the channel asked him to pack his bags. His friends in the channel and management, one of whom was a mere assistant producer and became an executive producer, did equally well. Plush houses in Defense and new Honda Civics, trips to the US and Europe, holidays and weekends in Bangkok!!
This guy now runs a so-called NGO and sponsors awards for journalists while continuing his globetrotting without a care in the world, posting his travel status on Facebook if you will!!
Then there were reporters who most nefariously interviewed terrorists and killers and got famous as a result. Such men have demanded and got salaries in the range of the Rs.2.5 million to 4 million in various capacities just because the TV channels they were associated with thought that they could get some mileage out of their ‘notorious’ interviews.
Journalism went out the window, when these very same people started propagating their personal, religious and political agendas on television. They made even more money through so-called donations while screaming and screeching their brand of patriotism with almost evangelist-like zeal.
These men have research and support teams that do most of their work as well as entourages and hangers on to feed the cravings of their egos. They have whimsical and curious needs that are never easy.
Yet they continue to thrive even as newspapers close down, channels downsize and salaries get delayed; no wonder then the TV channels and newspapers do not know which way to turn!
The monster that was created and went on to grow to unmanageable proportions has come home to roost. Our media has lost its integrity, its professionalism and most certainly direction.
Worse still, genuine newsmen are without jobs, without salaries and without hope. Uninhibited ambitions and unscrupulous opportunists have killed that renaissance that began in 2003. It is dead.
Geo, that very channel that would not let a single person leave, is sacking staff in droves. That ‘employment bond’ that made Geo thrive and jeeyo is gone.
Dawn, once a bastion of reliability and stability, is the playground of power games and risks losing its invincibility. There is no money coming in. It’s all gone and we all know where.
Aaj has succumbed to mediocrity.
ARY continues to exist.
Express soldiers on.
Samaa flickers like a candle in the wind.
Dunya tries to convince.
The rest don’t stand a chance.
Meanwhile, newspaper come out with grand promises of being ‘different’, having ‘content entirety’ and being uniquely ‘city-centric’ and then they die out with a whimper…
One has and another is about to.
Pakistan’s media now finds itself in the uncomfortable reality of being between a rock and a hard place. Its tomorrow is uncertain… as uncertain as it was a few years ago when a so called self-proclaimed media guru declared at an international conference of journalists that, “Pakistan’s media is thriving. It is in good hands!”
I assure you, it is not.
(The Communicator is a senior journalist based in Karachi)
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