More and more, Polish politics is being dramatised by television. The broadcasting of a video showing the dirty dealings of two MPs almost brought the downfall of the government. This in turn has shown the politicians what potential there is in clearing up scandals; they are now keener than ever to serve on various commissions of inquiry. Visions of “sanitising” the state and society have become popular, though they are accompanied by flight from reality and have led to a crisis of independent journalism. On the search for an antidote for some painful hallucinations, Paweł Goźliński, the head of Gazeta Wyborcza’s reportage section and of the news magazine, Duży Format, analyses the current political and media reality in Poland through the eyes of a theatre critic.On the night of September 27 2006, the television station TVN24 broadcasted an apparently perfectly staged political reality show: from a hotel room, a hidden camera provided jittery images, somewhat murky, with insufficient sound, but nonetheless effortlessly recognizable for all of Poland. The footage showed Renata Beger, parliamentary deputy of the Samoobrona, a populist formation which makes its presence felt in public life as a loutish farmers’ association called “Self-Defense.” Once behind the shop counter selling mushrooms and sausages and notorious for the moronic questions she asked in front of the Sejm commission investigating the so-called Rywin Affair, Beger now sat amongst indoor plants and talked with Adam Lipiński. As a member of the oppositional trade union Solidarność, Lipiński was forced to live underground for years during the Communist dictatorship. After the fall of Communism he quickly advanced to a comrade-in-arms of Prime Minister Jarosław and President Lech Kaczyński. Like most Polish politicians with a Catholic-nationalist worldview, these gentlemen began their careers in the 1980s in the role of opposition trade unionists. Today, Lipiński works for Jarosław as chancellery head.
Renata Beger fell into disgrace with her party head Andrej Lepper through a clumsy and easy to see through electoral fraud. Like all members of the Samoobrona faction, she is bound to a threatening adhesion contract signed last year: upon shifting political allegiance, she is obliged to pay a penalty of 100,000 euros. “We’ve a number of vacant posts,” said Adam Lipiński, founder of the rightwing weekly New State, offering the Samoobrona deputy a job as state secretary as a reward for supporting the PiS (the Law and Justice Party); in the course of their discussion, he then sounded out the possibility of recruiting further renegades. After the coalition between the governing PiS party and Samoobrona broke down, the party of “law and justice” lost its parliamentary majority. Top of the PiS candidate list in her electorate, that’d be something for Renata Beger, as well as two other “high-up positions” for “my people.” While she speaks and he takes notes, Lipiński mutters repeatedly, “not so quick” and “ok, I understand…I’ll note that down.” As she mentions “high-up posts,” he digs a little deeper: “What about in the voivodeship council?” – “Yes,” replies Renata Beger to the job offer in the regional parliament. In addition, he offered her money from a parliamentary fund.
Lipiński had not reckoned with the exposure initiated by Beger on the news station TVN24. In the view of one, this was blatant political corruption, while for the other (with whom I find it extremely difficult to agree) it was normal political procedure. For Lipiński, being the generous negotiator he is, it was a clear case of sabotage: “Where’s the political corruption here? … In a certain sense, politics is a dirty business, but it’s a mystery to me what all the fuss is about.” The public showing of the footage meant a gigantic disgrace for the government faction, which had campaigned in 2005 with catchphrases like “breaking up the morbid systems” and “moral renewal,” as well as plying policies based on archconservative values. For me, this was just as much a triumph of a phenomenon that I call the perforation within Polish politics. As a journalist with a background in drama studies who has observed the everyday business of politics for Poland’s biggest daily over a number of years, I cannot say that I’m inspired or enthralled. For – as the “video cassettes of truth” have proven – it’s all poor theatre, theatre which, contrary to all appearances, is anything but trivial or innocent.
The media pulse of democracy
The political stage and the coalition drama, the election spectacle a political farce – these theatrical metaphors are so omnipresent in the print and electronic media that they have quickly metamorphosed into empty phrases. On the other hand though, this flood of stage acts from tragedies and poor jokes within the political discourse and the accompanying press noise can actually draw attention to a genuine problem: life is hard for politicians and journalists in an epoch in which the media determines the rhythm of life in democracy. Assuming a standout position amongst these media outlets is TVN24, the first and until now only news station on the television landscape.
On the occasion of the celebrated fifth anniversary of the station going to air, the press discussed to what extent television influences political life in Poland: how television dramatizes politics by forcing politicians into strange play-acting performances, how it has reduced their communication with society into mere rhetoric, and how it lowers the standards of public debate. All that is left are the words which are babbled away and transport no strong emotional message. An alarming lack of substance reigns in the circus ring. Actually, everyone knows that this intellectual diarrhea should be “filtered out” when editing material or float away on the tide of the information flow.
