A new media experience
Television played an important role in the coverage of dharnas and nonstop propagation of the political message of Imran Khan and Allama Tahirul Qadri.
The recent political crisis in Islamabad also proved to be a mega media event. Besides PTV and to some extent Geo, the events in the capital with reference to the dharnas or sit-ins instituted by the PTI and PAT, brought all TV channels in the country to focus on the happenings. In fact, these channels followed the story all the way from Lahore. The TV coverage of the Model Town carnage had even helped the JIT (Joint Investigation Team) identify some of the culprits.
The channels also covered the socalled Long March of Imran Khan and Allama Tahirul Qadri from Lahore to Islamabad and kept viewers in touch with every step. Pakistani TV channels had experience of covering long marches before, such as that of former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry or the one that Nawaz Sharif and the lawyers undertook to get Iftikhar Chaudhry reinstated in 2009. But the manner in which the channels were involved
with PTI and PAT coverage in the march and dharnas was quite a nnew experience.
Once the sit-ins of both PTI and PAT got going, the channels also dug in and set up their reporting and camera teams to cover the on-going two dharnas in a more comprehensive manner. Their coverage was further supported by their studios in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad through special transmissions that involved long stints by studio analysts and political 'experts'. All this amounted to non-stop TV coverage and provided an opportunity to many so-called presenters and anchors to undeservedly occupy the air waves for long periods and feed the people with whatever they wanted.
During this time, most channels held back on their regular programming and also minimized their advertising fare, though much to the discomfort of their marketing people.
TV coverage of the political events worked towards building the persona of both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri into larger-than-life personalities. By dint of their holding the dharnas and their blanket coverage by the TV channels, both these personalities simply dominated the TV screens for some three weeks. Their massive TV coverage, in fact, added more to the political message-mongering of both leaders and they were able to get their thoughts across to the masses in a comprehensive and all-encompassing manner and in a way that no amount of purchased air time would have brought for them
In many instances, these long, non-stop transmissions were also a first experience for most of the TV people who were involved in the broadcasts and each one of them had to devise their own methods to keep themselves relevant in the process. The producers devised their own methods and while it was clear that a few of the anchors/hosts stuck to pure reporting and logical analyses, a lot of others resorted to sensationalism in various degrees and even to mis-reporting.
An important high point about the presence of media, particularly television channels, came when TV personnel – reporters, cameramen and technicians – were physically manhandled by policemen on the night of Saturday, August 30 and Sunday, August 31. The police violence was again probably a ‘first’ for the TV channels and they were quite confused about how to respond to such attacks. Another level was reached when protestors stormed into the PTV headquarters on the morning of September 1 and this was probably the first time in the history of media in Pakistan that a TV channel had been taken over by protestors and its transmissions stopped for no less than 40 minutes.
The dharnas also provided an opportunity for the channels to compete with each other in technical terms. They made comprehensive use of crane-mounted cameras for crowd close-ups and showed in graphic detail the enthusiasm and spirit of the speakers and their supporters.
One camera innovation that was used quite extensively by all the major channels was the ‘helicam’ or helicopter-mounted camera. While small in size, the helicam provided good overhead views of the crowds that thronged to the dharnas of both PTI and PAT. However, once the protestors moved to close proximity of the more sensitive buildings, such as the Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s House, helicam coverage was restricted since the overhead views provided by these cameras enabled the public to see a lot else that they should not have been seeing!
In all the TV coverage though, it was not quite clear why most channels focused on showing female crowds only! Where were the male supporters? Was it that just females attended the sit-ins in large numbers or was it that the channels preferred showing girls and women only because they provided good-looking pictures?
The dharna held by Imran Khan’s party was described by political detractors, especially the PML ( N) League, as a ‘musical concert.’ Music and politics perhaps don’t go together but music has turned out to be an innovative manner of gathering crowds and Imran Khan has used music time and again at his political gatherings. Music appeals to the youth who comprise a major portion of support for Imran Khan and helps in attracting a lot of people to come out of their homes and attend dharnas and political gatherings. Maybe music is the route through which the masses – at least the middle class masses – will become politically conscious!
TV coverage of political events is going through a metamorphosis as a result of the PTI and PAT dharnas and leading to new mass media avenues. Let’s hope the innovations adopted by local media will prove to be a source of new learning for their users and they will find more opportunities to apply their gizmos to other occasions such as music concerts and sports events.