Thursday 11 January 2001

Made-for-TV Revolution

The Guardian ran this on 11 January 2001, picking up a piece I'd published in Central Europe Review. At issue was how most of the Western media were getting a story very wrong: simply seeing what they wanted to see.


On 12 December 2000, the Council for Czech Television, the oversight board of governors for Czech public service Television, recalled Executive Director Dušan Chmelícek. Eight days later, on 20 December, Jirí Hodac, formerly head of news at Czech TV and a man with 11 years experience working for the BBC's Czech Service, was chosen to replace him.

It was a hasty move, and many were shocked that the Council had not asked potential candidates to submit project proposals and had not gone through a rigorous selection process. The Council took just eight days to perform its most important function: choosing the head of the most important media outlet in the country.

They had their reasons, of course, but those reasons seem bitterly ironic now. Their intent had been to avoid the outside political pressure that they felt would mount upon them with each passing day a decision was not made. Make a quick decision just before the holiday, and hope the political parties don't notice.

To say it backfired would be the understatement of the year; the snap decision triggered a labour dispute that quickly boiled over into a national political crisis. So much for the holidays.

Elephants and TV journalists never forget

Many of the staff in the Czech TV newsroom immediately balked at Hodac's nomination. They had a simmering dislike of him ever since his time working as their superior in the Czech TV News and Current Affairs Department.

Hodac had been forced out of that position in August 2000, and many in the newsroom felt that as director of the entire corporation, he would remember the old battles. They feared for their jobs.

This fear was only heightened when Hodac selected his new head of the News and Current Affairs Department on 24 December: Jana Bobošíková. If Hodac was unacceptable to the newsroom staff, Bobošíková was the devil incarnate.

Bobošíková has a long history of conflict with many in the newsroom, where she worked as an economic correspondent and a presenter for the nightly news and interview programme "21" (an attempt at BBC2's "Newsnight" or "Nightline" in the US) for several years. Some of this conflict stems from petty personal animosity, with many in the Czech TV newsroom seeing Bobošíková as pedantic and snobby and Bobošíková seeing many Czech TV journalists as lazy and unprofessional.

But the main reason why many of the Czech TV staff abhor Bobošíková is that they remember she took part in an earlier attempt at sweeping reform of the Czech TV News and Current Affairs Department back in 1998.

In April 1998, Ivan Kytka, a long-time Czech TV correspondent in London, came to the news director's chair at the request of then newly appointed Czech TV General Director Jakub Puchalský. His efforts to professionalise the Czech TV News and Current Affairs Department along the lines of the BBC's news operations lasted exactly 51 days before he was forced to resign under pressure from newsroom staff reluctant to change and their political supporters in Parliament.

Before Kytka was booted out, however, many prominent journalists in the newsroom sided with him, some openly, others more subtly. Jana Bobošíková was one that sided with Kytka quite openly, even though it meant facing a barrage of criticism from her colleagues.

Fence-sitting reformers could fade into the woodwork or quickly recant their heresy after Kytka's reform failed, but Bobošíková had showed her entire hand: it was well-known she had been advising Kytka on outside replacements for sub-standard newsroom staff. Within a few months the pressure on her from her superiors was so severe, and the quality of news reporting so low, that Bobošíková felt she had no other option but to resign as well.

Thus, when Bobošíková was tapped as the new news chief on 24 December, many journalists expected her to be gunning for them. They expected her to reap revenge, or worse, actually implement the reforms suggested two and a half years earlier.

In protest against Bobošíková's appointment, some staff began an occupation of the Czech TV newsroom on the very same day.

From job security to free speech

Journalists, even mediocre ones, know that no one is going to drop their Christmas meal over a petty labour dispute and intra-office intrigue, so the rebels highlighted Bobošíková's and Hodac's "political ties" to the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and its leader, Václav Klaus.

The charges were generally exaggerated. Bobošíková, for example, had helped Klaus to launch his new Website a few months before and had moderated public debates sponsored by his party, but she was hardly a "close advisor" as some claimed. Hodac was wrongly accused of having been a parliamentary aide to Klaus.

And, of course, the rebels neglected to mention their own ties to politicians. On the bandwagon against political influence, they didn't exactly want it known that some of the leaders of the TV rebellion have provided "media training" courses for certain politicians in exchange for money. They didn't advertise that they use the "tykat" (informal, friendly form of address in Czech) when speaking to certain politicians.

Even when politicians from a rival party, the Freedom Union, came with their sleeping bags to camp out with the protesting journalists and join their sit-in, no one seemed to notice that political influence was a problem across the board at Czech TV, not just with one side or the other.

By claiming that Bobošíková and Hodac were just Klaus's stooges, the rebelling journalists IMPLIED that the very independence of public service television was at stake. This battle was, they said, a freedom-of-speech issue.

