The media thunderbolt out of the blue came late in the evening even as most people were tuned in to the one-day cricket match between England and Pakistan. Mahmood Shaam, the editor of Pakistan's largest Urdu daily Jang since 1994 and associated with the Jang Group on and off for almost 45 years, had jumped ship and joined the ARY Media Group. Even more intriguingly, he had signed up to become the Chief Editor of a new Urdu newspaper, set to be launched by the ARY Group from three cities.
Now, those who follow Pakistani media in general and Urdu publications specifically, will realize how big a coup (at least in perceptual terms) this is for ARY and how big a blow it is for the Jang Group, whose CEO Mir Shakilur Rahman (MSR) and Group Managing Director, Shahrukh Hassan, are both currently out of the country. Shaam has been in journalism for almost 50 years and is known as an author and poet and in certain circles as a progressive intellectual as well. He was considered close at one time to Pakistan Peoples Party leaders, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, and was also jailed briefly during the martial law of General Ziaul Haq and saw his own weekly Mayaar (Standard) banned for some time under martial law regulations.
Adding to the feeling of the coup is the fact that most in the Jang Group had no inkling about what was about to happen and only learnt about it once ARY began to crow about signing up Shaam, first as breaking news on its television news channel and subsequently as a detailed report during its news bulletins. ARY actually ran footage of its management bigwigs sitting with Shaam as he signed (apparently) his new employment contract and continued to run tickers of congratulatory messages from its CEO Salman Iqbal - the nephew of owner Haji Abdul Razzaq of ARY Gold fame - and other management figures to Shaam. It almost seemed as if ARY were desperate to ensure that Shaam had no second thoughts and to ward off any possibility of MSR attempting to persuade him against going through with this change of loyalties.
Pouring salt into Jang's wounds, however, ARY has also nabbed the Resident Editor of Jang Rawalpindi, Rana Tahir Mehmood, who will be the Group Editor of the about-to-be-launched newspaper. It is expected that a number of other Shaam loyalists may also depart. Keep in mind that Jang will have to contend not only with the departure of some of its biggest names, but also eventual competition from the announced newspaper. (Incidentally, the announcement also shows that ARY - currently languishing near the bottom of the media market - felt it needed a print presence to combat the Jang / Geo media juggernaut and even the daily Express / Express TV combine. Jang had earlier lost a number of its most well known columnists to Express which had thrown oodles of money to wean them away.)
But was Mahmood Shaam's departure as out-of-the-blue as most believe?
Those who know Shaam had been saying for a while that he seemed deeply unhappy at Jang of late. Part of the reason had been the synergy promoted by MSR between Jang and sister concerns such as The News and Geo. In the last one year, The News' exclusive investigative reports and some op-ed writers had been made an automatic staple of Jang as well and some of Geo's anchors were given their own columns in Jang. Obviously, regardless of the business and editorial sense of this sharing, it had led to Shaam losing a lot of control over his own paper. But he had also been resentful of what he often saw as an agenda-driven hard line taken by the Jang Group against the government, and imposed as a fait accompli on the staid Jang. He was also said to be not particularly happy about the suddenly increased interference from MSR in the day-to-day workings of the paper.
A final nail in the coffin may have been his quiet demotion from Group Editor (overall editor of all Jang editions) to Editor of the Karachi edition at some point over the last year, which went by almost unremarked. When this actually happened, I am not entirely sure, but the print-line that used to run his designation as 'Group Editor' was quietly reworked to name him simply as the 'Editor' (one source claims he was initially designated 'Executive Editor' after the 'demotion' as well). It should be pointed out that this may reflect simply a change of nomenclature at Jang, but certainly a change that was never explained.
But it wasn't as if Mahmood Shaam himself had been simply a passive observer in the drama unfolding around him. We have it from unimpeachable sources that as far back as 2007, he and Rana Tahir Mehmood (the resident editor of Jang 'Pindi who has now left for ARY with Shaam) had attempted to purchase controlling stakes in a floundering television channel. The then owner of the channel initially believed them to be working as front-men for MSR but alleges that investigations revealed that they were actually fronting for former Punjab chief minister and PML(Q) leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. Whether the allegations of who was behind the buying attempt are true or not, keep in mind that this happened while both gentlemen were working for the Jang Group.
Insiders at the Jang Group, in fact, even though they claim they were unaware of the ARY developments before they became public, say they knew that trouble was brewing on the Shaam front, but believed he was in negotiations with Dunya TV. According to them, they were caught unawares by the ARY news simply because their focus was on Dunya. Dunya, as you may recall, is owned by Mian Aamir Mahmood, a PML(Q) politico considered close to Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi.
There were other unproven rumours that swirled around Shaam, which centred on the contracts his son's media consultancy company bagged from the military, as well as some wealthy Jang op-ed writers whose columns were alleged to be ghost-written by him.
Whatever the rumours may have been, however, obviously the Jang Group did not consider them to have merit enough to have problems with Shaam. But his high profile defection, and its yet-to-come fallout, has certainly left Jang on the back foot. It will be interesting to see how MSR reacts and whether ARY can ever pose a serious challenge to the current leaders of the media market.
Watch this space for updates.