How Polish public media collapsed
Gabriela Król, 2020
When we hear about state-controlled public television, various images come to our mind – North Korean media, announcements from the times of martial law in communist Poland, or the socialist East Germany „Aktuelle Kamera” news. However, hardly anyone thinks about 21st century and one of the well-developed countries of Western Europe.
To understand the process of the collapse of the independence of Polish public media, we must go back to the 1940s of post-war Poland. The Polish United Workers’ Party, the only party in power, ruled in Poland from 1948 to 1989, following the orders from Moscow.
Earlier, the authorities did not treat the television very seriously, considering it mainly just as entertainment for the people.
In 1957, the Polish television was used for the first time as a genuine propaganda element, broadcasting a parliamentary session. Two years later, journalistic and political programs occupied almost half of the airtime.
Edward Gierek, the first secretary of the ruling party, liked to appear on television. He especially wanted to appear in the company of leaders of other countries – and not only those socialist ones.
The meeting with Richard Nixon in May 1971 was broadcast live with the message that Poland is an important country for the USA.
Television became a tool of propaganda of success. The society was convinced that Poland is successful in the economic field, and that the difficulties are temporary and are going to disappear soon.
Dziennik Telewizyjny – what means the Television Journal, was leading in that time in television. A characteristic tune, unchanged for years, signalised the start of the daily news release.
The Television Journal was the chief news program of Polish Television and at the height of its popularity in the 1970s it was continuously watched by over 11 million people, approximately in every third household in Poland at the time. The Television Journal became Poland’s primary propaganda tool used by the Polish United Workers’ Party during the Cold War.
In the summer of 1980, the Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity” was established – a trade union independent of the communist authorities, which demanded the improvement of the living conditions of Poles and the restoration of freedom of speech. The Television Journal was fiercely criticised by “Solidarity” – it was called a tool of manipulation and disinformation.
On December 13th 1981, when the authorities introduced martial law which lasted almost two years, many opposition activists were arrested. Demonstrations and strikes were banned. The news presenters began to wear uniforms.
The 1989 Round Table Talks between the government and the opposition produced agreement for the the country’s first pluralistic election since 1947.
On 28th October 1989, actress Joanna Szczepkowska was invited to the studio for an average interview. Instead, she stated: Ladies and Gentleman, on 4th June 1989 the communism in Poland has ended.
The message was broadcast to millions across the country and became symbolic of the period of transition to democracy.
Three weeks later, on November 18, after 31 years of communistic propaganda, the Televi s ion Journal was replaced by Wiadomości (which means News). 18th November, Saturday, the News. Good afternoon. I hop this TV program will be gaining your trust more and more everyday. The news in our new TV Journal will be either good or bad, hopefully less of those bad ones, but will always remain true.
Meanwhile, thirty years later…
Headlines from Polish public news:
- Media vulture attack the Polish president
- Attack on politeness and Polish culture
- Germany attacks the Polish president
- A German threatened to kill Poles
- Media attack on president Duda
- Protection of women or ideological fight?
The turn of identity, that preceded the takeover of public media, overlapped with the revolution in Internet communication. 2008 was the explosion of phenomenons like Facebook, Twitter and the iPhone. The right wing did not miss these inventions – internet became a space of uncontrolled radicalisation of opinion and language.
At that time, the role of president was held by Lech Kaczyński from rightwing Law and Justice Party, while the prime minister was Donald Tusk, who was the leader PO, which is the current opposition party.
Following the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in which the president Lech Kaczyński died, the media were subject to more change and reform. Right wing discourse began to increase its volume once again, and the media landscape began to shift into a more polarised environment.
Today, a completely separate language, own references and obsessions of the public media are shocking for those who have not previously observed the separate Internet discourse.
