Saturday, 9 January 2016

Public media? State media? National media?

In Britain, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a national institution. It has its critics on the left and the right. Arch-Thatcherites would have had it shut down and replaced by 14 commissioning editors. Meanwhile the Corbynite left is currently spitting venom at the Beeb.

Around for 93 years, established under a Royal Charter, the Corporation's mission as being to "inform, educate and entertain... to serve the public interest and to promote its public purposes: sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities, bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK."

Now, the UK, with its 160 year-long tradition of a professional, apolitical public administration, treats the BBC in a similar way to the way it treats its civil service. When governments change as a result of the will of the people, there will be a change of emphasis in certain policies, reflecting the political manifestos. Yet in general people working in the ministries and agencies and state-owned corporations such as the BBC mainly carry on as if nothing had happened - continuity and stability is maintained.

Here in Poland, where democracy is but 26 years old, the notion of 'apolitical' is not something an incoming government - any incoming government - can get its head around. The spoils of state are seen to belong to the party(s) that won the election. Out go the old department directors - and in come the new government's people. All of whom need to learn the business of governing. As I wrote, some are complete amateurs, novices to their domain.

A British observer watching the current fuss around Polish public broadcasters TVP and Polskie Radio couldn't possibly imagine a situation in which, by Act of Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes responsible for replacing the director-general, the executive board and the management board of the BBC. And that the new director-general would have powers to sack everyone and replace the BBC's newsreaders and weather presenters with new faces. This is what's happening in Poland right now.

In the BBC's long history there have been scraps with the government; notably the sacking in 1987 of Alasdair Milne by Marmaduke Hussey, chairman of the board of governors, who had close links with the Conservative Party. Compared to what's going on at Polish state broadcaster TVP now, 1) the Conservatives had been in power for over seven years at the time, 2) Milne's departure (and replacement by accountant Michael Checkland) was not accompanied by mass sackings of well-known broadcasters and 3) there had not been the need for a special Act of Parliament to have been voted through to ensure party-political control over the BBC.

And by way of balance and irony, right now, Alasdair Milne's son Seumas, the Labour Party's head of communications, is engaged in a war with the BBC over the way he sees the corporation favouring the Conservatives, in particular the way BBC News covered the resignation of a shadow cabinet minister live on air. If you're knocked by right and left you know you're getting it right.

The BBC, long considered the world's least-bad broadcaster, holds a position of trust in the hearts and minds of the British people that is the envy of public broadcasters around the world. A compulsory licence fee means there are no commercials on BBC TV or radio (at least in the UK). Having spent time during my journalism training covering court cases in which non-payment of TV licence fees led to imprisonment, I can tell you the system's fairly water-tight.

Here in Poland, only a minority bother paying (yes, our TV set is covered). The majority don't bother because 1) they know they can get away with it, 2) they have low regard for TVP and 3) they know there are ads being broadcast, so let the advertisers pay for it. The third point is valid; commercial broadcasters TVN, Polsat and others, must exist from ad revenue, they know what their cost base is and how much revenue they must raise to survive. TVP brings in ad money and licence fees. Messy.

I believe Poland should chose one of two roads - turn TVP (and indeed Polskie Radio) into quality, trusted, apolitical broadcasters like the BBC - or, if Polish politicians are insufficiently wise and high-minded to leave the public media to its own devices - shut it down and leave the media to the private sector, like in the US.

One way or another, for me it's rather academic - I don't watch TVP nor listen to Polskie Radio. Indeed my boast that I spend more time in front of TV cameras than actually watching the box is no exaggeration - I do around 50-60 TV and radio appearances a year on average, commenting in Polish about events taking place in the UK. Everything from David Cameron's recent visit to Warsaw to royal babies. My internal observations is that TVN is extremely slick and well-run, on a tight budget, while TVP isn't. When the public broadcaster sends a crew round to interview me, it despatches one VW van with driver, a reporter, a cameraman, a sound man, a chap with reflective screen, and a Pan Heniek type who just hangs round smoking a cigarette. The private stations just send round reporter + cameraman in a taxi. Their studios are at the edge of town, built to a budget. TVP's studios are palatial and in more expensive parts of Warsaw.

Mobile internet has changed the way I consume news. No longer (as of November 2013) do I buy a Gazeta Wyborcza daily. These days I get my news through my many and varied Twitter feeds. Comment has become free; news must be gathered impartially and from a trusted source. Other than the Economist, I don't subscribe to what's behind the paywall, but the few free articles a week we're allowed from papers like Rzeczpospolita, Gazeta Wyborcza,  the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and others (mainly Polish business titles) - plus the free news sources - is enough to fill my commuting time.

So - on to today's demo in Warsaw (photos below). I was amazed by how many people turned out (20,000 by one account, though the police claims 8-9,000). I was amazed at how good natured the demonstration was. And the cross-section of society taking part. But at the end of the day, the best slogan shouted by the crowds was "wasza telewizja, nasze piloty" - "Your television, our remote controls". The best way not to get irritated by the tendentious, pro-PiS stuff being emitted by the public broadcasters in future is simply not to watch it. There is an alternative. Now, if TVN or Polsat were to be threatened, I'd be there to defend them to the hilt.

This time last year:
Beer, consumer choice and the Meaning of Life

This time two years ago:
What's Cameron got against us Poles?

The time four years ago:
Anyone still remember the Przybyl case?

This time five years ago:
Wetlands midwinter meltdown

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki rail scenes, winter

This time seven years ago:
Winter drivetime, Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Kraków, a bit of winter sunshine


student SGH said...

From what my parents and I observed, in terms of form, standards are abided by, in terms of content, the machine has been set in motion and message is formulated to gently shape your views the certain way.

Adam Kosterski said...

SGH - Well that's nice to hear given that the form and the content in the past cudgelled everyone relentlessly with the post communist neo capitalist and pseudo liberal point of view. A breath of fresh indeed :)