There are numerous lessons to draw from President Zardari’s sudden dash to Dubai for medical treatment:
1) Pakistan loves a conspiracy – no need to elabourate
2) Pakistan’s government lacks a co-ordinated media operation – at first officials said Zardari had gone to Dubai to visit his kids and for routine medical tests, then it was at his doctor’s recommendation for unscheduled checks, then at his children’s insistence. Unfortunately a government minister let the cat out of the bag by suggesting it was far more serious. Then press releases described the president’s heir meeting all and sundry, making it sound as if the succession was under way. A PR disaster
3) blogs are all well and good for analysis, but less good for breaking news – a report that a president’s illness may act as an excuse for him to stand aside – and is expected by the govt in Washington – is rather undermined by putting a big fat question mark at the end
4) twitter is screwing news values – now, where once a journalist might quietly keep an eye on a story or ignore it altogether, the sheer volume of twitter makes rumours and speculation impossible to resist. If I ignore something, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone else will pick it up. The result is that wire agencies now rush out reports explosions in Pakistan, which later turn out to be gas leaks, because they cannot ignore the online chatter. In the old days they would check the cause first. Now we are all competing in an online race
So where is all this going? A story on the president’s health, when the president is unpopular in a country with a history of coups, is a legitimate area of inquiry. But increasingly stories are blowing up because a small twitterati elite get their knickers in a twist. I remember advice I was once given by a seasoned hack at The Herald: “The stories you leave out are as important as the stories you put in.”
That’s almost impossible in our twitter-happy days.