In the tabloid narratives used by the public television News, there are a few basic patterns to be observed:
1. emphasizing the meaning of Polishness, identity, strength and unity of the nation
Exemplary headlines from Polish news: „defending important Polish values” „contempt for Polish tradition and values” „grateful to the Polish countryside” „all Poles are one family”
2. welfare and polish prosperity, success of the Polish economy, Poland as a role model for other countries
Exemplary headlines from Polish news: „the Polish economy is a speeding locomotive” „Poland as a model for other NATO countries” „global business interested in Poland” „the world is delighted with Polish horses”
3. the western Europe as an enemy (especially European Union and Germany)
Exemplary headlines from Polish news: „Germans are afraid of Polish super-investments” „strong Poland irritates the Germans” „Germany attacks the Polish president” „Polish glory, German disgrace”
4. Leftist “ideologies” as a threat to Polish values – lgbt, ecology, gender
Exemplary headlines from Polish news: „objection against the promotion of LGBT in IKEA” „ecologism – a new totalitarian ideology?” „leftist fascism destroys Poland” „LGBT activists destroy the Polish image”
5. Martyrdom – Poland as a victim of attacks and an object of envy
Exemplary headlines from Polish news: „we will not be intimidated!” „who is bothered by Polish heroes” „attack on polishness and Polish symbols” „attack on values and Polish traditions”
6. Polish president as a heroic leader of the nation, what could be seen during the presidential elections this year
Exemplary headlines from Polish news: „the president spoke as he should” „Duda: I bet on pro-Polish politics” „Duda’s plan: more support for Poles” „media vulture attack the Polish president”
Here’s the video from public television main news program from this year, as the president Duda was fighting for his reelection: He’s a person who can cooperate, who’s able to conduct a responsible dialogue and look for solutions, that are most important to Poles today. But how did the public television end up like this anyway? and why has it become an instrument in the hands of ruling party?
According to the Radio and Television Act of 1992, the author i t y cont rol l ing the programming activities of public broadcasters a n d a p p r o v i n g t h e i r fi n a n c i a l a n d progr amming pl ans i s the Na t iona l Broadcasting Council. The Council – what’s the most important – should protect the freedom of speech and independence of broadcasters, while ensuring the pluralistic nature of broadcasting.
In September 2015 Law and Justice party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the twin brother of t r agi c a l l y de a d pr e s ident , won the parliamentary elections. Three months later the new parliamentary majority initiated the introduction of a series of legal regulations aimed at changing the existing governing bodies in the public media and subordinating those to the executive power. The year after, in 2016 The National Media Council was established, which received a right to hire and fire personnel for state television and radio.
All this allowed the ruling party to take direct control of public service broadcasters and “clean up” their editorial offices – almost 230 journalists, publishers and producers were fired or left alone. There also have been radical changes to the programs. “Wiadomości” began to refer almost directly to the poetics of Television Journal from the 70s and 80s.
Jędrzej Nowicki experienced it painfully. The photojournalist of Gazeta Wyborcza, the most popular center-left daily newspaper, that has been published continuously since 1989, documented the march of nationalists in 2019. He faced the unexpected violence from police officers, what has been widely covered in media.
Nowicki describes this event as follows: – One of the policemen at one point grabbed my neck and threw me to the ground. I don’t know why it happened. I think this policeman must have known that I was a journalist, because I told him so many times. – And would you ever like to work for public media? – No, for sure. It was the prime minister’s office that asked for the photos. I cannot imagine working with this government or with the media that represent it. I believe that they are people, who are openly violating and limiting human rights, and this is disqualifying for me.
The level of trust in public media, in particular in Public Television News, has been reflected in the Digital News Report 2020 by the Reuters Institute. Due to Reuters, trust in Polish news has fallen by three percents this year and independent media tend to score higher in terms of trust than the public service broadcaster, which is – as Reuter says – often seen as acting in the interests of the ruling party.
So, in a nutshell, the government sees public media as a tool allowing the party to stay in power. That’s why the government also needs to invest money in public media.
In Poland, there is a statutory obligation to pay a licence fee due to the possession of a TV or radio set. In practice, this means that only those who reported their possession need to pay. So how does the government know who has a TV or not?
Searching for additional budget revenues, Polish Post sends inspectors to check if there are any unregistered TV sets in the household. According to the data of the National Broadcasting Council, until August 2019, the inspectors of Polish post caught 9,500 people avoiding the obligation of paying the licence fee. The amendment to the act, which would introduce a new model of financing public media, has been in plans since 2016. Recently, it stopped being such an urgent topic since the public television received 2 billion złoty from the state budget.
The situation in parlament in February 2020 was widely echoed, when the regulation according to which 2 billion złoty was to be allocated to Polish Television instead of oncology, for which the opposition opted. Member of Law and Justice party, Joanna Lichocka, showed her clear joy at this turn of events, showing the opposition her middle finger. She did not suffer any consequences of her behaviour.
It is possible, that financing public media from the state budget may become a binding law soon. However, this system has one major weakness – it makes the sender almost entirely dependent on the source of funding, in this case the ruling party.
In this situation, it is difficult to consider the subject only in terms of functioning of television. The condition of public media in this case is only one of the consequences of much more serious damages in functioning of the state, like manipulation in jurisdiction and absolute dependence of every possible state issue to the executive power.
The condition of public media is just a resultant of the way the whole organism of state functions. It is a litmus paper of independence, the rule of law and freedom of speech.
Sources and references to literature:
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