And everyone started to actually believe them.

Hundreds of people started to gather outside the Czech TV building in support of the rebelling journalists. In just two weeks, they collected over 150,000 signatures on a petition demanding Hodac's resignation.

Actors, artists and intellectuals joined the cause, and President Václav Havel spoke in their support, somewhat wildly drawing comparisons between Hodac's nomination and the Communist putch in 1948.

Most impressively, on 3 January 2001, over 100,000 people gathered on Prague's Wenceslas Square supposedly in support of "independent television" and "free speech."

The narrow media abroad

The international press swallowed it whole.

The BBC Online headline after the protest read, "Czech rally demands press freedom." Another BBC page stressed that the matter was "raising fundamental questions over the very nature of [the Czech Republic's] democracy."

But at least there were some signs of deeper thought on the BBC Website. The BBC's Catherine Miller (an occasional contributor to CER) did a much better job of balance in her aptly named article "TV dispute focuses public anger" by breaking through the illusion of the 1989 comparison. Stressing the underlying factors that brought over 100,000 people into the streets on Wednesday, she quoted Václav Zák, editor-in-chief of the intellectual bi-monthly Listy: "One hundred thousand people were there [at the protest] because they dislike the Opposition Agreement."

This was a far cry from the BBC's 10 o'clock TV news in the UK on 3 January 2001, which unashamedly presented only the protestors' side of the issue and made depressingly anachronistic allusions to the Velvet Revolution.

Of course, other international media were no better. On 4 January, Reuters was still mistakenly stressing 11-year-old news: "Tens of thousands of Czechs recalled the fight to end communism."

On 2 January, Die Zeit published "Sekt und Schlafsack im Studio," an almost completely one-sided article in favour of the romantic young journalists staging the strike and playing it as a freedom-of-speech issue.

Austria's Die Presse on 4 January claimed the conflict had developed into a lesson about democracy and implied it was the same pro-democracy battle as 1989.

Some foreign journalists have even shown their support by standing behind a rebel Czech journalist broadcasting from Brussels, and others spoke at the big rally in support of the striking journalists on 3 January.

Three traps

Much of the international media seems to have fallen into several traps.

First, they saw a dispute between some journalists and their management, and their gut reaction was to side with the journalists. Natural reaction for a journalist perhaps, but there seems to have been very little effort to present both sides of the dispute.

Second, the international media fell for the ideological rhetoric of the striking journalists and presented this dispute as a battle for freedom of speech. It is not a human rights issue; it is a political battle.

The international media were quick to repeat the striking journalists' claims of political influence on new TV chief Jirí Hodac, generally forgetting his work at the BBC for 11 years, but they do not seem to have addressed the political connections and support of the striking journalists themselves.

Third, the international media, especially the UK media, aimed to present this whole matter in the patronising and anachronistic terms of "poor plucky East Europeans still fighting for freedom just like in the days of Communism."

Fooling the foreigners

More disturbing than seeing the Western press misinterpret events in Central and Eastern Europe (again), however, is watching Western organisations accept the oversimplified version of the news and act upon it.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, Freimut Duve, requested clarification on the matter from the Czech Foreign Minister, adding:

As a former editor of the political writings of Václav Havel and others, I follow with great respect the expressions of solidarity of the Czech authors and intellectuals with the journalists.
Although his countrymen realise his deep involvement in the nitty gritty of Czech politics, Havel is still seen simplistically as a saintly philosopher abroad. When he lent his name to the cause, the world was bound to believe the spin that this was a human rights issue.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) got it even more horribly wrong. In a media release on 2 January 2001, the bombast was remarkable.

Under the title "Czech TV Strike a 'Moment of Truth' for Press Freedom and Democracy says the IFJ," the statement left no doubt that the IFJ had believed everything the striking journalists and their political allies were telling them.

IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said, "This is a moment of truth for press freedom and democracy. The struggle of Czech journalists and media staff is about putting an end to censorship and political manipulation of media. They have the support of journalists throughout Europe and all around the world."

Chairman of the related organisation, the European Federation of Journalists, Gustl Glattfelder said, "The strikers have asked for our support, and they will get it. We are appealing to our colleagues throughout Europe to give their full support."

Not only did the IFJ and the EFJ accept the spin of the rebelling journalist, but they also actually repeated some of the disinformation the rebel journalists have clearly fed them.

This statement from the IFJ media release is factually inaccurate:

"The journalists' anger over political interference reached breaking point with the appointment of Jana Bobošíková, the former close adviser to Václav Klaus, the President of the Parliament and Leader of the ODS, the Democratic Citizens Party, to head the political department at the station. She immediately fired 20 editorial staff, which led to the newsroom revolt."

