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.

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