Doing journalism where public life is synonymous with violence

Originally published as a collection of case studies on ethics.mediaasia.info in 2018.

Dawn, Pakistan

In Pakistan, the politics of confrontation not only have material consequences but also manifest themselves in the symbolic realm. In this environment, Dawn, the most widely circulated and respected English daily, maintains a zero tolerance policy against “attack ads”.

“We only accept ads from political parties that are in praise of their activities, not if they are attacking a rival party,” says Zaffar Abbas.

Dawn’s attempt to foster a constructive national debate in a violently polarized political culture is no accident and is reflected in its commitment to professional practice. Ever since the paper’s foundation in 1941, managements have allowed the editors a level of autonomy unparalleled in the local media industry.

Indeed, Abbas, a career journalist with over 30 years of experience, is the most revered person at the newspaper’s headquarters; the custom is that even “the sahib (CEO) must walk down to the editorial floor for a meeting”. Something all staffers take enormous pride in.

The separation of editorial control from the publisher is a common practice among free and independent news organizations globally. However, it has special significance in Pakistan’s emerging media landscape where muckraking media barons, like other local business owners, often circumvent corporate and informal rules.

Such editorial autonomy comes with a price. The paper is suffering from heavy advertising losses, after it reported details of a special meeting between the powerful military and the civilian government in October 2016. This is in a country where 90 percent of newspaper revenue comes from advertisers, of whom at least 30 percent are government or government-related.

The editor standing next to an exhibit outside his office. – Photo: author

The concept of blocking-a-story doesn’t exist at Dawn, unless of course the story is completely off-tangent and doesn’t fit the standards set by us. But one tries to be careful; this is not a revolutionary newspaper, it’s a decent, objective newspaper where we support democracy and you don’t want to destroy anyone’s business. These rules are made by them (management). They can change the rules but at the moment this is how they function.”  – Zaffar Abbas, editor Dawn.

A respected brand

At the same time, the flagship daily enjoys the prestige of catering to elite educated Pakistanis and claims the highest share of English print readership, giving it a status similar to a newspaper of record. The parent company, Dawn Media Group, understands this well and has managed to inextricably link the professional ethos of the daily with the Dawn brand.

The daily maintains a strict code of ethics for advertisers, in addition to charging a premium tariff. Standard restrictions are applicable on editorial space allocated for ads; for instance, no full front-page ad is ever allowed. Advertisers may also be turned away because of what the paper considers sensitive content. In addition to “attack ads”, these may include sensitive or controversial categories such as marriage, investment, and religious matters.

Pakistani advertisers in turn, understand that the Dawn brand has the potential to leverage their products and are willing to accept such terms.

While the group charges one of the highest tariffs in the country for its flagship product, it maintains a more flexible policy, in keeping with the market, for its other media businesses, which include magazines, a 24-hour news television station, a radio entertainment station and a fast growing news website. For instance, the Dawn TV news channel, managed and run independently of the newspaper, may offer considerable discounts to advertisers, most of whom buy in-bulk. While Dawn.com, the papers’ online extension, follows the general editorial and advertising ambit of the print edition, it can offer a 10 percent discount. No value addition is ever given for the print edition.

The group also organizes exhibitions and trade fairs, which are otherwise rare public events in Pakistan. One such event is the DawnSpelling Bee. A regular fixture in schools, the competition is another example of how the group has based its unique selling proposition on best practice. Previously housed inside the advertiser-focused marketing department, it was shifted to the more reader-centric, circulation department. “We realize that through this programme we are investing in the future. Good readers today, will become the readers of print tomorrow,” explains Ali Hasan Naqvi, the head of marketing.

Management to the rescue

Despite enviable brand equity, the editors forecast that profits for the daily will likely sink below break-even in five to ten years’ time. This is due to commercial factors beyond the battles with disgruntled advertisers and the powerful state apparatus. Recently, much advertising revenue has been encroached upon by the mushrooming of private television channels.

The staffers derive their confidence from the management and with good reason. Hailing from a wealthy business family in Pakistan, the current CEO, Hameed Haroon, is the president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, a patron of the arts and heritage for the local government and hosts a radio programme on South Asian music. “We don’t have a financial goal per se of survival,” he says, speaking about Dawn at his alma mater, the London School of Economics. By this he meant that if the paper is not viable with the existing commitment to editorial independence, it would not be worth continuing with it.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was arguably the paper’s first CEO, was a lawyer by profession and the president of the All-India Muslim League – the political party in British India which fought the constitutional battle for a separate Muslim majority nation-state, later called Pakistan. He became independent Pakistan’s first Governor General. Jinnah’s portrait is part of the paper’s masthead and reminds staffers to see their work as a professional public service, supported by their management.