In fact, Bobošíková fired them only after they started their revolt, not the other way around. As their legally chosen superior, she fired them for not obeying her orders to cease their illegal occupation of the newsroom.

One would expect the International Federation of Journalists to check their facts before they leap to such rash public statements and rush to join a bandwagon, but unfortunately, they did not.

Finally, and most disturbingly, the IFJ complained to the EU, and the EU is actually considering the IFJ's call for intervention.

The IFJ ought to reconsider their position before their involvement in an overtly political battle embarrasses and discredits them further.


Let us return to the roots of this battle at this point.

This started as a labour dispute, pure and simple. A group of journalists at Czech TV News knew that Jirí Hodac and Jana Bobošíková have a list of people in the newsroom they want to get rid of in their effort to professionalise the newsroom and improve the quality of Czech TV news, which has been roundly criticised from all quarters over the past three or four years.

There has been a constant struggle there between reformers/professionalisers (often people who used to work with international media organisations such as the BBC) and those supporting the status quo, generally a group of young journalists with not much experience either internationally or in other media.

Two and a half years ago, when I briefly worked at Czech TV news as the co-producer of the "21" programme, I personally watched as Bobošíková rather openly sided with an early attempt at reform. Hodac had come in later with his own ideas to make dramatic staff changes. Those were failed reform attempts, but memories of their efforts and their personnel [sic] leanings remained.

Thus, when Hodac and Bobošíková came to the fore, it was clear that the reform wing was about to dominate once more; those favouring the status quo went into action and, as they had done several times in the past, went to the politicians for support in their cause. Two and a half years ago, this same group falsely claimed that incoming News Director Ivan Kytka (now with the BBC) was a stooge of the Czech Social Democrats (CSSD); now, many of the same people claim that Hodac and Bobošíková are stooges of the Civic Democrats.

The truth is, of course, nearly all journalists at Czech TV news have their favourite politicians if not their favourite political party. Call it "protection" if you're feeling particularly cynical. This is hardly the first labour dispute at Czech TV News to turn into a political battle.

The politicians and the political parties get involved in these disputes according to personalities, not ideologies. While all political parties have been in favour of newsroom reform in theory, each party has its own supporters in the newsroom and will only support reform if it comes under their banner. So, instead of reform, we've had four directors in three years and complete stalemate.

The current situation is thus that Hodac and Bobošíková are seen as Civic Democratic supporters, even though Hodac was not Klaus's favoured candidate for the general director's post and even though Bobošíková once famously embarrassed Klaus on the "21" programme after he refused to be interviewed at the last minute and stormed out of the Czech TV news building.

The sides

The rebel journalists have the 4Coalition party grouping on their side as well as the culture minister, Social Democrat Pavel Dostál (influential among intellectuals and artists). The 4Coalition is the right-of-centre rival to Klaus's Civic Democrats, and it signed on to the cause, because it has been getting friendly coverage from these same journalists for years

Václav Havel is not immune to political manouvring as the outside world still mistakenly imagines, and it is clear he has joined the cause because the 4Coalition did. Havel's made no secret of his distaste for Klaus over the years and generally hopes to thwart Klaus's attempt to secure the presidency when Havel leaves office in 2003. Havel has been politically closest to the Freedom Union party, one of the key parties in the 4Coalition.

Much of the public share Havel's distaste for Klaus and his Civic Democrats, and the protest organisers were clearly able to harness that feeling and, mixed with a lump of (really rather nasty) nationalism, got masses of people into the streets.

Thus, a labour dispute has turned into a political battle, as has happened several times before at Czech Television.

The funny side

And as with all political battles, the ironies are mounting up.

First of all, a man with 11 years experience at the BBC is now forgotten by the BBC and is attacked by his own people as a Communist and-worse in Czech parlance - a foreigner. (Hodac is not a Czech citizen.)

Also, the only Czech journalist to ever openly stand up to the icon Klaus and refuse to submit to his unreasonable interview conditions has been labelled a stooge of Klaus.

Finally, the really funny thing is, if, one month ago, you had asked any of those people in the Square on 3 January whether they thought the Czech TV news was unbiased, quality journalism, they would have laughed out loud. Czech TV news was unloved at best and derided quite often by professional media critic and common man alike.

Last Thursday, Hodac, under imense strain, was rushed to hospital for an unknown ailment. Early on Saturday morning, the Lower House of Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on Hodac to resign or for the Council for Czech TV to recall him, but Council member Jana Dedecková outright refused, calling the resolution "unacceptable political pressure." To top it all off, Prime Minister Miloš Zeman used that session of Parliament to call for President Havel to leave politics.

Thus, the final outcome of this whole affair is still anyone's guess. But for now, it seems the same second-rate journalists are enjoying public support because they fulfil a political purpose.

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