Beyond the byline

Published: August 3, 2011

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There is nothing like the thirst quenching coolness of an ice cold Coca-Cola to relieve my parched mouth after a roza. By the time iftar arrives, my mouth has the caked, arid dryness of the Gobi desert. Nothing brings me greater respite than those first few freezing, ice-cold sips of Coca-Cola as it slips down my scorched throat. Coke — it really is the real thing, the nectar of the Gods and the elixir of life.

Ok, did you notice something slightly odd about the previous paragraph? Apart from the little lie I alluded to about performing roza. Perhaps the constant shilling for Coca-Cola raised your eyebrow higher than the US debt ceiling. If you then found out I were actually in the pay of Coca-Cola you would probably angrily dismiss my protestations about the soft drink being the elixir of life etc as corporate prostitution of the worst kind. You would be rightly livid at my deception. My views, no longer my own, had instead been compromised and corrupted by payment. You wouldn’t be the only one upset. The Express Tribune would fire me for defrauding the newspaper — using my position as a columnist and this platform to promote views for which I benefitted from financially. And yet this is now common practice within Pakistani newspapers.

Today yellow journalism isn’t confined only to the Urdu press. The growth in the English language newspaper market has ensured a plethora of new writers on the scene. This has been mostly positive. The problem lies in the fact that, as columnists, we all need to rely upon another source of income for our livelihoods. In Pakistan, you cannot live off op-ed writing alone. For example, prior to leaving Pakistan, my main source of income was from working for the British Council.

Other writers derive their main income from the development and governmental sectors, often working in a freelance capacity. Where it becomes problematic is when they start promoting ideas for certain development or governmental campaigns in their columns. Campaigns that they are being paid to promote. Let’s take the economy as an example. A writer will be contracted to work on a campaign to promote and stimulate a debate on Pakistan’s economy. International donors as well as some local NGOs are paying for the campaign. For the sake of transparency, they should mention their motivation for writing the column. They fail to do so. They fail to mention the inherent conflict of interest and where they are receiving their funding from. Instead, they propagate views as if their own, without owning up on whose behalf they are generating the debate. What they are doing is inherently dishonest. In short, we, the reader, are being duped, deceived and ripped off.

That’s not to argue that writers should not write on behalf of international donors, government agencies or NGOs. But the Pakistani press and the columnists they hire need to promote full disclosure. We need to know the self-interest and financial benefit that the author is benefitting from when writing so we, the readers, can filter the views expressed through a complete prism.

So next time you read a column, look beyond the byline. Ask yourself, how is the writer making his/her living? (For full disclosure, I currently work as the director of a think tank called the Atlantic Partnership — which encourages transatlantic dialogue. So if I start banging on about the work of Nato, please haul my posterior over the coals.)

Back to Coca-Cola, they once actually asked me to front a campaign of theirs in Pakistan. I said no. I could piously declare that it was because I didn’t want to compromise the editorial judgment of the show I was doing at the time. How could I discuss childhood obesity whilst whoring this sugar-laden soft drink beloved by kids? But my decision was far less altruistic. Vanity. I couldn’t bring myself to drink a coke, shake my head, goofily shiver and then say ‘Brrr’.

This column was brought to you by Pepsi — the choice of a new generation.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2011.

Reader Comments (35)

  • Salman Abbasy
    Aug 3, 2011 - 9:41PM

    Thank you very much for that remarkably subtle admonishment of Pakistani journalists. Alas, your advice falls on deaf ears. Pakistan’s leading columnists and TV talk show hosts berate politicians and bureaucrats who neglect full disclosure of income and assets but grow coy about the gifts, favours and income they receive from influence-peddlers, most notably the Information Ministry and intelligence agencies.

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  • Aftab Kenneth Wilson
    Aug 3, 2011 - 11:50PM

    Majority here have tags around their necks. This is the reason that they are labeled as “Intellectual Prostitutes” in this field of Journalism. There was a time in Ayub Khan’s days when he introduced dust bins which had this written on it “Use Me”. This was done to keep areas of importance clean from filth but unfortunately some who were associated with flesh trade use to stand next to these dust bins. As a result the government of the day at that time had to remove them, wryly. In present circumstances we need to check them out so that journalism is not plagued by this trade for deception. You have rightly pointed out all pitfalls in this business of journalism. Once again, George, you have come up with a real and painful truth.

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  • Omair Shakil
    Aug 4, 2011 - 12:44AM

    Yellow journalism is rife all over the world and Pakistan is no exception. Fox News and News of the World, anyone? The consumers need to be more discerning when it comes to interpreting the fodder being churned out by the numerous television channels and newspapers. The government should take the first step in eradicating this menace by disengaging all the columnists it keeps on its payroll.

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  • IR4M
    Aug 4, 2011 - 1:05AM

    Its true that being writer in Pakistan is not consider as a earning proffession, there is a need to promote reading habbits among mass and make strong commitment in printing business. We are paying very little to our cultural and educational part, and its true that we can write just for hobby not as profession.

