Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 May 2008
Issue No. 896
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Galal Nassar

Some subtlety please

An obsequious press does more harm than good to the president and country, writes Galal Nassar

Over the past few days, I followed with professional and academic interest the supplements and pages penned in homage to President Hosni Mubarak on his 80th birthday. I watched the programmes on television dedicated to the occasion and read the commentaries published in the independent and opposition press. I wish to focus here on the coverage by newspapers owned by the Higher Press Council; namely, by the state. Their ebullience seemed to me excessive as well as lacking in professionalism and political and social sensibility.

To start with, I would like to make it clear that I am one of President Mubarak's admirers. I appreciate the way in which he has turned the presidency into an institution with solid traditions and professional standards, an achievement that nearly matches his heroic military record as a fighter and chief of the air force in the 1973 War. So my comments are in no way a reflection on the president, but on state media handling of the occasion.

The intensive coverage, as far as I am concerned, is a sign that the president is not surrounded by qualified people. Otherwise, they wouldn't have allowed state-sponsored media and television to display such a lack of political savvy in covering the president's life and achievements. President Mubarak has been rewarded by the nation and re- elected for 28 years -- the utmost reward of an elected official in a democracy. When once the trust of pubic opinion is renewed, what else does one hope for?

My point is that those who surround the president, from top aides and advisers to ministers, did nothing to stop grovelling chief editors from taking praise to the heights of unsavoury hypocrisy. With an eye to the appointment of newspaper chiefs, due in June, editors competed in running full pages and colour supplements extolling the president, his character, achievements, wisdom, morality, and affection for the working classes -- all done in a poor, even obsequious, manner, even if it is well intentioned.

From a strictly professional and academic point of view, I have to say that the praise was taken to the point where it was no longer flattering or fair to the president and the regime. A grovelling media takes us back years to the times of totalitarianism and personality cult. Do we really need to turn our leaders into infallible deities, into legendary creatures who are above error?

If anything, this tells us of the poor intellectual, educational and professional abilities of some newspaper editors, as well as of the people whose job is to produce the public image of the president and the country's institutions. The whole thing doesn't say much about the process of selection that brought such people into their current posts.

One shouldn't use the president's popularity as a prop to stay in one's job. Unfortunately, we haven't heard one official protesting against the grovelling that can only undermine the president's store of public goodwill, recently boosted by his increasing wages by 30 per cent on Labour Day, a measure intended to help workers and those on low-incomes face the rising costs of living.

The whole coverage did more damage than good. And those who engineered it flouted our democratic principles and values of hard work and dedication. What we saw in the state-sponsored papers was but a hypocritical litany meant to advance certain careers, irrespective of the damage done to the profession, the regime, and the president's image.

Years ago, when I was studying for a master's degree at the Institute of International Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, one part of the curricula had to do with the fashioning of the public image of leaders and consequently government. The making of a leader's image is something usually accomplished by highly trained media specialists; by publicists who advise the president on how to say the things he wants to say -- when, where, in whose company, on which occasion. Such professionals have the necessary training to tell the president what to wear, down to colour and style, for every event. Publicists help shape the way the leader is perceived inside and outside the country. Their advice can be crucial to the official and country as a whole. The dignity of the president, his appearance, and his perception are matters of high state interest and no one should be allowed to distort them, not even those who claim to have been given orders from above.

Some may recall the first television appearance of President George W Bush following the 9/11 attacks. He was formally dressed, sitting at a desk. And behind him was a window overlooking a street busy with life and people. The message the publicists wanted to convey was that the American people were in good shape and that life would go on. The president delivered his message and the publicists did their job. Now cut to President Bush in other occasions. You'd see him wearing casual outfits in certain occasions and formal wear in others. All this is planned to the tiniest detail. When the president says something, his words are poured over in advance. What the president says abroad may differ from what he says at home. And when publicists feed the media information about their political, economic and social achievements, they go about it in a professional manner, not in the crude style of our state-sponsored editors.

Events, meetings and conferences could have been arranged to mark such an occasion. In such a manner, the event would be in homage to the team rather than the man. President Mubarak didn't need the state- sponsored media to tell him how popular he was.

Another aspect of political and professional importance is that crude press coverage deprives the regime of its media manoeuvrability both inside and outside the country. What might be seen by many as political hypocrisy of the media aligns it totally with the regime, which makes people perceive everything the media says as coming from the president and the regime, a matter that undermines Egypt's image and credibility. In fact, it was such behaviour that boosted the credibility of the independent and private press in Egypt at the expense of state-sponsored media.

Now allow me to pose this academic question. How is it that a government that owns 85 per cent of the media is unable to convince public opinion of its accomplishments? How is our government failing to rally public support on major national issues? And why do our writers come across as lame when defending Egypt's political and regional policies?

The crudeness and hypocrisy have taken their toll. Today, we have a state-sponsored media that is incapable of offering fresh political views, and by extension incapable of maintaining Egypt's pioneering role regarding various Arab issues. We used to have writers who commanded the respect of Arab public opinion. Now we have editors who think that hypocrisy is the best way to advance a career. As a result, the circulation of papers is down, advertising is down, and losses and professional irregularities are on the rise.

Smart politicians would tell you that if the Egyptian political regime really wants to use the media properly it should distance itself from it. The choice of highly qualified chief editors would be a good start. The media should be allowed to compete. It should convey accurate information through timely reporting. And it should have more freedom of opinion and in-depth reportage. Once this is achieved, the media would be credible and in a position to help the regime in its time of need. The press is like a blade; you want to keep it sharp so you can rely on it in time of need. Subtle approval is worth more than swathes of worthless printed sycophancy.

So long as newspapers remain state-owned, someone within the regime must see to it that they remain on the right path professionally as well as politically and socially. Public ownership comes with responsibility, for it is the nation that is paying for the press at the end of the day. We cannot afford to let editorial and administrative chiefs act as presidential publicists. This is not their role. It is a job that must be performed by qualified people who have the education, the political sense, and the media savvy to deliver a strong message. Publicists should be hired by the ruling party or presidential institution, and should promote the higher interests of the state by promoting the image of the president. Serving the president should be part of serving the country, not the other way around. The president -- or the prime minister or any other type of leader -- should know that it is in his best interest to listen to professional publicists and trust their opinion.

As I wish the president a happy birthday, I hope that someone will end the hypocritical charade that marked this year's event. Someone must act, if not the president then his advisers or the Higher Press Council. What matters is that next year things will be different and that the regime teaches the hypocrites a lesson; namely that their grovelling, which is paid for from the pockets of readers and tax payers, is no longer needed.

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