Did you know that Marie Antoinette never told the peasants of France to eat cake? That Nero actually converted his palace into a shelter while Rome burned? That Pakistan suffered a defeat in the 1965 war with India? Add to this list of myths the supposed WikiLeaks cable that proves India’s complicity in terrorism in Pakistan, the Baloch insurgency and a whole host of other crimes.
That at least three newspapers fell for an obvious hoax is troubling. Since two of the three newspapers (including The Express Tribune) that reported on the fake cable apologised on their front pages the next day, we can safely rule out the suspicion that they were pushed into publishing propaganda by the powers-that-be. The most charitable interpretation is that, in the hunger for a juicy scoop, scepticism followed by fact-checking were deemed a luxury. Or, and this is something I’ve been guilty of throughout my career, no one noticed.
Instead of speculating on the motives of the newspapers, it would be more beneficial to examine the effect of publishing the faked leaks. The primary means of information exchange in Pakistan is certainly not through the printed press; word-of-mouth, radio and television news will always trump it. What newspapers print matters only because of the echo-chamber effect. Even if only one person read about the faked cables, he would have breathlessly passed on this shocking information to another dozen people and so the news would have spread. The electronic media would have also picked up on the news item, and, either through ignorance or malice, passed it on uncritically. Thus the même is built that India is responsible for terrorism in this country and no number of corrections will dispel that impression.
The media was only the vehicle for delivering the WikiLeaks-that-weren’t. The ultimate responsibility lies with us, the consumers. That the news stories based on the falsified cables were believed by so many people shows that they only told us what we so desperately want to be true. For a story to pass muster, it must ring true. And a heady brew of inflammatory textbooks, government sabre-rattling, media sensationalism and, it must be admitted, our own prejudice, have convinced a large percentage of the population that a hidden Hindu hand must be behind every local problem. Any media organisation which claimed, for example, that the slippery Swiss were behind the Baloch separatists, would be laughed into bankruptcy. Since we have so successfully demonised India, for many its involvement doesn’t so much as merit an arched eyebrow.
Since self-congratulation is easier than reflection, there will also be a lot of chatter in the coming days about the burgeoning photosphere. True, the fraudulent cables were first exposed as such by blogs and Twitter users. Inevitably, this will be used as proof that the Pakistani population is too sophisticated to fall for such hoaxes. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking a few liberal journalists are representative of a country that is all too willing to believe the worst about its neighbour.
An opinion poll carried out by the International Republican Institute found that 42 per cent of respondents believed that the 26/11 Mumbai attacks were carried out by Indians, while another 20 per cent pointed the finger at the US. A country willing to believe that is just asking to be taken for a ride.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2010.