The challenge of media research is that it is never just about the medium and the user. In Pakistan, where I ran a study recently to identify unmet demand for a possible new youth channel, it shed light on how rapid change in the media landscape since deregulation in 2001 has impacted on how young people think and feel about themselves, their culture and their country. And the findings also have a bearing on the UK.

My focus was to understand what young educated urban Pakistanis might ideally wish to see on their TV (and increasingly via computer and Smartphone). Interviews with 16 to 30-year-olds in Pakistan, however, also threw up some interesting insights into their mindset.

Cultural subversion

Two clear messages arose. First, there was a deep-seated sense of cultural invasion, both from its big neighbour, India and from the generic ‘West’, historically seen as a friend of Pakistan.

After 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the ‘West’ has been seen by most Pakistanis as working both against their country’s interests and, by association, Islam and Muslims. Western media reports on Pakistan and its relations with western countries are now eyed warily. They are considered to have an agenda that is at best pro-West and, at worst, anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim.

Sitting alongside the political is the cultural. Here, anything seen as promoting liberal western values or morals is aimed at undermining Pakistani values and Islamic principles. Yet when it comes to entertainment, they enjoy watching such channels as Discovery, HBO, Nickelodeon and Disney, despite underlying qualms about any hidden agenda.

‘Cultural assault’ also comes from India. Unlike the West, India has always been perceived as Pakistan’s number one rival both real and imaginary, and there are some parallels to the UK’s historic relationship with France.

Yet despite a ban on re-transmission of Indian channels via cable and satellite networks, Indian entertainment channels are widely viewed, with Bollywood leading the charge. Its films are immensely popular, partly because of the common language (Urdu and Hindi are very similar), while their themes of family and unmet justice resonate with the Pakistani audience.

They also watch a plethora of soap operas and more general entertainment such as fashion and chat shows. Such programmes, though, despite their popularity were consistently criticised by research participants as insulting to Islamic and Pakistani values through perceived vulgarity in dress codes, language and male-female interactions.

Indian media may also generate different reactions to those prompted by Western media. This is fuelled by the fact that, in so many ways, India and Pakistan’s culture and history are very closely linked: an ‘immodestly’ dressed Indian presenter will be criticised more than an American one.

A corollary of such views was the tendency for people to also want any new youth-oriented channel to have a consistent thread of ‘Islamic values and content’, revealing a deep sense of what it means to be a young Pakistani in a changing world.

Our research participants didn’t profess any radical clichés; they were well educated, held clear liberal values about social justice and embraced new technology and social networking with open arms. It is easy to forget the importance of the religious and cultural norms to which seemingly young, ‘modern’ urban Pakistanis adhere, but this mindset is critical to understanding the nature of the values they wish to see reflected in TV programming.

Negative portrayals

The second consistent theme that underlies the above is the belief that the rest of the world sees Pakistan in a negative light, that it looks upon it as a dangerous place to visit, as a terrorist state. They believe that external media portray this image for their own ends but, more importantly, so do its own domestic media through consistently negative news coverage about what is going on in the country.

The perceived negativity is something that young people feel undermines their own confidence about who they are and where they live. It creates a collective inferiority complex that can lead to alienation and potentially a desire to reject progressive change in favour of much more conservative religious values.

Does this research have resonance in the UK? In Pakistan, unlike the UK, there is a degree of suspicion about what the rest of the world thinks of it which doesn’t really exist here.

Another comparison could be between young British people of Pakistani heritage and what they might have in common with those in Pakistan. Here some parallels may be drawn; a common religious identity that may be under attack from elements of the media, their own sense of being alienated from society by the majority and the role the media might play in such feelings.

Obvious parallels

Perhaps, however, the most obvious parallel with the UK is our relationship with the US and its huge TV presence here. American TV generates a similar feeling of cultural invasion as in Pakistan — yet we are avid consumers. We differ in that we have a stronger self-confidence about our own cultural heritage than young Pakistanis may feel about theirs and, of course, no sense of an external religious agenda.

This research has been revealing in explaining how young people feel about themselves, their country and its cultural and religious heritage, through the discussion of what kind of TV they watch and wish to watch.

While the findings are useful in understanding programming needs on a practical level, for me the real insight has been beyond broadcast content and more about participants’ way of seeing the world through the media lens.