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.