Why the media loved Benazir
LONDON: Pakistan is a very important country, perhaps the most important of all in what American and British politicians call “the war on terror”. Does this explain the enormous coverage given, in all sections of the British press, to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto? I don’t think so. Nobody would have lingered long over the story if Bhutto’s rival in the Pakistan elections, Nawaz Sharif, had been the victim. Bhutto was not just a glamorous woman but, as William Dalrymple put it in the Observer, “one of us”. She spoke English fluently (better than she spoke Urdu), was taught by English governesses, took degrees at Oxford and Harvard, browsed in Harrods, drove a yellow MG, kept a Kensington flat and holidayed in Gstaad and Cannes. “Us”, in this case, being the metropolitan upper-middle-class circles in which many journalists move freely.
So we were treated to a glut of “the Benazir I knew” articles from a wide and eclectic circle of “close friends”. The presentation of these pieces, with their highlighted details about slipping headscarves, discarded shoes and consumption of various foods, caused even the best journalists to acquire a faintly Pooterish air. Dalrymple found “in her old Karachi bedroom . . . stacks of well-thumbed Mills and Boon”. The Times’s Ginny Dougary had sent Bhutto an email after the first assassination attempt in October and was impressed to receive a swift reply: “Thanks a million for writing to me. . . Hope u come back and we visit here again.” Did “here”, Dougary pondered, mean Dubai, where she had interviewed Bhutto, or London where they had met later in “a sort of salon of old and new friends”, eating samosas and cucumber sandwiches? (Dougary didn’t consider the possibility that it might be an aide’s standard reply to western messages of sympathy.)
The Independent’s Anne Penketh ate salmon roulade and chicken supreme in Bhutto’s presence at the RAF Club in London and was rewarded with a gracious “give my regards to your editor”. William Rees-Mogg had “the good fortune” to meet her as he had also met, he reminded us, Princess Diana. Though he didn’t say what either of them ate, he ruled Bhutto was “much the more intelligent”. Which was perhaps as well because Pakistan, the sage advised Mail on Sunday readers, “is an extremely difficult country to govern”.
Cleo Rocos, from the Kenny Everett Video Show and Celebrity Big Brother, got straight to the point in the News of the World. When she and Bhutto – “close friends” for seven years – went shopping after dinner one night, Bhutto headed for Costcutters to buy tinned tomatoes. She also gave Rocos her “special recipe” for Baked Alaska “using meringues, fruit and piles of ice cream”. Daphne Barak, a US “celebrity interviewer”, who was “still trying to come to terms with the loss of someone so close to me”, probed yet deeper. Over four pages in the Mail on Sunday, she revealed “what very few people know”: Bhutto was “a girlie-girl who loved to talk about skincare and hairstyles”. Moreover, “she cared about what she looked like under her clothes”. On Barak’s advice, she used Victoria’s Secret underwear and Pria face and body cream. When Bhutto was under house arrest, surrounded by armed guards, Barak thoughtfully rang to ask if she could send supplies of cream or perfume. With a wit apparently lost on Barak, Bhutto replied she had greater need of a bulldozer.
Only the Daily Mail was ungallant enough to speculate about her romantic life in 1970s Oxford, long before her arranged marriage to Asif Ali Zardari. Peter McKay, in his Monday column, referred to “a lively social life”. Noting how Bhutto denied that, as a good Muslim girl, she could ever have danced with a foreign man, McKay slyly asked if “one of her closest male friends at Oxford” – Simon Walker, now director of communications at Reuters news agency – had any pictures of them dancing together “to show his grandchildren, if not his company’s subscribers”.
It would be wrong to purse our lips and say all these pieces trivialised the murder of an important politician and the threat to Pakistan’s future. The best of them – from journalists such as Dalrymple, Ian Jack, Jason Burke, and Christina Lamb who have a genuine understanding of Muslim politics and society – conveyed, better than any straight political analysis could, how Bhutto skilfully played both to cosmopolitan audiences in the west and to traditional opinion in the east. But eating chocolates, buying tinned tomatoes, smiling nicely at western hacks and wearing (or at least accepting) glamorous lingerie does not make you a liberal democrat automatically worthy of “our” support. Still less does it allow anyone to rush to the conclusion, as most papers did, that Bhutto must now be considered a martyr to fanatical, bearded Islamists. The image of Oxford’s fun-loving Bibi, as they called her, meeting her violent end among mysterious, dangerous and treacherous orientals fitted neatly into the narrative of the war on terror. It became the frame for almost all the press coverage.
The Mail summed it up the morning after the assassination, with a headline and a picture of Bhutto on her way to the rally where she died: “A dab of lipstick as killer stalked”.
Is it very cynical of me to suggest it fitted the narrative a little too neatly? Benazir Bhutto pictured after she was released from house arrest last November, and below at Oxford Bloomberg.
—Courtesy The Guardian