Does It Really Affect The Bottom Line?

The media isn't without a social conscience. Despite the much ragged about issue of soulless commercialism, artists have a genuine reason for remaining mum on the conditions of inequity in the country and the lack of representative institutions. This column is not to justify their passivity, but to understand that their concerns are valid.

To them, the repercussions of voicing their conscience might hurt the bottom line. For the idealists amongst us that may not be an issue, but in the notoriously fickle world of entertainment confronting the public with the socially progressive can be dangerous. Because it's actually the consumers who vote ceaselessly, not with the ballot, but with their pocket books.

Honestly, it's hard to find examples within Pakistan when an entertainer stood up to fight the establishment positions on issues with the notable exception of Junoon in their heyday. But for that they were penalized heavily, denied all avenues to make a living by cutting their exposure on the then crucial medium of state television.

But as an example, the U.S. is a great source of comparative information when it comes to issues like these. The U.S. market is mined for every dollar and artistes have it better there. Even if they took positions on controversial issues, one would assume they would still be able to make a living.

That's true to a degree, but things can go really wrong. When Sinead 'O' Connor took a stand by mocking the Pope over the inaction of the Vatican on the issue of child abuse, it all but ended her career once the religious right weighed in.

The Dixie Chicks' recently spoke against Bush at a concert and the backlash was substantial. Many radio stations refused to play their material. It definitely hurt their bottom line. But what was key in that case was their commercial sponsor, Lipton, who did not drop them because of the negative press they had attracted in the religious and politically right wing belt within the USA.

Sponsors are far more conservative in Pakistan, it's hard to conceive that Lipton would have done the same here, say if Ali Haider had decided to endorse a movement for the return to democracy or take a position against the National Security Council.

Plus in the U.S. there are many brands who endorse left wing views that help fill the vacuum, like The Body Shop or Ben & Jerry's. We don't have those equivalents.

The argument that political or social relevance is integral to art isn't entirely true as well. There is a lot of art based solely on the effect of a refined aesthetic that shows the ideal form. Take Rage Against the Machine, arguably the most radically progressive U.S. mainstream band ever. When they broke up after the lead singer departed, the remaining members of the band hooked up with Chris Cornell who didn't want anything to do with their politics. The result is still art, even if it is devoid of the explicit content on the state of society.

That of course is something artistes in Pakistan argue. If they aren't bothered on making a stand on issues then forcing them will also be insincere. Shiraz Uppal can still make great music even if he has lyrics that whitewash the harshness of our living conditions.

Would it cost you something if you took a stand against the corporations? Yes, it would. Pearl Jam learned that the hard way when they fought the company Ticketmaster which arranges concert ticketing and venues. By trying to find another route, they lost a crucial business route to the fan base, one which has decimated their standing because of the lack of interaction between artiste and consumer.

On another note, there has been a significant drift of political activism domestically but not the kind we would expect. Junaid Jamshed is the most poignant example. His beliefs have made him choose to end his career, which is gutsy even if one vehemently disagrees with the views he has on education and politics. He is the only one so far who has let his beliefs hurt the bottom line of his balance sheet amongst the current lot. Or Musarrat Misbah who is getting free reconstructive surgery for those scarred by domestic violence.

But, it's the other end of the spectrum that is in a vacuum. For entertainers, embracing religion and middle class Pakistan is easy to do, but to argue for a more modern society based on the recognition of democratic principles, the elimination of extremist thought and upholding the rule of law has few takers among the mass of placid consumers.

For example, in a similar vein the easiest thing in America is to speak out for Israel. Recently all the major stars in the film industry took out advertisements to support Israel in its efforts to marginalize the Palestinians even further. What's needed is someone to do the opposite, but there are no takers because it will create a consumer backlash, while supporting Israel is the easiest form of political activism.

So yes, it does hurt the wallet substantially anywhere in the world to develop a conscience, even in the media. Integrity comes with a heavy price tag. Let's hope more are willing to pay for it.

Fasi Zaka
January, 2007
The News International, Pakistan