Is it time we begin to develop a crtique of the media that goes beyond the polemical mode? Sharaad Kuttan calls for of a politics as well as a programme that can effectively address
the crisis in the media.
“Never has such a large segment of the Malaysian public been more disenchanted with their leaders than at the present moment. yet never have the Malaysian mainstream media been so out of touch with this public sentiment,” writes Zaharom Nain in the latest issue of Aliran Monthly – the magazine of the respected Penang-based NGO which has been championing many civil and political rights issues for over last two decades.
A Universiti Sains Malaysia academic, Zaharom’s polemic against the mainstream media will be familiar to anyone who reads the “Bare Knuckles” column on malaysiakini, the web-based news service. In contrast to the soberity of his opening paragrah, the rest of Zaharoms article is punctuated by reiteration of the words “crude”, ‘vulgar”, “mediocre”, “lackey”. These mark the tone of the polemic which concludes with the indictment, “isn’t it time we stopped allowing our country to be shamed and held to ransom by all manners of hacks and hussies?”
While Zaharom’s work reflects the wide spread crisis of confidence in the media, its not clear what clarity he brings to the issue. The word that he is clearly trying to popularise is “hacks”. The dictionary describes the word as a “disapproving or humourous [description of a] journalist whose work is of low quality or lacks imagination”. However, the way he wields it refers to yet another meaning of the word, “to cut in a rough and violent way, often without aiming exactly”. And at this point in our now protracted political crisis, and after more than a year of attacks on the pro-establishment media, the quality of that aim is crucial.
To his lexicon of resistance, he adds “hussies”; though one is hard pressed to understand the purpose of this less than humourous reference. Zaharom writes: “But such mediocrity pales in comparison with the mediocrity of the so-called ‘broadcast journalist’ – sadly, nothing more than hack reporters, except made up like Barbie dolls, and then more hussy than brainy, …”. One must ask if his campaign is against the media or for media reform; something Aliran has long been involved in.
This polemical tone is comparable to the low moments in the campaign for media reform like the recent ritual caning of the Mahathir and Badawi effigies at the National Mosque over the restriction of Harakah. We have unfortunately had many low points in the public discourse about the state of the media including the much photographed physical attack on TV3 journalist by reformasi supporters which entered into the Barisan Nasional propaganda arsenal. It also includes the unwittingly humourous and absurd attacks from sources like a Harakah reader who in a letter to the paper titled “TV3 Maki Tuhan” (TV3 mocks god) accuses the television station’s newscaster of blasphemy for reading a weather report describing a situation as “extreme weather conditions”. The reader believes the since ‘god determines everything”, it was presumptuous for the report to say the weather was “extreme”.
In contrast, one of the more interesting points in the campaign against the pro-establishement press has been by cartoonist Zunar – whose simplistic political analysis is masked by a brilliant visual comic humour, the quality of which we havenít seen in this country since the advent of Lat. It has a caustic flavour that stings and lingers. Unfortunately, there has been little by way of a balanced critique of the media on both sides of the political barricades.
It is in this context that we ask of Zaharom what is his contribution to the public debate about the media. To characterise Zaharom’s critique of the media we might point to several issues. Firstly, he refuses to recognise any “struggle” within the media itself and consequently is not interested in any close reading of the media and its output. He is not interested to explore how editorial policies vary from page one to the sports pages, through the feature sections and business pages. He is not interested in the play between papers or between TV stations. His judgment, and his reigning down of polemical fire and brimstone seem based on a reading of essentiallly pages one to five where the party political news resides.
One might take the Marxist wisdom to heart that “just because there are flowers, does not mean it isn’t a swamp”, and not be distracted by instances of good journalism, or balanced reporting or progressive views in the pro-establishment, mainstream press. These exceptions, as it were, prove the rule – that of a cowed, mediocre press, slavish to the Barisan Nasional. However, there are some like myself who place a strategic (long term) and pedagogic value in educating the reading or viewing public to be more critical as readers and viewers; to read between the lines and to discern “resistance” within the mainstream. We might call this a politics of reading.
Media boycotts which argue that readers and viewers act solely as “dissatisfied customers” and “disenchanted citizens” (both valid positions) serve to provide opposition parties with a focus for their supporters but has low pedagogic value. If customers refuse to read newspapers and citizens refuse to watch TV, what is there to learn. This politics of refusal also tends to stigmatise of all journalists who participate in the mainstream because it modality is often moralistic.
This politics of refusal contrasts with the politics of reading in one major way. The political correlate of the politics of reading is to support professional and progressive journalist within the mainstream. And a major reason to value their presence in the mainstream is the opportunity they might have in a moment of political uncertainty, of crisis or of transition to push for a progressive practice within the mainstream press. This position has to be developed as part of a strategic alliance of progressive journalists across the mainstream and alternative media. And through this strategic alliance a programme can be constructed. And we must begin to talk about a programme so that do not remain at the level of liberal niceties.
Returning to Zaharom; his academic work tends to foreground the general structural foundations that inhibit a free informational and commuincative regime; that is, he highlights legislative restrictions – the Official Secrets Act, licensing provisions etc – and ìownership and controlî constraints. However, his polemic is curiously moralistic in tone; a posture that has no relationship to his work.
An important blind spot in Zaharom’s critical gaze is the alternative, oppositional media. Charcterised as victims of the system and marginal, he avoids turning a critical eye on the oppositional press whether in print on in cyberspace. This avoidance, which is damaging to his own credibility as an observer of the local scene, is based on a difficulty within the structure of pro-democratic politics in our country. How do those who support the struggle for democracy in this country criticise their allies without that criticism being coopted by the anti-democratic forces? How do we distinguish between a commitment to support the struggle for democracy and the commitment to a particular group participating in the struggle for democracy? Should the latter be contingent and the former unconditional? These are questions that we need to answer.
Lastly, Zaharom does, late in his essay, address in a more sober tone the question of ìregaining trustî. He writes, “At a personal level, regaining trust would require honestly addressing core issues, such as oneís dignity, professionalism and ethics. At an institutional level, it would require a requestioning of structures of power and a consideration of genuine organisational reform, guided by professionalism that makes sense to the rakyat, not merely the powerful few.” One would like to see an elaboration of these points not so much as a series on the theory of an open and pluralistic communicative regime but in terms of strategic engagements under given conditions. Only then can we all make history.