When criticising our media for its failures, it’s worth bearing in mind that news directors and managements make decisions in an environment that carries its own built-in schedule of incentives and disincentives. And that is where the problems of the media are no different from those of most other sectors of our economy. Today’s media has emerged from a process of “opening up”, or liberalisation, that was implemented throughout our economy in the Musharraf years. Our airwaves were not the only area opened up to private investors. Telecommunications and banking were also opened up rapidly and the results are broadly similar.
Consider the telecoms for instance. The number of entrants in the industry grew fast, following the 2002 telecom policy, leading to the ferocious competition we see today. It is argued that ultimately the beneficiaries have been the customers. But have they really? The manner in which the opening up of the telecom sector was carried out had very few guidelines for ensuring quality service. Pakistan telecom operators are not required to make public the audited numbers for dropped calls and other voice quality indicators. But one of the biggest failures of the telecom policy of 2002 is how it has allowed our landline infrastructure to lag behind in terms of investment.
The story is similar with the banking sector. Prior to the major privatisations of the Musharraf regime, most Pakistani banks were state-owned. Today the situation has been reversed and only a handful of banks remain in the public sector. Has this been beneficial for us? Depends how you look at it, and who you are. While wealthy and salaried urban consumers have enjoyed access to a rich and diverse menu of financial products, bank advances to rural areas have plummeted, as have advances in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The net result is that banks have been channeling depositors’ funds from places like Peshawar and Quetta to urban consumers in Karachi and Lahore. The State Bank has been protesting vigorously at this new inequity in the distribution of credit, but to little avail.
The private management of these banks cannot be faulted for this: anyone in their position would be extremely reluctant to lend to rural parties without adequate safeguards for recovery, and would be extremely averse to corporate lending in a conflict zone. The problems stem from the environment in which these private sector banks find themselves, an environment of severe competition amidst weak institutions for assessing creditworthiness and facilitating recovery. In such an environment they’d rather play it safe and lend only to those parties who can produce reliable collateral and have a clearly demonstrable capacity to repay.
The media is no different. In an environment of cutthroat competition for viewers, a news director not going with the herd will not last very long. The real problem lies in a strategy of liberalisation which had no vision of where things will go after the door to private money has been opened. Just like the government now lacks the ability to force telecoms to invest in quality of service, or force the banks to lend to neglected sectors, it also lacks the ability to tell the media what to cover and how to cover it. The most futile way to rectify this situation is to try and regulate content. You can’t do it. News flows too fast and is too fluid a medium to be captured by the language of legislation. No, instead of regulating content the best thing the government can do now is to take that corner of the media that is still in its own hands and make it the destination of choice for the majority of viewers. Yes, I’m talking about PTV. If the government can run PTV in a manner that gives it credibility without the hype, if viewers can see independence of thought in its content, the government then has a fighting chance of wresting viewers back from the private media and setting the standards they would like everybody else to follow.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2010.