Pakistan's rambunctious electronic media was on Friday embroiled in a fresh controversy after the emergence of videos that showed two top TV anchors discussing questions and coaching Malik Riaz Hussain, a real estate tycoon, on answers during an interview.
The two videos of behind the scenes footage, posted on YouTube and other social media sites, showed anchors Mubashir Lucman and Meher Bukhari discussing questions and rehearsing answers during the interview with Malik Riaz Hussain, a tycoon who has acknowledged paying Rs 342.5 million to the chief justice's son to influence cases in the supreme court.
The footage appeared to have been shot during advertisement breaks in a two-hour interview of Hussain that was aired live by Dunya TV channel late on Wednesday night.
At one point, Lucman is shown purportedly receiving a phone call from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's son Abdul Qadeer, who also speaks to the tycoon.
The footage shows Bukhari saying she has received a message on her mobile phone from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz chief Nawaz Sharif's daughter Maryam, who purportedly wants the tycoon to say during the interview that her family had turned down his offer of providing a bulletproof vehicle.
It is unclear who leaked the two videos totalling nearly 30 minutes.
While discussing questions with the tycoon, Bukhari is heard saying, "Say what you want...what question should we ask. It will appear as though it is planted...it is, but it shouldn't appear it is."
The videos give the impression that the entire interview with Hussain, who is known to be close to political parties and the security establishment, was scripted.
Both anchors are seen receiving instructions against interrupting the tycoon during the interview. At another point, Lucman walks out of the studio after a tiff with Bukhari over who is getting more time to question the tycoon.
Hussain immediately asks his daughter, who was in the studio, to get Lucman back.
Hussain can be heard saying, "You are spoiling my programme." The supreme court recently took suo moto notice of the payments allegedly made by Hussain to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's son Arsalan Iftikhar and the top judge recused himself from the case after facing criticism from legal experts and political parties.
A two-judge bench on Thursday asked the Attorney General to take strict action under the law against the Chief Justice's son, the tycoon and his son-in-law.
The leaked videos of the interview with Hussain stirred up a storm on social media websites and scores of Pakistanis took to Twitter to ridicule the two anchors and question the integrity of the electronic media.
The videos emerged amidst a whisper campaign that Hussain had been paying off several top TV anchors for years to ensure positive coverage for himself and Bahria Town, his real estate firm that has close ties with the powerful military.
Taha Siddiqui, an investigative reporter with The Express Tribune who has also worked in television, said the video reflected widespread concern about the lack of accountability in the electronic media.
"The whole television industry is immature and there is often interference from the top management. Many of the anchors are new faces, they are people with a sensational and aggressive style that is good for ratings but they have no journalistic values," Siddiqui told PTI.
"Personally, I think these problems arise due to lack of media accountability and the absence of an unified code of ethics. This puts the credibility of the journalisti community at risk and is alarming as its pulling others into the mess," he said.
Dunya TV reacted to the leak of the videos by suspending Lucman, a failed film producer who turned to television during the era of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
Bukhari, who was reportedly sacked by Samaa TV last year after she hosted a show that many said incited violence against late Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, did a show last night to defend her actions featured in the leaked videos.
In recent weeks, several TV talk show hosts have traded barbs on their programmes, accusing others of being in the pay of Hussain.
Some have threatened to go to court over the accusations while others have threatened to dish out more dirt on their competitors.
Pakistan currently has over a dozen national news channels and all of them air talk shows in prime time slots between 8 pm and 10 pm.
These shows often feature rival politicians engaging in heated arguments that are usually egged on by anchors seeking to improve their ratings. In recent years, viewers have witnessed such spectacles as guests walking out after angry verbal duels and even fisticuffs between participants.