The ten-decibel rule - Irfan Husain - January 12, 2011

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GIVEN last week’s terrible events in Pakistan, I have been compulsively flipping across as many desi channels as are available to me here in Devizes. Needless to say, the chat shows taught me little, and the news endlessly repeated what I already knew.

Ever since private TV channels began cluttering up our airwaves, I have been struck by how little most of them have added to the public discourse, apart from sound and fury. If, through an act of divine intervention or an electro-magnetic pulse, they were abruptly terminated, would we really miss them?

Of course, the legion of chat show guests who travel in herds from one studio to another would be lost. How would they spend their evenings, and who would be their audience for the bizarre views they regale us with? Considering that they are not paid a dime for their efforts, TV channels get good value from this generally clueless bunch.

Anchors and hosts, too, would lose their fat salaries and their time in the limelight. But the audience could get on with their lives without being subjected to hair-brained conspiracy theories, and the ravings of the lunatic fringe.

Seriously, though, the 24/7 news cycle puts pressure on already ill-informed and poorly educated anchors who amplify and perpetuate myths and prejudices. Of course there are a few honourable exceptions, but by and large, the content of most of our TV channels is so tedious that finding anybody talking sense is a huge relief.

Above all, I find our panellists extremely loud. It’s as though they are convinced that they can only win an argument by the volume of their voices. Once one of them has the microphone, he is reluctant to relinquish it. Anchors abdicate control, and the guests indulge in a loud free-for-all in which they lose not only their dignity, but the thread of their argument as well.

A few weeks ago, I was sent a YouTube clip showing one guest losing it so completely that he stood up, flung his glass at a fellow panellist, and stalked off the set. Even though he is an intelligent, charming chat show host himself, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline an invitation to appear on his show if he ever asks me again.

So what makes us so loud and aggressive as soon as the cameras roll, and the microphone is switched on? A British journalist wrote years ago that Indians spoke at each other, and not to each other. This is equally true of Pakistanis. We are so convinced of our own point of view that we want to ram it down everybody’s throat without hearing what the other person is saying. Our opinion is the only one that counts, and everybody else is talking nonsense.

When three or four panellists sit around a table with this mindset, they are not going to allow something as mundane as good manners get between them and the microphone. The hosts allow control to slip away, and we are left with grown-up men and women talking loudly at each other. Often, the audience is left baffled by this loud babble.

The other thing that comes across is the anger so many of our panellists express. Faces contorted, they rage at each other and at the cameras. People like Imran Khan are perpetually furious at something or the other. Mostly, it’s the Americans, with Asif Zardari being a close second.

In the UK, if a guest behaves obnoxiously on a show, he is not invited again. Anchors interrupt if a panellist is taking too much time, and invariably, the guest would defer to a request to get on with it. But in Pakistan, people take umbrage at being asked to let somebody else speak. I suppose since they aren’t being paid for their time, they feel they can behave as they wish.

Many years ago, I half-jokingly tried to impose what I called ‘the ten-decibel rule’ in my house in Lahore. This was an arbitrary level of volume I plucked out of the air to limit how loudly friends were allowed to speak late in the evening by which point everybody was well lubricated. Of course nobody took me seriously, and continued yelling even though they were seated next to each other. Sadly, most of them have not changed in this respect.

My wife has often observed that whenever two or more Pakistanis get together, the only subject they discuss is politics. And not just current politics, but how things got to where they are today, starting with partition in 1947. I fear she’s right: we are completely fixated by politics, and repeat ourselves endlessly, specially as the evening wears on.

Hence, I suppose, the popularity of current affairs chat shows on TV. We just can’t get enough discussions about politics, so that’s what we are fed. I almost wish for the return of the anodyne, censored contents of PTV when it had a monopoly of the airwaves. When private channels first began broadcasting around a decade ago, I had high hopes that they would open new vistas, and make for a more liberal, tolerant Pakistan.

But the opposite has happened, with many private channels serving as a platform for the most virulent, hate-filled messages. Democracy and politicians are under constant attack, the sub-text being that given the lousy job the government is doing, yet another bout of military rule would not be a bad thing. The most reactionary, offensive views are pushed by clerics who are not challenged by their TV hosts.

I suppose many poorly educated viewers are impressed by the sheer volume of the discourse. Calm, collected voices have no chance in this fish-market of competing ideas. So to allow for a level playing field, I would like to suggest that microphones be adjusted so they stop working when the speaker raises his voice over 10 decibels. This would encourage civilised debate where arguments would have to be based on reason and knowledge, and not on sheer volume.

On a more serious note, I occasionally wonder how kids view politics as seen through the distorting prism of the TV screen. How can they possibly respect a process that is the subject of so much yelling and frothing at the mouth? Woody Allen, the quirky American film-maker, once wrote: “God goes about His business silently. Why can’t mankind shut up?”

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