Looking at Cyril Almeida’s story through the lens of press-state relations

Editions: since I first published this essay here, I have made some minor editions which the reader will come across in line brackets.

These days a story Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military written by a Pakistani journalist and Dawn newspaper staffer, Cyril Almeida, has created quite a buzz in the Pakistani media sphere. Naturally when stories any where on critical policy matters of national interest enter the public sphere they are usually met with considerable scrutiny, analysis and some form of controversy. What makes the Pakistani case so compelling in my opinion are firstly the actors involved; a sitting government, a military establishment and a well reputed news organisation, and secondly; a highly speculative buzz most of which ignores journalism practice as a basis to ground analysis. In this essay I attempt to examine the controversy through the lens of a theory of press-state relations in the United States. Resulting analysis won’t be a precise or the only explanation of the incident. But by using established knowledge it may offer some viable explanation on the veracity of the story and what that implies.

 

It is widely established that journalist look mostly to government officials as the source of most of their daily reporting. There are many explanations for this but Lance W. Bennett (1990) classical hypothesis neatly summarises its major consequence, that:

Mass media professionals, from the boardroom to the beat, tend to ‘’index’’ the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic. (p.106) 

Now Mr. Almeida’s story is controversial for two major reasons; first due to sensitive timing the story seems fabricated, as from a theoretical view its assertions fall outside present debates within government and policy circles. Relatedly, second, the government believes the story to be ‘speculative’, ‘misleading and factually incorrect’ because it has no source. And to my knowledge no public statement has been released by the ISPR to dispel these notions.

Lets start with the issue of the elusive source.

Indexing applies to ‘behaviour of prestige news organisation that set professional standards and influence news agenda’ and exclude those that can have an ideological sway due to small audiences and/or specific tastes. So for instance it can more credibly be applied to Daily Dawn a newspaper well regarded internationally and locally. Notwithstanding its vehement defence of information that was “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”, indexing and every day journalism norms leads us to conclude with some confidence that Mr Almedia’s story indeed came from government and/or state officials. [Which raises doubts and questions about the governments claim that the story is fabricated and why the military has chosen to remain silent.]

Next,

It’s not enough to simply hold the norm as true if theory says so. The context matters. Political unity over Kashmir in these troubled times matter. Mr. Almeida’s story perhaps does not represent opinion within policy circles? It’s a fabrication that hints of mischief. The theory’s assumptions can shed some light here.

In setting the range of acceptable voices and opinions such a newspaper will allow on an issue, it will select official sources likely to influence outcome of events rather than isolated and extreme voices. The assertions in the story, such as disagreement over state policy on militants, could have only made it to print because they came from powerful sources. Not that powerful voices are credible by default. Source selection is based on a newspaper’s understanding of the current political calculus and a stable majority opinion within government and other policy circles. It stands to reason that matters of vital national interest would only warrant relevant powerful voices through the news gate and exclude deviants.

And had the official policy on militants – including disagreements – as reported in the newspaper actually included deviant views, or fabrications, the ‘circumstances surrounding such inclusions usually involve civil disobedience, protests, or lawless acts that establish negative interpretative contexts for those voices’ (p. 107). So had the report not represented mainstream opinions in policy circles, the story would have proceeded or preceded by a volatile situation. So far this has not happened publicly, at least in how we Pakistanis understand volatile situations. Other than Mr. Almeida being intimidated through the Exit Control List.

So, is the ‘potentially ground-shifting exchange between the ISI DG and several civilian officials’ as portrayed, accurate? Theoretically they are insofar as, a) the newspaper indeed carried professional norms of reporting it is regarded for, b) the story reflected present tensions in official policy circles that the newspaper was able to exploit and c) when the story landed there was no serious law and order situation surrounding it. [Not yet any way.]

[Unfortunately we don’t have more information to make an accurate judgement here. My hunch is that a meeting on those issues did happen but the ‘ground shifting exchange’ as depicted, among the most senior leaders of our country, seems a bit unreasonable.]

There are limitations however to these explanations and indexing to some extent accounts for them. For instance, the kind of issue determines applicability; ‘everyday events, crises, and policies (are more applicable) than…“special coverage” of things like elections that may have a normative-ritual order of their own’. [So unless we are going through unusually special political times this limitation is invalid. Although, considering the PTI rallies just around the corner one could think otherwise. Which would imply that we are in for those nazuk times yet again.]

 

In concluding I would simply add that all actors involved in the story including Daily Dawn may claim to act in the public interest. But if that requires bringing the voice of ordinary Pakistani’s on militancy to print, it would hardly happen. Indexing implies that professional news reporting operates independent of expressed public opinion.

Reference

Bennett, W. L., (1990) ‘Towards a theory of press-state relations in the United States’, International Journal of Communication, 40: 103–127.