By Hassan Belal Zaidi –
Anchorgate or Mediagate is symptomatic of the malaise afflicting our talk show hosts – all (performed) talk, little show
Ever wondered what doctors talk about when they put you under anaesthesia? If you’re acquainted with the medical profession, then you will know better than to ask that question. That is the case with any professional who believes he/she enjoys power over others.
That feeling of being in command and being able to do whatever one wants is a heady cocktail. Intoxicated by their ‘god complexes’, such individuals become forces to be reckoned with. While not all of them are tempted by the dark side, it is not unusual for some to cross over. This Star Wars analogy sums up quite brilliantly all that has happened to the Pakistani media over the past few weeks.
Anchorgate or Mediagate is the culmination of years of letting the media horse roam unbridled. It is a grim reminder that the media is not as free as it appears to be nor is it as well-meaning.
They may talk about the people’s interest but in essence they only care for their own profit margins. This leads media owners to dispense with the trouble of hiring actual journalists and instead, encourages them to buy their own mouthpieces.
These glorified anchorpersons are no better than paid actors, reading from teleprompters and asking questions fed to them through their earpieces. While not all anchorpersons are unashamed fakers, there are enough of them to bring a bad name to the honourable profession.
“These glorified anchorpersons are no better than paid actors, reading from teleprompters and asking questions fed to them through their earpieces”
But this latest attack on the sanctity of the media comes from within. The leaking of a behind-the-scenes video from the Dunya TV interview with Malik Riaz exposed the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind closed studio doors.
But more than discrediting the two hosts, Mubasher Lucman and Meher Bukhari, the leaked video exposes the vested interests at play in this three-ring circus. Many pundits and other sundry commentators have offered different perspectives on the episode; what it means for the future of the media and how it fits in with the situation currently prevailing in our fair backwater state.
I will concern myself with three major points: what clues the video affords us about who leaked it, how it came into existence in the first place and how what the two anchors did has been and will continue to be the standard modus operandi of talk show hosts across the country.
I don’t believe that the characters in this pantomime need any introduction. There is no arguing that talk show hosts that do not have a journalistic background are a scourge upon the hallowed profession. However, this is an evil that exists across the board and no channel is exempt.
This is because Pakistan’s media focuses far too heavily on catering to audiences’ demands and does not prioritize the supply of legitimate and thought-provoking content.
Talk show hosts such as Kamran Shahid, Ali Mumtaz, Dr Shahid Masood, Dr Danish, Faisal Qureshi and Jasmeen Manzoor are archetypes of the performance–artist talk show host. Their own input into the content of the show is limited by their own limited background knowledge.
I have personally had the ‘privilege’ of working with Meher Bukhari up until the time she was booted from Samaa TV for allegedly provoking the brutal murder of Salmaan Taseer. In real life, she is a very down-to-earth person. What you see onscreen is the result of several hours of preparation and make-up.
To her credit, she is an exceptional performer who practices very hard to get her lines right. And she admits (or at least used to admit) that she was not very well-read on topics such as politics, history or even sport. I remember one exchange in the newsroom on the Sunday that the match-fixing scandal broke. Everyone was running from pillar to post to find guests for that night’s primetime shows. Meher wandered over to the newsdesk and asked for suggestions. We told her to invite Saleem Malik (the disgraced former Test cricketer) if she could get him. She just stared blankly back at us and said, “Who’s that?” When we explained who he was, she laughed and said, “I’m not very good with this. Sports isn’t really my strong point.”
However, this was a long time ago. Looking at Meher’s shows now, I can still tell just how much editorial control is being exercised by unseen producers and content writers.
However, what is also obvious (especially in the behind-the-scenes footage) is that Meher has started taking an active interest in her own content. She comes up with questions that are very basic and often quite naive. But they serve her well, because it is often in response to naive questions that even the most tactful of wordsmiths will falter and say something they normally would not have. This, however, is more than one can say for Mubasher Lucman.
Herr Lucman (if the moustache is anything to go by) has had a chequered career. Intimately involved with the media business for a long time, Lucman is best known for his unwillingness to pay back Thai studios who worked on his dismal film, Pehla Pehla Pyaar. Luqman also served General Musharraf as a caretaker minister.
He is a prolific name-dropper and claims to have personal ties with almost anyone who’s anyone. He also routinely bullies those who are not willing to bend over backwards to accommodate him. As can be expected, a large proportion of his professional colleagues are quite miffed by his arrogance and lack of objectivity. From defending Salman Butt to defaming Mukhtaran Mai, he has done it all..
Throughout the video, Mubasher Lucman can be seen exchanging jibes with Malik Riaz. Terms such as bara bhai (big brother) and baray aadmi (big man) are traded back and forth between the two and it is obvious that while Lucman is trying his best to rattle the uber tycoon, Malik Riaz is unfazed. It is painfully obvious that both host and guest have a history together.
