By Wajahat S Khan
I should have known. When Declan Walsh called me the Wednesday before the story broke, I should have known. When he questioned me and had the distinct privilege of making me feel awkward about my own institution, I should have known. When I called up one of my bosses and told him what the New York Times was working on, and heard a pause, and then a diffident “who cares, we will sue them”, I should’ve known.
I should have known when I saw the flash, the cars, the protocol officers, the waiters and the chauffers. I should’ve known when I heard the carefully crafted, contrived American accents and emphasis everywhere: in the recording in the elevator that told me I was joining a global elite, in the human resource officers who were designated to provide me with a restaurant-level chef, in the photographer who would conduct my “branding photo shoot”, in the gym-instructor who would chisel me into shape for the big screen.
Obviously, I misread the vulgar as the virtuous. I should have known better. When the hype of organizational self-belief became religious, then invective, then zealous, I should have known. But the confidence, pouring from the Axact gurus to the Bol executives to me to a thousand other colleagues, was contagious. This was an organization that had grown out of a back office in northern Karachi to cover a few blocks of DHA, I was told. This was an organization that represented the true potential of a modern, connected, online and tech-savvy Pakistan, I was told. This was an organization that I – a nobody kid from a middle-income broken home who was lucky and loud enough to attend a couple of good schools and persistent enough to ride the wave of broadcast journalism in Pakistan as it unleashed upon the national polity – would actually own, not just work for. I was stunned by the possibilities.
But arrogance has a tone. Denial has a deafening silence. And mirages are self-constructed. I contributed to all three, in my three months at Bol. And played along with the best of them, because of where they came from, who they are, and what it all meant.
First, denial: In an industry, which is in the business of compounding transparency, I am not the only one who has put on blinders while running the course over the years. Simply, denial is the price of survival in Pakistani media, nothing else.
It’s not an excuse when I admit that like many other colleagues of my broadcast generation, I’ve had it pretty rough. Bol was my seventh channel in 12 years of broadcasting in Pakistan: Indus, Geo, Dawn (the last two I helped launch), Samaa, PTV Sports, Aaj and then Geo again (where I saw the post-Hamid Mir ‘ban’ take effect) had taken me, consumed me, and let me out on the streets like an angry, orphaned, urchin, toughening me up every time with a deep, hateful skepticism of the “private/electronic media” regime.
Sometimes, I got fired. Other times, I left on principle or got recruited by a bigger gun. But every time, there was a toxic cocktail of the same-old-same-old – office politics, curbed editorial freedom, delayed pay-cheques, pandering to sponsors, corporate, political and security bosses who made their presence felt but weren’t technically in control, not enough re-investment in our internal systems and structures to sustain the counter-culture and public service ethos of what journalism must strive to become instead of the ratings-driven, family-owned, suits-and-boots dominated chop shop, a mogul-military mouthpiece, that it is in most newsrooms today around the country.
But like an abused, dependent spouse, I kept coming back to my tormentor. I was in denial. Sometimes, I led myself into believing I didn’t have a choice, and carried on. Other times, I tried to break loose with a fellowship, or a foreign gig, or print work, but those got old, fast. With all due self-respect, as the “revolving door” of the media industry is a scary machine, you learnt to take on the world, except your own, because of that dependency. It was like a good, consistent drug deal: There was nowhere else to go, and I was hooked on the product. We all work like that. We all do.
Personally, where else would I go? Print? Been there, done that, and still do. It’s static, if not deteriorating. Regional? International? Done those, too. They are limiting: CNN and NBC are relevant, but not locally inspiring. Twitter? A blog. No way.
This is Pakistan, said the ego to the id. This is TV Land. And in TV Land we live, but by a simple rule: The story – except your own – must get out, at whatever cost. That was the oath impinged on our psyches. It was the modern Pakistani broadcaster’s dilemma: Do Tell Upon Others, Do Not Tell Upon Yourself.
Thus, the “this is my job, this is my industry, this is what we do” instinct ruled, though only on the surface. So I learnt the hard way – and never shared openly, till today, though it’s no secret – that in Pakistan, you take the media’s fallibilities like a family disease: as a given, with resignation, never personally, rather only as destiny, but also never to be shared with outsiders.
After all, we’re a family: a spiteful one with a fondness for fratricide, but we are one. Tell On Us And Be Banished, said the other rule. And so the backroom chatter remained in the backroom, even as we changed bosses and companies and editors round about the ever revolving door. From a boss who makes toothpastes and records sex-tapes on yachts, to a boss too closely tied to the judiciary, to a boss who cleaned the books for Arab sheikhs, to a boss who let editorial be underwritten by USAID and DFID programming, we tolerated – no embraced – that crucial, critical breach: the death of the Church Versus State / Management Versus Editorial divide.
And then came Bol, red and white and glossy and gold. Even in its virtual reality, which we purchased almost like a fake degree because we were – are – so desperate, we saw a chance.
