Not exactly a case of sex, lies and videotape! Rather one of plants, truth and stolen videotape. The Dunya News ‘behind-the-scenes’ video that went viral on June 14th is a revealing comment on the sorry state of a section of the private electronic media today.
The circulation of the video entailed many firsts. While similar slips may have been made by other anchors hosting other programmes, the Meher Bokhari/Mubashar Lucman chit chat with property tycoon Malik Riaz was the first time that such footage (filmed during a commercial break) became public property. And, for the first time, the Supreme Court taking notice of this piece of precious footage allowed television cameras inside to film the judges viewing the video and grilling the PEMRA chief.
It is best to view the distasteful episode in its context.
Earlier, like Chinese whispers, rumours had been doing the rounds that Riaz had been funding the foreign trips of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury’s son, including one to Monte Carlo. Two leading television anchors from Geo News, Kamran Khan and Hamid Mir, took up the issue in their primetime shows and lent credence to the rumours by stating that they had seen incriminating documents. When the Supreme Court took notice and summoned Riaz, Arsalan Iftikhar as well as the anchors, both Khan and Mir backed off, admitting they had no proof.
In a press conference that followed, Riaz alleged that he had paid for Arsalan Iftikhar’s travels in return for a promise that he would receive some relief from the Supreme Court in the 40 plus cases against him.
As the allegations piled up and included the Chief Justice himself, the Supreme Court issued a contempt of court notice against Riaz. It was at this stage that Geo and its two anchors did a total somersault. They dug up all the dirt they could on Riaz, including a frivolous comment by his wife from an earlier interview that he never spoke the truth. And they bent over backwards in their defence of the Chief Justice, forgetting that objectivity demanded that the Arsalan Iftikhar case be as relentlessly pursued as those involving politicians.
Seemingly cornered, Riaz allegedly released a list of journalists and television anchors to whom he had given huge sums and property (later denied by his office) and subsequently manoeuvred the now infamous interview on Dunya News.
Caught squabbling on camera (when they thought it was off), Bokhari and Lucman made it clear that interview was ‘planted’ and that the questions were dictated to them in order to put the judiciary on the spot, while they were instructed not to be too harsh on their guest. There was also an unsavoury reference to Mir, the anchor of Capital Talk on Geo. Since then, Dunya News has lodged an FIR for the theft of its material and the incriminating footage has been taken off YouTube. However, the damage had been done and competitor Geo played the clip over and over again.
There was little public sympathy for the otherwise popular talk show hosts. And politicians were rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of those who had been tormenting them suddenly finding themselves in deep trouble.
Private television in Pakistan has fast forwarded at the price of maturity. Young – or not so young – anchors, many without any hands-on experience of professional journalism, became overnight celebrities. They relished in demolishing their guests to audience applause. However, chances are few lessons will be learnt from recent events and, once the wounds are licked, it will be business as usual.
Zohra Yusuf is Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R.