Even Lucman’s walkout, staged ostensibly to pressurise Meher and the voices in his ear asking him to go easy on Malik Riaz, seem a little too orchestrated. The fact that Lucman walked back onto the set muttering sweet nothings while the show was on-air is a telling fact: there is no way a seasoned anchor does not know (or is not told by technicians and studio hands) that he is on-air. Studio doorways are guarded like the Mona Lisa while the red light is on and not even an amoeba can get past the door during this time.
However, if one does believe the erstwhile film producer and accept that he unknowingly walked into the studio while a live transmission was ongoing, why did he choose to say that he was being coerced to do the interview?
“The video is quite unique in this regard. The ‘rough’ nature of the shots in the video; the person who is speaking at any given time is usually not the one in the frame; indicate that the video was not recorded from the primary output”
Insiders say that Lucman specifically asked to do the show and drove down to Islamabad to co-host the show with Meher. That the interview was telecast in the time slot allotted to Lucman’s show Khari Baat is also an indication that he consented to the show of his own accord.
However, those who know Herr Lucman personally are quite aware of his tendency to be a prima donna. In this case, however, where he was up against the diva extraordinaire, Lucman probably thought he had to up his game. Where Meher is prone to outbursts and has been known to get into screaming matches, the moustachioed man plays the part of an angry child quite well.
Then there is the question of how the exchange came to be recorded in the first place. In the broadcast industry, there are two mediums of storing/recording footage: digital and analogue. Digital grabbing, as it is called, is as easy as pressing a button.
However, digitally grabbed footage takes up substantial amounts of hard disk space. A normal one hour show would easily take up around 15 to 30 gigabytes of space, depending on the quality of the video. Analogue grabbing is more convenient because Mini DVs can store any quality of footage; depending on how long the tape is.
Then there is a matter of switching. The panel producer, who is the director of the show, decides which camera goes where, what it shows and which angle to switch to. He has a team of technicians operating the cameras and the sound equipment. The director usually has two screens in front of him, one labelled ‘Preview’ and the other labelled ‘Program’ (PGM for shot). Each camera angle the director wants to cut to will first be displayed on the ‘Preview’ screen and, once the director is satisfied with variables such as focus and framing, the shot will cut to the on-air PGM screen.
Consequently, the output on the ‘Preview’ screen won’t be as crisp as the PGM output, simply because that is where the director does his ‘rough work’. Ninety-nine times out of 100, any final product video will be derived from what the director cut, not what appeared on the Preview screen.
The Lucman-Bukhari video is quite unique in this regard. The ‘rough’ nature of the shots in the video; the person who is speaking at any given time is usually not the one in the frame; indicate that the video was not recorded from the PGM output. This is usually how programmes are recorded, chiefly to air as repeats.
Depending on which channel does what, the show may be recorded digitally on one edit machine or may be recorded on a Mini DV. In both cases, the final product cut is what will be captured and raw or rough footage will never make it to the screen. At all.
The fact that the leaked video is composed entirely of raw footage leads one to believe that there is something fishy in the nature of the video itself. Perhaps audio has been added, or parts deleted.
It is far easier to tamper with the audio in a video that does not have matching visuals, i.e. the footage does not correspond with the audio. There are many, many instances of that in the video, leading many to believe that the footage is, at worst, doctored or, at best, heavily edited.
The rumour mill would have us believe that it was Lucman himself who leaked the video. This story is lent credibility by reports that Mian Amer, the owner of Dunya TV, had told Lucman the night of the broadcast that his services were no longer required. This was ostensibly in retribution for Lucman on-air mutterings.
Following the leak, Lucman was able to negotiate a rapprochement with his estranged employers and was back on-air before you could say ‘principled stand’.
Then there are others who believe that it was Mian Amer himself who had the video leaked to pressure Lucman into being more ‘reasonable’. This was necessary because following the show, Lucman turned against his employers and threatened to tell all.
Hoping to mitigate the damage by offering his two stars as human sacrifices, the media magnate could have hoped to dispel some of the heat that his channel would face if Lucman were to go public.
However, no-one could have predicted what really transpired in the aftermath of the leak: a Supreme Court inquiry, directives to PEMRA, notices to Dunya TV and the initiation of a cold war between some of the largest media houses in the country, not to mention mudslinging by some of the country’s top journalists (Cough! Wheeze!) against each other.
These truly are dark times for the media. Ironic that the children of the enlightened moderation of yesteryears should themselves have turned into that which they most detest. Someone up there obviously has a very warped sense of humour.
The writer is a former journalist. Find him on Twitter @mightyobvious