Here was an opportunity that was presented by the best and brightest in the industry: Men I’ve known for over a decade, men I’ve wanted to emulate, mimic, sound like; my self-inflicted role models, gods of the newsroom, leaders of the field my generation has followed blindly into emergencies and clampdowns and gag orders and tear gassing and PEMRA wars and taken late night calls from GHQ and the PM Secretariat for. Men who inspire such confidence that when you’re “called” into Aabpara, you arrive, and not just show up, because you believe. Men who teach you, and remind the country through you, that truth prevails, and that it’s still worth something in Pakistan.
Yet, these men let themselves down. They let me down. They let 2000 of my colleagues down. And they let down the country, too. Very honestly, I may have possibly helped them, and not only because I had my blinders on.
There was ambition, too. The case being presented was as powerful as its famous presenters, the pioneers of Pakistani broadcast: That we will break the machine. That we will never take directives or late night calls from the overbearing father-and-son combines, from the vested patrons and the imperious security regime, but from our own kind: editors and reporters, producers and camera persons, leaders and best.
There was promise, of course. That we will be paid on time, for a change. That we will go public, and have joint-ownership, and life insurance, and medical coverage, and a rainy-day fund, and a coffee machine that worked. That we won’t have to beg our flagrant and private jetting seths for a cheque that was due three months ago, because we are the bosses, now. We are the possessors, the creators, the true masters of an industry that runs on our risk, yet never rewards us.
It was a big idea. Of course it was good to believe that Bol’s would be the generation that was going to conduct that modern, necessary triage upon that hemorrhaging, convulsing, cannibalistic Pakistani media. But our self-righteous ambition, our greater goal, made us self-destructive. We tried to conduct surgery on our self to cut away the unwanted bit. But we were one. And we remain one, faults and all.
Yet we thought we were different. We were told we are different, by snake-oil salesmen we desperately tried to ape in their quick success, because we were determined, and hungry, and yes, inspired by the most righteous of our very own kind.
It was a compelling sell, made by the time-tested warriors of the spoken and written word that I, for one, had sworn to believe in (and no, I’m not implying the military here, though I was never overtly encouraged or discouraged, by any martial quarters, who I tend to report on, in this regard). I was sold the mission by men who the industry, nay, the country was sold on for decades. And yes, the money wasn’t bad, either, though for the record, Bol was/is deeply, maybe even ineptly, top heavy. My books speaks for themselves.
Thus, my follies: My due diligence was overshadowed by the bright promises made by my leaders, the best in the business, who were, perhaps, blinded by their own ambition as well as their well-intentioned drive to change the great game. And although my loyalty wasn’t worth my network’s master’s retirement plans or their armoured vehicles, my fellow Bol colleagues and I willfully carried on, through the taunts of even family and friends – that we were alleged “fronts”, or “projects”, or a “scheme” of underworld bosses, of military spooks, of property tycoons – because we wanted to believe that success, slick and polished and well heeled and hip, is possible, even for journalists.
Soldiers tell me that being shot is a strange feeling. Even in a firefight, when you’re expecting it, there is a sting, then a burn, then a weakness, then a slowing down of speech and senses, then a general disillusionment, and then darkness. That’s about what’s happened since I read Walsh’s piece one week ago.
As I read it again and again over the week, for its solid craft and its savage logic, along with the bevy of filth cum lucidity that it birthed on social and national media, I found the hyper-organized Axact and then the Bol configurations disintegrate. I sensed hesitation in the tones of my gods; I sensed their self-assuredness wilt away as their stubbles grew, heard their perfect oratory devolve into delusional harangues. I sensed my once-aggressive reporters break eye contact, their backs hunched. I felt the five-star cafeteria food taste bland, and saw my fuel card stop working. Even the janitors seemed to go missing. As the structure crumbled and the conversations got more cynical, I sensed the machine – which was going to break all machines – breakdown itself. Communication, consolidation, camaraderie – buzzwords that were our core considerations– morphed into an each-man-for-himself scrimmage. I honestly can’t believe it, but resigning on Twitter, probably not technically legal, became a necessity, as our basic function – being public servants – was suspended by our disbelief in ourselves, even each other.
In the end, our detractors were not our real or imagined partners or benefactors, nor frivolous colleagues or jealous critics, but our own bosses and creators and, yes, undoubtedly, even ourselves. We were naive, of course, but also motivated and thick-skinned, engaged in a tight, eyeless defensive crouch in fear of the all-consuming, thankless revolving door that is Pakistani broadcast media.
And so, battle-hardened hacks but still pawns, self-declared false prophets of all that is wrong and unjust in this wasted land, we are on the street again. Yet, we will walk back through that door, as we still believe. But this time, it’s not our silence, but our embarrassment, that will lead us back in.
Wajahat S. Khan is a former Executive Vice President for Bol TV who resigned his position on principle last weekend. He continues as the Pakistan Correspondent for NBC News.