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  • Rafiq Khan
    Aug 4, 2011 - 1:11AM

    You raise an important point. Information asymmetry and absence of any controls and lack of ethics at large, and the absence of law has resulted in many journalists being hired guns. It’s not difficult to tell who is working on who’s agenda.

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  • Talha
    Aug 4, 2011 - 2:07AM

    You first para made me stand up and go out for a refreshing coke.

    It really quenched my thirst, well done George and my gratitude to Coca Cola for this heavenly drink.

    Seems like Eidi will come early into my pockets this year.

    Thank to Coca Cola once again.

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  • Cynical
    Aug 4, 2011 - 3:14AM

    Newspapers,magazines and TV is substituting for Schools,colleges,universities and libraries; small wonder we have so many uneducated men/women around us, with degrees attached to their name.

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  • Mirza
    Aug 4, 2011 - 7:23AM

    Dear George,
    Thanks for telling it like it is. I know that most of the Urdu press is yellow to the core. Even many of the English writers have been less than honest and receive under the table payments. Even the Wiki-leaks have disclosed that the biggest group in Pakistan is a total sellout. One only whishes that some honest people like you out these rich whores? The names and their connections would be an eye opener.
    Thanks again for bringing this important issue out for debate.
    Regards,
    Mirza

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  • N
    Aug 4, 2011 - 7:43AM

    Very well put in the context of our land.

    My favorite is a guy who writes letters to the GHQ and claims to be standing for a liberal society where the fauj should answer to the civilians. As soon as the GHQ men frowned, he unloaded his bylines on India to show how legit it was to have a large military – entirely contradicting himself in the process. Having propped the unsupportable, he claimed his “Pakistani” nationalism and a hordes of this generation lapped it up.

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  • Bina Shah
    Aug 4, 2011 - 10:09AM

    Good article but yellow journalism isn’t the same thing as conflict of interest.

    From Wikipedia:
    “Yellow journalism or the yellow press is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.[1] Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.[1] By extension “Yellow Journalism” is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.”

    Conflict of interest:
    “A conflict of interest (COI) occurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other.
    A conflict of interest can only exist if a person or testimony is entrusted with some impartiality; a modicum of trust is necessary to create it. The presence of a conflict of interest is independent from the execution of impropriety. Therefore, a conflict of interest can be discovered and voluntarily defused before any corruption occurs.”

    The first is legal, although not professional; the second can result in fines and jail terms in many countries.

    Sorry, the pedant in me just had to point that out. Otherwise, excellent points about the nature of journalism in places where no code of ethics exists (Pakistan and elsewhere).

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  • Rafay Alam
    Aug 4, 2011 - 10:13AM

    As someone who has written op-eds for a number of years, I find your aspersions very worrying as I too am a contributor to the English language press. Do you have any proof of what you claim, or is just one of those things? I mean, it’s fairly convenient to make generalization and cast aspersions on fellow Pakistani while living abroad, isn’t it?

    Also, what do you think of the Education Emergency campaign so successfully managed by out mutual friend Fasi Zaka? Would you bracket him (and me, since I wrote about the subject as well) as yellow journalists? I, for one, don’t think we were “dishonest” or that we “duped” any readers.

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  • Aug 4, 2011 - 10:18AM

    George,

    Very well written I really liked your column.

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  • CB Guy
    Aug 4, 2011 - 10:41AM

    Me likes this.

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  • sophia ahmed
    Aug 4, 2011 - 10:59AM

    Not sure how you write it. Op-eds sometimes have subtle endorsements and yes the editor should ask for complete data/affiliations for viewer concerns. However, Im not sure if this op-ed can be an effective medium to change our media’s stance.

    Slight immature musings.

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  • Fouzia
    Aug 4, 2011 - 11:15AM

    Excellent piece! George you are great. To be honest quite a few Pakistan journos (with professional education or not) feed on someones bread outside Pakistan too. Its a shame!

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  • A J Khan
    Aug 4, 2011 - 11:42AM

    Extremely well written article. Many Pakistani Journalist are suffering from this contagious disease. It does not mean that such journalists are not there in India or USA. New York times timely stories are part of such compaign. Beside you see this disease in the comments coloumn.

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  • George Fulton
    Aug 4, 2011 - 11:50AM

    @ Rafay Alam I too wrote about the Education Emergency. No it was a worthy campaign that needed promoting, but i wasn’t paid to do so and nor were you (i presume). The conflict lies when you are being paid to push a debate and use your platform as a columnist to do so without declaring the self-interest. As for Fasi, he worked on the campaign but as far as i am aware wasn’t paid to do so. Also, he mentions the conflict of interest in this article: http://tribune.com.pk/story/132482/we-dont-need-no-education/

    @ Bina Shah. Yes, well done for pointing out the nuances between the two. Stupid mistake on my part. Thank you for keeping us scribes in check!

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  • Amber Darr
    Aug 4, 2011 - 12:04PM

    I enjoyed this. Especially the last line.

