Islamabad Diary: Spinning around in numbers
Like most journalists I took up the profession because I was useless at math. It is ironic – and quite painful – then that I was surrounded by numbers for the first month after I moved to Islamabad. Even worse I, an English and History graduate, was expected to make sense of numbers that often ran into seven or eight digits.
It was budget season in Islamabad, a time when people pretend to know what encumbrance control and interfund agreements mean and then proceed to thoughtfully ponder their significance to Pakistan’s financial future.
Since mathematical nous isn’t native to most journalists, the spin doctors took over. They are variously described in the newspapers as “senior”, “high-up” and “informed” but not one of them agreed with anyone else on a single budget item.
As with all behind-the-scenes battles fought in Pakistan, the military is the most efficient at the dark art of anonymous public relations.
When the government revealed that defence spending would be increased by 11.48 per cent, a shadowy team of supposed experts went to work.
I received an email from a supposedly independent analyst. He had sent snazzy graphics, punctuated with bullet points for the learning-impaired, showing that the rise in defence spending was actually a budget cut since the increase was below the rate of inflation.
Just a couple of days later, a friend who is also an economic expert, supposedly unconnected to the first, sent out the exact same e-mail. When I called him out on this coordinated messaging he simply replied, “Great minds think alike.”
Then there was the military lackey who, feeling that the military’s money was being scrutinised far too closely, decided to show journalists how it’s done in India.
Quite apart from the dubious information contained therein, telling us that the Ministry of Defence in India hides its expenses and is never publicly questioned by the Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Defence, this revealed a lot about our obsession with India. When under pressure we scream, “But that is how India does it”; the rest of time we just criticise them for everything.
At least the military had a united public relations strategy. The politicians were looking out only for themselves. It is a truism that those who actually have information never get it, but those who are ignorant love leaking to the press. And so it was with the budget.
The finance minister and those surrounding him were tight-lipped, leaking selective information when they considered it advantageous. Go further down the food chain, however, and the politicians were less discreet. Unfortunately they were also far less useful. Most of their spin was of the self-aggrandising kind.
Journalists were told which important people these backbenchers had met and how their input was so desperately being sought in the budget-making process.
These same politicos were then the first to disavow any connection with budget items that turned out to be unpopular.
Islamabad may be Spin City but it is always hard to tell who’s doing the spinning. Consultants may turn to be lackeys, a confidant could likely be a hack for the military. But, rest assured, it is always journalists who are being spun.
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