Saturday, 5 November 2016

Perceptions and facts - what happens when media promote views ahead of news

I used to buy Gazeta Wyborcza every day; now I rarely do so. For the past three years, my smartphone brings me the news I read on my way to work. When I do pick up a Gazeta Wyborcza nowadays, I find it tendentious, monothematic. It seems there are more articles knocking the PiS government than actually delivering news. Now, I know the PiS government deserves to be knocked. Yet Gazeta Wyborcza paints a dark picture of Poland, one that's at odds with my own personal experience. I can't really say my life has got any worse since the change of government a year ago, although I can appreciate the public hoo-ha over the Constitutional Tribunal, abortion rights and cronyism.

As a patriot, I am, however, unhappy about the way the government's endless procession of gaffes has changed the image of my country abroad from that of a shining exemplar of post-communist transformation to an obstinate troublemaker bent on dragging the clock back to 1935.

But my own, personal day-to-day life in Warsaw continues to improve in small steps, and compared with the fuss that's going on in the UK over Brexit, I'm glad I'm living here and not there.

The way media shape our perceptions of life is important. Britain's Brexit-supporting media have stirred up resentment of the EU and of migrants that far outweighs most individuals' personal experiences. Perceptions are being shaped - manipulated - and those who are most pliable, most likely to have their minds changed are letting this happen. I'm old enough to remember the British media before the commentariat took over - the felietoniści as they are called in Polish. In the Daily Telegraph or The Times, comments on the news events of the day were generally restricted to the editorial pages, the rest was reporting. These days, news travels fast and comment is free. The mix in the media is skewed far more heavily towards commentary, mainly for economic reasons.

The result?

That video of LBC's James O'Brien asking a pro-Brexit listener to name one single EU law he didn't agree with is worth watching; it bears an important lesson for us all. The hapless listener - fed by a post-truth media peddling perceptions rather than fact-based news - could not mention a single instance of EU Directives impinging negatively on his life, nor explain what was wrong with EU institutions. Watch:

This dissection of a voter's motivation to vote for Brexit is being picked apart bit by bit, until all that's left are the basest of motives.

I was prompted to write this post by coming across a copy of today's Gazeta Wyborcza in which I read a long interview with Ludwik Dorn, a former deputy premier in the last PiS-led government (2005-07). At that time, Mr Dorn was often referred to as the 'third Kaczyński twin', so close was he to the then-president and prime minister. Since then, he was fallen out with the PiS leadership, leaving the party in 2008.

Asked whether he fears an authoritarian state led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Dorn said no - because the Polish state's fractious inability to work in a joined-up way. He cites as an example a dangerous bend in a road in Dolnośląskie province, notorious for fatal accidents. The simple solution was to paint a double white line down the middle of the road. Yet despite petitions from locals, despite pressure from the police, this did not happen. The matter was brought to his attention when he was deputy premier and minister of internal affairs. Though it was not his business, he did his best to bring his authority to bear on this minor local matter - without effect. Two more people died as he attempted to sort it out. In the end came the elections, he left office, the double white lines remained unpainted.

Mr Dorn's point is that the Polish state is too inefficient to become a ruthless agent of oppression. Local rivalries and jealousies will thwart any instruction given from the top, and there is not the manpower to hand to carry out the wholesale replacement of cadres required. In other words, Mr Kaczyński is no long-term threat to Poland because of the dead hand of state, which slows down the good things that politicians are trying to enforce, and slows down the bad things too.

But the three page-long interview with Mr Dorn shows how popular perceptions perpetuated by the media may not square with the reality of those who are close up to it.

This roughly squares with my reading of the situation; like Mr Dorn I don't fear Mr Kaczyński trying to make an all-out grab for power regardless of democratic principles. While I can see the parallels between the Catholic-nationalist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, I do not see Mr Kaczyński as having that same murderous disposition - remember that Franco had tens of thousands of his former Civil War enemies killed after the war ended, as a matter of policy. Mr Kaczyński is, I think, closer in character to Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator from 1932 to 1968. Neither man married; as devout Catholics, with a sense (misguided maybe) of duty, neither displayed venal traits.

My biggest gripe with the PiS government at the moment is its inability to prepare the big infrastructure projects for which there are billions of EU euros waiting to be spent. By replacing experienced directors in the ministries and government agencies with inexperienced party hacks, chosen for loyalty rather than ability, public tenders are not being published, the work not proceeded with. As a result, the output of the construction sector is down by a fifth year on year, with many firms getting ready to lay off workers when current projects (begun under the previous government) are completed.

Below: graph showing inflows of EU funds earmarked for investment, six-month average. It shows how after the 2007 election the PO-PSL government also had to relearn how to prepare projects and tenders, after which a steady upward trend could be seen, reaching an apogee around the time of last autumn's elections, after which the drop was far more dramatic than after the last change of government.

Finally - good news - Poland has advanced one place in the 2017 World Bank Doing Business ranking (to 24th place from 25th). Now, the fieldwork was conducted between June 2015 and June 2016, so plaudits should be shared equally between PO-PSL and PiS.

This time last year:
Judging PO's eight years in power

This time two years ago
Cloudless, 18C - the beauty of Polish autumn

This time three years ago:
Call 19115: Warsaw Fix-my-Street

This time five years ago:
Vapour trails at sunset

This time six years ago:
Autumnal blues


dr Marcin said...

Dear Mike,

Gazeta Wyborcza? It has always, since I used to buy it from its beginnings, firstly introduced you a message/info/news and secondly importunately and impudently instructed you, what you should and have to think about a given matter. A pure indoctrination and the lemmings intellectual breeding. Just apart to Rzeczpospolita in times before Tomasz Wróblewski. That paper has always presented a rough info/message and alike with none of that pedagogical brain washing. A commentary has always being limited to a minimum. Why? Mostly, because contrary to Gazeta Wyborcza, which target was (and is) mostly focused on a general public, Rzeczpospolita's target has always being focused on professionals, mainly lawyers, bankers, financiers, engineers, academia professors and teachers, clerks and civil servants... and alike, whose sensitive on fakes, leys, indoctrination and so on has always being at a low level. That target mostly and predominantly seeks some useful and verified information not ideological and hysterical games. Wish the games, buy Gazeta Wyborcza, wish you a solid information buy Rzeczpospolita. IMHO, that first one seems for me like a subtle tabloid for inteligencja, yes, that's right, for... wykształciuchy.

student SGH said...

Any examples of truly impartial media in Poland?

- Out of not-niche TV stations - Polsat?
- Out of daily newspapers? Dziennik Gazeta Prawna?
- In the Internet - errrr?

@Dr Marcin - try watching news on any TVP station. I compared them to how partial TVP was before PiS got a grip over it and to TVN these days. I feel more instructed what to think by current TVPiS and than by former TVPlatformy or by Tusk Vision Network. The intensity of propaganda twaddle in all media, including Gazeta Wybiórcza has reached an unprecedented level...

Jacek Koba said...

Away from Poland, though tangentially related, an unpalatable take on Brexit from a man who used to be the editor of a magazine that champions the newly won sovereignty:

and a poignant reminder how easily labels can be flipped around once the deck has been reshuffled.

Anonymous said...

Have you been to Hala Koszyki? Outstanding place - Poland must be doing welll if a place like this can be developed - Stay Happy