10th August 2020
By Hannah Storm

Public media and the crisis of trust in Polish journalism

By Aleksander Gurgul

Public television in Poland has become a propaganda tool of the government. Trust in journalism is declining even further. There is a growing concern that the government will take control of regional newspapers before the next local elections.

Let’s imagine for a moment that on the BBC main news bulletin, just before the second round of the most important elections in the UK for 30 years, a journalist poses this question to one of the candidates, who happens to also be the current prime minister: “What can be done so that you do actually win?”

Imagine then that the BBC broadcasts a four-minute long clip – with emotional background music – on the same main news bulletin which contains highlights from  the campaign of only one candidate: the very same incumbent Prime Minister of Great Britain. Throughout the material,  the journalist’s voice speaks in the background. Phrases such as “Towns and villages, millions of people, lots of important topics and one common goal” and “Pride, dignity, respect, history and tradition, responsibility, credibility, keeping the word” can be heard running throughout the clip. The reporter continues to list only the successes of the ruling party.

This is not a joke. If you don’t believe that this could happen on public television, you can view it online. This is how TVP, the Polish national broadcaster,  ran the campaign on their platforms:

At the end of the spot – because calling it a news clip doesn’t make sense at this point-  the reporter tells the audience, “President Andrzej Duda defends the interests of ordinary Poles. Nobody is overlooked, regardless of where they come from and where they live. Andrzej Duda takes every vote and opinion of every Pole into account”

Now imagine that the BBC organises a candidate debate in which seemingly ‘accidentally’  local politicians from only one party (the party in government) sit in the audience as ordinary citizens. And it is they who ask questions to the candidates during the debate. How likely is it that the candidate supported by the ruling party will know these questions before the debate?

Let’s add to that, that the incumbent president just days before had refused to participate in a debate organised by the private media.

These are just few of many examples of what happened in Poland during the latest presidential campaign, and what not only kills the ethics of journalism, but also deprives Poles of the opportunity to see different points of view in order to make an informed decision about how to vote.

Since the Law and Justice party won the 2015 election, TVP – a public broadcaster, financed from the taxes of Polish people – has never called to account the governing party or its politicians. By 2024, TVP will receive 1.95 bn PLN (approximately £ 0.4 bn) annually from the state budget. Managed by former politicians from the ruling party, it has become a  tool to support the government and to defile opposition at every possible opportunity.

After the first round of this year’s presidential elections, envoys from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported: ”In the pre-election period, the public broadcaster became a campaign tool of the incumbent president, and some materials had a clear xenophobic and anti-Semitic overtone”.

Many, especially better educated Poles, mock TVP and its material. But is that enough?

In many parts of the country, especially in the poor regions which are more prone to populism, the public broadcaster is the only television channel and source of knowledge. Add this one-sided approach to the  story to the lower levels of education that are more prevalent outside of the major cities, and it becomes clear that many Polish people are just not media literate.

At a time of drastic political polarization, this can lead to aggression and embed further irreversible social divisions. TVP and politicians in the governing party have suggested that those with different opinions and beliefs to them are not Polish or  have no “Polish soul”. Others were called “communists” or “Germans”,  aimed at awakening, in at least some parts of society, unsubstantiated nationalist populist sentiment.

Unfortunately it worked. When I reported from the election rallies of the incumbent president, I  saw young people  attacked and spat upon because they carried a symbol of of the European Union, or a rainbow, a symbol of the LGBT community, on a piece of cardboard.

Finally, let’s imagine that an independent newspaper in Great Britain negatively depicts a politician from the governing party. Or it just simply indicates his decision on some matter might have been controversial. Let me add that this newspaper belongs to an international media concern with many  media platforms around the world. This occurred in Poland during the presidential election campaign. The tabloid “Fakt” reported on how the president had decided to pardon a paedophile who had abused his own daughter who, after serving his sentence, returned and lived with her under the same roof.

Much controversy broke out over this. The opinions of legal experts  were divided. However, the president’s office  used the story to attack the media. First, they blamed them for bringing up the topic and accused them of invading the  privacy of the family. Then the chief of staff of the president called a press conference where he appealed to the German ambassador not to get involved in the elections in Poland. Why Germany you might ask? Because the media group to which the tabloid belongs receives German funding… among others.

The actions of politicians in government, as well as those of the public media, are not only bringing about the collapse of the journalistic ethics in Poland, but they are contributing to a crisis of trust in our profession which will take many years to rebuild.

However, this must begin with the depoliticization of public media in Poland. Meanwhile, the ruling party has already announced the so called “repolonization” of the private media. One of them is the private television station TVN, although it has been defended on Twitter by the US ambassador  so the chances that the ruling party will take over this television are luckily slim. But the intent is there.

The ruling party is likely to buy local newspapers with the help of national banks, which will grant loans to potential investors. Poland holds local elections in 2023. The ruling party is relying on local propaganda channels to win it. The destruction of independent media is now a real threat in Poland.

Author photo

Aleksander Gurgul is a new editor and journalist at the renowned Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza in Kraków, where he has worked since 2014. He was previously a freelance journalist for the weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny, and earlier a news editor intern at the Lech Wałęsa Institute and intern at the Polish consulate in New York. Double master’s degree in journalism and American studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków; also studied journalism and social communication at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. In 2018 he became the fellow of the Transatlantic Media Network.

Main photo shows Polish state media building. Image by Aida al-Kaisy

Building Trust in Journalism – Poland report