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Reason in the midst of chaos

Updated Sep 26, 2019 07:05pm

Why the Herald was a rare voice of reason

I hear that it still hasn’t changed much, despite the changes that have swept across the media landscape in Pakistan in the last 20 years, and I am glad to hear it. There is something reassuring about knowing that the winding corridors of Haroon House, meandering past a quiet Dawn editorial corridor and what once used to be a library, past a perennially closed door that used to be the office of the late Star, and ending in a cul-de-sac where one door led to a ladies’ washroom and the other to the offices of the Herald, are still pretty much the same.

The big change, one is told, is that the door leading to the Herald has now been shut, permanently, reminding me of that terribly sad day when the management called curtains on the Star.

If you have spent your life in Pakistan, and most of it in journalism, one of the most common phrases you come across is “untimely death”. It happens every day; if it rains or the sun shines a bit too harshly, if a popular leader visits the city or a vigilante policeman goes berserk, news of untimely deaths creeps up so often in our lives in Karachi that one becomes immune to the pain and suffering accompanying the event. This is perhaps why I was a bit surprised to notice the ache left in my heart by a young girl who came to interview me for the last edition of the Herald. “We are expecting a notification from the management any time,” she smiled nervously as she walked out, apologetic for not bearing better news. Having recently retired from journalism, I was confident that this news wouldn’t prey on my mind for long, yet several weeks later, I have to admit that I was wrong because I am reminded of it every time I come across a piece of bad journalism, which is pretty much every time I switch on my TV.

The argument for the Herald’s closure is a straightforward one. What is a monthly magazine doing in the age of 24/7 news channels, blogs, vlogs, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? Can you imagine a Diplodocus sauntering by Zainab Market?

Sadly, the argument is as erroneous as it is straightforward.

The Herald was never a widely circulated magazine. At its best, its circulation numbered in the thousands, never in the tens of thousands. Yet it was always considered a success by its managers, as well as its readers, and the few thousand copies it sold every month were far more precious than the million odd minutes of news TV that peg at our senses 24/7 – and for a very simple reason.

The reasons driving the Herald’s success, at an ultra-micro level, were not very different from those that turned Google into a global giant. In the face of the chaos unleashed by the World Wide Web, someone needed to come up with a tool that would collapse that chaos into a neat little search engine. On the same principle, with the lifting of General Zia’s restrictions on a free press – and as the print media started to go haywire – the Herald emerged as that neat little ‘Google’ which collapsed the chaos into sense, ignoring the noise to tune into the sound. (For the record, it happened long before I took charge and lasted way beyond my tenure).

That was the reason why the Herald was able to predict the 1999 military coup months ahead, in an issue titled The Creeping Coup, or why General Musharraf chose the magazine to announce his intention of becoming the country’s president, dropping his title of chief executive, or why it irked the feared ISI so much in the wake of 9/11 that it took some seriously high-level intervention to calm things down. It was the reason why the Norwegian government turned to the magazine’s reporters for an investigation when a spate of so called honour-killings hit the migrant suburbs of Oslo, or it won awards for bringing to the public the plight of the MQM widows forced to turn to prostitution after their lives were ripped apart by a paramilitary operation in the early 1990s.

As I turn on the TV today, I cannot help but grimace when I see how our analytical yardsticks have moved 1,400 years back to the times of Madina ki Riyasat and all the logic in our analysis is replaced by semi-historical anecdotes resting on the shores of the Tigris and the Euphrates in the heydays of the Muslim Empire. I cringe when I see popular talk show hosts tweeting praises for the government’s economic measures from their official accounts and being deeply critical of the same from their personal ones – all in the span of a few minutes. And I can only gawk in disbelief when I see a news channel break the news of the NAB chairman’s alleged sexual indiscretions as “news of the century” only to start apologising profusely a mere 10 minutes later!

Those of us who started journalism in the times of General Zia love to describe his reign as an era of obscurantism. Yet, compared to what is happening now, the clarity of General Zia’s evil is sorely missed. Just as General Zia took us on a jihadi roller coaster all the while making us believe it was the only ride in town for a good Muslim certification here and in the hereafter, Imran Khan has chucked us all on a magic carpet that is hurtling towards Madina ki Riyasat. Technology be damned, that is now the only ride in town. What better reason to continue with a teeny-weeny publication that has always earned its keep while rendering an invaluable service by collapsing this chaos into something intelligible?

I recently heard that the owner of a newly launched news channel told a friend that he was bleeding Rs 80 million every month but: “I get called by the information minister every day.” Some may feel this is an impossibly steep price to pay for a phone call from Firdous Ashiq Awan but the fact that someone is willing to pay it eloquently describes the chaos we live in – a chaos of understanding, values, facts and aspirations. I wonder what image the Herald would have used had it decided to do a cover story about Firdous Ashiq Awan.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter anymore. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, a premium western magazine ran a cartoon showing a white man in a sola topi walking up to a yogi sitting under a banyan tree and asking: “So, where do we go for wisdom now?”

More than a magazine has died with the Herald. The voice of reason, however small and even if heard once a month, has a bigger life than a million emotions shrieked out all at once. The heartache is not without a reason no matter how insensitive we may have become towards the concept of untimely death.

Aamer Ahmed Khan was Editor, the Herald from 1999 to 2004.