History and histrionics | Talat Hussain

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Many years ago, during our training as local reporters and producers for CNN, an expert from Atlanta gave us vital tips on dealing with the twin devils of our field: the camera and the mic.

One advice was particularly mind-boggling to many of us in the room who viewed the opportunity to be on air as a breakthrough of a lifetime and were looking forward to the day to be on air – even if for a short while. We were told by the expert to: ‘avoid the camera as it is not your friend. Nor is the mic. They are both frenemies. If you are to handle them then handle them not a second more than is required. Keep everything short, precise, to the point. Don’t think that since you are being seen and heard you are the king of the universe. Each extra second spent on air either visually or verbally is an hour of credibility and reputation lost.’

The value of this oxymoronic guideline (avoid the camera to be a successful TV journalist) was then hidden from our callow eyes. The follow-up questions and queries to the expert clearly suggested that not many were convinced that he was prescribing something that was useful and even practical. But as years passed, and experience expanded, I have not come across better advice than what he gave to us then. I have witnessed not one but dozens of reputations melting in the heat of excessive publicity. Names built with care and much sweat getting blackened just because they did not want to leave the screen or be off-mic. Giants that one ardently desired to meet and learn from simply dwarfing in the limelight and showing their hideosities even as they struggled to prove their greatness.

The fallibility of men (and women) who crave attention and befriend over-publicity is a universal truth. But it is a truth that reveals itself only to those who care about the consequences of being over exposed and understand that being in front of the public entails huge responsibility, and that while the instruments of this responsibility (the camera, the mic) can help them maximise their message, their overuse can kill them silently and surely. There is a reason why even infotainment celebrities, who live off publicity and are constantly trying to maintain a public profile, have media advisers and coaches that determine the When, Where, How, and Who of their exposure. They craft an image by carefully using their airtime, and at times jump over temptations to be filmed or heard all the time. The more intelligent ones among them at times even disappear from the public gaze and thus use their absence to whet public appetite for news about them as well as to bring sanity and balance to their work that is often

unhinged by the endless interface with the media.

In Pakistan’s universe, this truth has not yet arrived fully. Therefore, it is a usual sight to see camera-lovers drown themselves in the utter trash they themselves generate as they speak. The Zainab murder case produced, apart from deep national heartache, the sorry spectacle of a chief minister and his team trying to hog the show and ending up looking like sad fools, and an anchor making a clown of himself trying to prove that he had the biggest of story of the decade about the murderer, Imran. These two incidents followed the court hearing of the case where media representatives were called for purposes only known to the honourable judges. What happened in that court room, according to eye witnesses, is better left unwritten.

The more recent fracas in the Supreme Court in the shape of the hard talk between the honourable chief justice and a journalist is yet another example of over-exposure creeping under the skin of proper conduct and decorum, peeling off reputations and turning august forums into ‘fish markets’, to quote a journalist who was present there.

Judges speak through judgments and journalists express themselves through spoken or written words. Every time these conservative lines are crossed, they both land in a danger zone where murkiness rules. It is unfortunate that the times are such that there is little realisation about the fallout of this mad rush to play out everything in public. Every case proceeding is a running commentary of judges’ endless observations, their quips, and their moods. Why that is so and what purpose it serves is anyone’s guess, but it sure gives journalists a lot of sensational grist to grind in their opinions.

These opinions then get the honourable judges reasons to react – and then there are more observations, quips and moods. So the cycle continues. Over-exposure is addictive. It is hard to break the habit even when its deadly consequences are obvious for everyone to see.

We can only imagine how sane national life would be if only journalists, anchors, media commentators (now everyone and his aunt has a current affairs show) could remain in the narrow lane of precision, facts, and reasoned opinion. If the courts could speak from the restrictive parameters of laid-down procedure. If both could adhere to their respective codes of conduct in which fact and opinion are separated and desire for publicity beyond that which comes their way on account of their work is considered wrong.

But we can only imagine that We won’t see it in real. The drift in Pakistan today towards the madness of publicity is so strong that almost everyone is wedded to the idea of more publicity being beautiful. Everyone has become their own PR officer, constantly trying to burnish and bolster self-images of greatness and divine wisdom.

Other fields too are equally afflicted. Politics has become a theatre because its protagonists believe that a day spent away from public gaze is a day wasted. Public stunts then drive them to say insane things that get them a high for while but which set themselves up for eventual ridicule. Imran Khan’s tweets and rants, his endless statements on any and everything compete with Shahbaz Sharif’s media blitz about his own achievements. The MQM washing its dirty linen in public is akin to Shaikh Rashid styling himself as the great sage whose political sagacity is unrivalled. Not long ago we had General Raheel Sharif whose media profile was jacked up to insane levels and the nation was made to believe that Pakistan would flounder and falter if he were not given the title of field marshal.

All of them and others like them do get a lot of play. Publicity does empower those seeking it – at least in the present. It gives presence; it covers up reality; it provides a vehicle to push down people’s throats agendas that otherwise would make them sick by even looking at them. And make no mistake about it: you can skate a long way on the road to popularity backed by the winds of public approval ratings.

But the end of over-exposure is always sad. Its victims eventually shrink and shrivel in disgrace. Pictures of Dorian Gray – young and pretty in portrait, but miserable and ugly in fact; time tells their stories. The very cameras and mics they live by become witnesses to their fall. History takes terrible revenge on those who try to define it through histrionics. And often it takes the revenge by the beguiling tools of publicity and over-exposure.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: syedtalathussain@gmail.com