The funny side of politicians behind the scenes

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“You’re a woman. You should call him. Then he’ll definitely come on your show,” was one phrase that my female associate producer and I would hear very often from our male counterparts. Our job description included calling guests to our current affairs talk show and we had been managing quite well.

Politicians are a funny breed of people. They crave the limelight but love to do nakhras as well. In my five years of dealing with politicians, I have learnt three crucial things: Tell them how great they are and you are bound to get the politician you want onto your show; whine a bit and tell them the show can’t happen without them; and become best friends with their personal assistants.

I once called a politician who, after I invited him on the show, told me about his exercise regime. Without provocation, he just felt the need to tell me how he lifted weights every day; another senior politician spent 20 minutes telling me about his trip to Europe, and yet another felt the need to tell me what his wife thought about the current political situation. Female politicians have the need to discuss other things. They love to discuss other female politicians, criticising their dress sense, and discussing who has gotten what sort of facial reconstruction done to look younger. And I don’t think they care who’s listening, as long as someone is. I will admit that there have been many times when listening to politicians drone on and on – both male and female – I’ve handed the phone over to my other female team member who listens and comments where needed, then hands the phone back to me. Politicians can never tell the difference.

Then there are many politicians who refuse to sit down with other politicians on a talk show. Some ask for the guest list and then crib about having to sit with someone they don’t get along with. We then need to deal with that ego battle, weigh and wonder whose point of view we would require, and who can be replaced by another. Viewers usually see a finished, seamless product on air. Putting it all together is where all the action takes place. On camera, the action is different. The fighting, shouting, screaming, throwing things and hurling insults is something that we’ve all become used to when we watch television. After a while it gets boring.

The interesting bit happens when the anchor goes on a commercial break. The screaming dies down and the shaa‘iri starts. The ‘guest politicians’ sprout poetry to each other, laugh, some even giggle, while others inquire about how everyone is doing. As soon as the countdown to going back on air starts, silence prevails, and those menacing looks take hold.

After the Malik Riaz interview break clips were leaked on YouTube, creating one of the biggest scandals in broadcast journalism history in Pakistan, silence prevailed throughout the breaks taken on talk shows. Guests squirmed in their seats, awkwardly silent, as viewers watched commercials. Anchors laughed, telling their guests, “don’t worry, we’re not recording this,” and politicians politely chuckled. But still sat through silence.

Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong with journalists being professionally amiable towards politicians. It actually helps in understanding one another. And after liaising with so many for their comments on news stories, one learns to appreciate that they too have the same concerns and problems as those of us who work for broadcast houses. They are open to suggestions on how to better their TV ‘performances’, with some even taking feedback and criticism whereas others being prone to yelling at producers when they feel their point of view hasn’t been given enough time on live television, but then it is all in the past the next time they speak with you.

It’s a different world behind the scenes. It’s where we gather information, discuss analyses, and bring every point of view forward — no matter how hard it gets for us to bring it to you. That’s politics and political television.

— Marium Chaudhry is a senior producer at a news channel

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