If the PML-N peers hard into the interview’s smouldering rubble, some serious questions can lie hidden in the debris:
A Who gave Ishaq Dar permission to do the interview? B) Why didn’t the person who approved the interview know the extent of the blunder he/she was indulging in? C) In preparation for the interview did Dar request any help? If it does, by whom? D) What was the purpose of the interview? Within party circles, has this been debated? E) Did party leaders in Pakistan know about the interview in advance? If so then why didn’t they offer advice against it? If not, so why have they not been told of the interview? F) Will Dar be taken to task by the leadership of the party now? G) Is PML-N poised or is it smug with its misguided overconfidence to learn from the Dar disaster? H) Who will now be charged with damage management inside the party? Is it really realistic to do that? I) What is PML-N trying to do now to distract public interest from the debacle of Dar?
Those closely watching Pakistani politics knew a disaster like Dar’s was only a matter of time. Within our political parties, media discipline is an oxymoron. These groups revolve around identities and this adds to a personalised type of discipline that discriminates between those that are nearest to the leader and those that are less so. What makes matters worse is the lack of internal reviews on the whims of senior party individuals. “A common response is Who dares to teach me what to say? With no clearly defined roles within intra-party structures and no finely delineated hierarchies for particular decision-making, political parties provide their senior citizens with enough rope to hang on to themselves. Dar has done just that.
PML-N individuals are aghast. Some secretly raise their heads in shock. In Islamabad and Lahore, even senior citizens had no idea about the interview until it dropped on them like a stinky bomb. When they need to reinforce it for what they believe to be the final stretch of the fight against the nation, they know this sets back their narrative. Less than two weeks away is Lahore Jalsa. By stepping up the offensive and keeping the government on the ropes, the opposition needed this opportunity to build momentum. But they may waste valuable time trying to clean up the Dar mess now. Unless—Unless…
Yes, if the group doesn’t plan to put Dar under the bus. Ok, not in the sense of disowning him (he’s got good family ties), but in making him live with his fiasco and not rushing to fight the backlash in full throttle. From the party responses on display, we will know soon enough.
There is a lot of exhilaration in the Red Region. Dar came in like Santa carrying Christmas presents for a beleaguered and besieged government. They have cause to laugh as the motley crew of PTI mouthpieces are laughing from ear to ear. Dar bowled them on the leg side with a soft full toss. Wham!-Wham!
And then there is more to it than simply an overconfident and under-prepared politician’s tragic television presence. The principles of political dialogue, both inside and outside the Red Zone, are taking a battering in the middle of the cacophony of extreme polarisation. The cost is a steep one for democracy.
Take for example, the official media. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently blessed the state broadcaster PTV with a new chairman. After being appointed to the post, lawyer and TV personality Naeem Bokhari said in one of his first comments that the opposition had no right to be on PTV because it was a government station. The prime minister defended him in an interview a few days later. The concern is not that a new president is ignorant of the position of the company he leads, but that his boss still appears unaware of what a taxpayer-funded broadcaster is expected to do in a democratic society. Within the government’s rank and file, this acute lack of understanding of the media, communication and its value to citizens philtres down. As the sum total of its media policy and contact, the absolute focus of PTI leadership on bombastic press conferences and inflammatory comments has sidetracked it from its primary duty to implement systemic changes within the official structural reforms.
This was a job taken on by retired Lt Gen Asim Bajwa when as SAPM for details, he joined the official media team. At the official level, Bajwa understood the deeper demands of strategic communication. Within the expansive official information set-up, he had plans to introduce sweeping reforms. The official media landscape could have changed for the better, had these plans been fleshed out and executed. His departure from this position, however, appears to have closed this door for now. Very few in the government understand, as he did, modern communication. This leaves in disarray the official media landscape.
A dinosaur and irrelevant to the demands of modern communication is the information ministry. It’s a relic of a past that in the present has little value and that we can see almost none in the future. Successive governments have dumbed down the role of the information minister. The minister is currently judged by his bosses for his abrasive rhetoric and not for producing efficient three-dimensional communication that straddles all media platforms and produces content in all demographics that can find traction among all audiences.
All these bodies are calling for reform because they are democratic anachronisms in their present form: PTV, Radio Pakistan, APP, and Pemra. It must be understood by PTI and all other parties that these taxpayer-funded media organisations are intended to cater to the interests of citizens, not the government. Credibility fuels communication’s power. It has no value without this. The official media has zero credibility in its current form.
This skin-deep understanding of the media and communication has led to a bloated team of speakers who are often equally clueless about communication as a tool for empowering citizens. No wonder then that there is constant tension between PTI media managers based in the PM office, those living in the ministry of information, those sulking away in the hierarchies of the PTI party, those with access to Banigala and those who are members of the official team of spokespersons. At the expense of the taxpayer, noise has replaced substance.
As evidenced by the Dar catastrophe, the opposition hardly feels better. The PML-hulking N’s party structure has diverted little resources to its media and communication, often ending up fighting a lonely battle for people like Information Secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb. In the PPP, too, haphazard communication marks the beginning and end of the media strategy of the party in the form of press conferences and talk shows. It is a sad reflection on the workings of our political parties that shallow understanding, poor efficacy and incompetent handling continue to suffer from something as critical as communication.
The Dar disaster may soon become a common term for media debacles waiting to occur on all fronts of the party. Be forewarned.