Hype and hyperbole —Mahmud Sipra

Politicians may excel when stamping or addressing a charged rally or a press conference, but put them in front of a camera in the controlled climate of a live broadcast and they are liable to freeze

Mediapersons’ talk of Pakistan’s return to democracy as a cure-all for the ills that besiege it is just hype. It sounds good and reads well, but don’t let it carry you away: it won’t put food on the table or stop load shedding. Because no administration, no matter how popularly elected and or well intentioned, possesses a miracle antidote to eliminate the systemic problems of the economic meltdown that is underway unless the people of Pakistan decide to dig deep and change the way they live.

Also, it is mostly hyperbole when talk show guests appear on myriad television channels and hold forth on how America’s “war on terror” was allowed by former President Musharraf to come to Pakistan because of his “flawed policies”.

One gets a lot of it in today’s television talk shows. God alone knows how many more suicide bombers have to do their grisly job before the naysayers will come around to saying that this is no longer just America’s war but Pakistan’s as well. Let them take a look around and they might just recognise the tell-tale signs of a country under siege. Either they are myopic or they just don’t get it — or both.

The more astute anchor person — after allowing the guest to pontificate on the problems facing the country — will say: “Ok, so we know your views on the problem…but could we now hear the solution?” He is in most cases greeted with a shift in the guest’s sitting position or posture — a clearing of the throat and the convenient phrase:

“I actually agree with my respected friend here…that something should be done…” or “Well! I think we should tell America — once and for all — that we are a sovereign country…”

At which point the anchor has two choices — he can interrupt him by saying: “You are of course assuming that the Americans have to be reminded of this fact…” or spare the squirming pundit and his audience a long-winded trite reply by signalling a commercial break.

The world has seen the surreal and chilling CCTV footage of a dump truck packed with explosives driven by a suicide bomber detonating at one of Islamabad’s top hotels, killing 60 innocent people and maiming or injuring hundreds more. Unfortunately this lends credence to Pakistan’s labelling as “the most dangerous country on the planet”. The mind reels when one thinks how many more such trucks could be roaming our high-alert cities.

When Mr Zardari won the presidential election, I suggested in these pages that “Homeland Security” ought to be one of his priorities. Even if it means asking the Americans to help train civilian personnel and citizens for augmenting the already-stretched resources of the armed forces and other security personnel. It has worked for America and it will work for Pakistan.

Moving on: When the president or the prime minister are about to “address the nation”, it is not enough just to have the camera crew in stand-by mode and the chairman of PTV walking around looking busy, checking that the teleprompter is behaving or ensuring that the proper feed is going out. The dignitary who is about to go on air should also be briefed about the about the effect of the remorseless gaze of the camera.

I know of only two people who have the courage and the professional stature to “brief” the president and compare notes with him about what he is about to say before he appears in front of the camera: This unenviable job was once held by the valiant Khalid Hasan — who was Press Adviser to the formidable ZAB and is today Daily Times’ man in Washington. His job was probably made difficult by the late Mr Bhutto’s penchant for often departing from the script and his proclivity for winging it extemporaneously. But then not very many people possess Mr Bhutto’s towering presence or his facility with words.

The other person is Aslam Azhar, who once had the job that Dr Something is doing today. Aslam Azhar is familiar with all aspects of television production. He is the man who turned the then-nascent state-owned PTV into a respectable creative and commercial entity. It was his job to ensure that the presentation of the president or the prime minister was properly rehearsed and showed them up in the best possible light. A job he did well and with enthusiasm.

If ever called upon, both these talented and experienced men could bring much needed guidance in communication skills to their country in these very difficult and sensitive times. Not all leaders are “born” — sometimes they are packaged.

Most people and politicians are no exception. They may excel when stamping or addressing a politically charged rally or a press conference, but put them in front of a camera in the controlled climate of a live broadcast and they are liable to freeze and fumble. We have seen this happen recently on more than one occasion. It is the job of the man in charge of the telecast to ensure that his ‘star’ is properly prepped.

There are only three things that should feature in the frame: The man himself, the flag and a properly lit photograph of the Quaid in the background. The Quaid’s portrait should be to the right — so that it doesn’t compete with the president’s head — with the flag post framed to the left of him.

One major rule to remember with VIP broadcasts: Expect the unexpected. Because unlike the human eye, the camera doesn’t blink!

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at sipraindubai@yahoo.com

Source: Daily Times, 25/9/2008

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