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  • Temporal
    Aug 4, 2011 - 12:13PM

    Full disclosure should be integral in both columns and op Ed pieces

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  • YB
    Aug 4, 2011 - 12:55PM

    Good one, George. Now tell us who you were really talking about. My guess is Mosharrif Zaidi?

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  • Nizam
    Aug 4, 2011 - 1:10PM

    Coke is it!

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  • ashok sai
    Aug 4, 2011 - 1:19PM

    @N:

    Absolutely spot on , I second you.

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  • John
    Aug 4, 2011 - 2:22PM

    I thought you were talking about Fai. So Pakistanis here is the case for prosecuting your Dr. Fai.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Aug 4, 2011 - 3:11PM

    Well said. I think a lot of Pakistani’s reading the English press are more aware now. The journalistic community have done a brave job of talking about corruption in government until you read sordid stories about their own ranks.

    Now retired and a writer to keep the mental cob-webs at bay, I too have been accused of bias and, by implication, taking a fee. And on this very paper, talking about the Air Blue accident and the need to give closure to the grieving families I was asked whose view I was “propogating”.

    The only people who could be paying me are the Air Blue Affectees Group, those miserable souls who run from pillar to post for compensation and whose only crime is that they want to know WHY their loved one’s perished on that misty morning in Islamabad just over a year ago.

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  • Aug 4, 2011 - 5:42PM

    I stopped reading after you admitted to shilling for coke. Now if you had talked about a fictional company like say “acme widgets” I might have read the rest of what you had to say.

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  • Hedgefunder
    Aug 4, 2011 - 7:13PM

    @The Coca Cola Corporation:
    LOL ! You forgot to mention, that the very revered name should not be mentioned in the same text or article as those uppity upstarts from Purchase, NY !!!!

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  • eccentric
    Aug 4, 2011 - 10:17PM

    what ever happened to journalistic objectivity and professional integrity; however much of the responsibility lies with us as well….accepting half truths and value laden connotations blindly has led to our perception being shaped by manipulative media for us,

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  • Issam Ahmed
    Aug 5, 2011 - 6:08AM

    George: Good points, solid piece, but without naming names and citing specifics isn’t the article somewhat hobbled? Also, prior to leaving Pakistan, you say you worked for the British Council. Was it not worth mentioning you were employed by a foreign government while you commented on national affairs in Pakistan?

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  • Issam Ahmed
    Aug 5, 2011 - 6:09AM

    Coca Cola Corporation: Revered brand my ass. The same company tried to bully the Dawn group while I was there because a freelance music writer had written that Minute Maid, which had sponsored the gig in Lahore she was sent to cover, tasted like ‘ orange cough syrup’. The Coke brand manager complained to the magazine editor in Karachi using the same phraseology — ‘revered brand’ etc, and the journalist was censured for offering an honest opinion.

    I’m surprised this article was cleared for the Express Tribune given the clout Coke has in advertising in the paper and on the channels, plus the fact that the Lakhanis also own McDonalds in Pakistan (key partner: Coca Cola).

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  • Jahanzaib Haque
    Aug 5, 2011 - 5:58PM

    An earlier comment posted under the name of The Coca-Cola Corporation has been removed as it was a fraudulent posting and was not by The Coca-Cola Company. Best regards (Web Editor)

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  • Omar R Quraishi
    Aug 5, 2011 - 6:11PM

    Issam — point noted — perhaps that should tell you something about the paper then — also as for Dawn, when I was a reporter there I remember going to cover an event — I came back to work to file my story — I got a call from the organisers who claimed to know the owners well and in all likelihood did — they said that I should give them a good review — I told them that if they knew the owners so well perhaps they should perhaps speak to them directly to ensure publication of a good review — I gave a critical review and it was published without any changes or censoring – I never got any calls from the owners and least of all from the editor –

    Omar R Quraishi
    Editorial Pages Editor
    The Express Tribune
    Karachi

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  • ashok sai
    Aug 5, 2011 - 6:21PM

    @Omar R Quraishi:
    @Jahanzaib Haque:

    Very nice to see these kind of transparent comments. No doubt ET thumps.

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  • Talat Haque
    Aug 5, 2011 - 8:20PM

    Transparency! :) ………… small favours !

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  • ashok sai
    Aug 6, 2011 - 9:48AM

    @Talat Haque:

    Oops…:)

    I meant, normally these kind of communications are kept inside, I lauded the transparency of ET.

    Regards

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  • daanish
    Aug 8, 2011 - 1:55AM

    @ashok transparency, my ass…..its nice and convenient to be ‘transparent’ when painting in such broad strokes….i’ll say transparent when ET starts reporting on ANY corporate issues let alone issues related to Lakhani corporate concerns. Also, not least when they start ‘full disclosure’ of their owner’s clear MQM leanings and how they reflect in the editorial policy at the paper. Objectivity may be a dodo everywhere but its a dead-er dodo at this rag.

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