Every day TVN24 offers acts from a political spectacle that has placed a tight rein on the scope of the broadcast format. The time for announcing important political decisions is coordinated to coincide with scheduled news programs; statements have to be ready just in time for primetime so that the political adversary cannot adequately respond. The opposition holds out in uninterrupted readiness with a stockpile of prepared phrases and poses for every occasion. Evening talk shows mutate into the key locus for a meeting between collective consciousness and political projects, where politicians as talented showmen and masters of readymade answers want to cut a fine figure. The words spilling out of the screen transport concrete power: the tirades in front of the camera lead to great political triumphs and spectacular falls. Those in the government communicate not only with the opposition through press conferences, but with other members of the governing coalition as well. And the strange political reality show featuring the protagonists Beger and Lipiński, which highlights the dirty tricks going on backstage in Polish politics, has shocked the country with a new form of tabloid politics.
“Rywingate” and the “cassettes of truth”
The deputy Renata Beger knows very well the power a live broadcast can exert on politics. It is one thing to suspect something, but another again to hear and see it for yourself. After the broadcast of the “cassettes of truth,” she admitted to following the example of Adam Michnik, editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza. By using a normal voice recorder, in 2002 Michnik had set off the most scandalous affair in democratic Poland, “Rywingate.” “Rywingate” began with a deal proposed to Adam Michnik by the internationally renowned film producer Lew Rywin on behalf of a “group in power,” the composition of which remains obscure until this day. It needs an outrageously large portion of effrontery to offer a former leader of the political opposition, who spent several years in prison for his principles, a change in a draft law in exchange for a bribe of a couple of dozen million dollars. But Lew Rywin’s attempt at corruption surfaced at a time when the post-communists believed they could fix anything – including the rules of the game in the world of the independent media.
They miscalculated. Michnik recorded the dealings and the affair became public, setting off the revelation of further affairs. It all ended with the government’s demise at the subsequent elections. This is, incidentally, a constant motif in relations between Polish politics and media after 1989: without any regard for the role of the media as a controlling instance in a democratic state, as if it was there for the purposes of propaganda or a tool of “education” (meaning: ideological indoctrination). The subsequent government teams more or less openly treat the media as political quarry. And there is a wealth of opportunities to do so: then public television and radio are only public in appearance. In reality, the leading posts in such institutions – in the name of the law – are constituted according to political parity. If we accept the franchising of the television market and the attempt to regulate ownership structures on the media market, then it will become clear that the independence of journalism in Poland is not an absolute value, but rather exposed to political influences.
From the commission to permanent investigations
To disentangle the Rywin Affair, the first ever special investigation commission in the history of the Polish parliament was convened. And so the show began: the commission’s sessions were broadcast live and became one of the most viewed series in the history of Polish television. The commission’s more talented or gritty members became leading figures in Polish politics practically overnight. However, something far graver was also taking place: the corruption affair – an outrage and not a norm for public life – became a model for how day-to-day politics functions in Poland. Key decisions were made in the interest of precisely this system, which was as good as identical with the Republic. The Third Republic, mind you, formed in 1989 as the need for a new constitution became increasingly clear. It is thus no great surprise that the visions of a total “renewal” of the state and the reeducation of society proclaimed in the PiS election campaign in the fall of 2005 gained in popularity. The ranting slogans practically conjured a new beginning, a foundational act of a cleaned-up Fourth Republic which was to be built on the rubble of a condemned system squelched into dust. This ideologically unusual vision, far-reaching and enticing because it purports to explain everything, became the political program of the new victorious power faction. Stealthily, politicians began to supplant the importance of investigative journalists. One could think that this is nothing other than a return to normality, then after all politicians and, above all, state prosecutors and judges are to keep tabs on the rule of law, not journalists. And yet I have the impression that the understanding of democracy in the Fourth Republic is not based on a vision of a constitutional state, but stems from an ideological project, a strange creature born of mythological thinking in which the paranoid thesis of the besmirched origins of Polish independence takes pride of place: a disastrous compromise between the Communist authorities and a part of the opposition, forming a “system” that has controlled the country since 1989.
Years after the dockyard workers’ strike as a sign of solidarity for the dismissed crane operator Anna Walentynowicz, as the candidates of the Solidarność movement finally won the parliamentary elections, this meant the victorious culmination of the long years of resistance against the Communist rulers. For the first time within the Warsaw Pact, there emerged a possibility to form a government under the leadership of a non-communist prime minister. This significant breakthrough became an important impetus for the countries of the Eastern Bloc, contributing also to the peaceful revolution in the GDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. But since January 2005, a look at the early years of freedom is seeking to write a different history. Efforts to create a congenial view and recollection of the phase of Communist rule are an important topic in Poland; the institute once founded to research German war crimes now acts as a kind of Gauck authority. In January 2005, Bronisław Wildstein, a former journalist at Poland’s second largest paper, Rzeczpospolita, who now works at the Institute for National Commemoration, circulated a list with over 240,000 alleged security service “collaborators.” The scandal jolted the very foundations of Polish society. With the Służba Bezpieczeństwa, the secret police, Poland, too, had its own Stasi.
Consequently, Polish politics has become entangled in permanent investigations. One could be lead to believe that the public is weary of all this, then it cannot stand the constant repetition of the same spectacle. But the opposite is the case: the public loves recalling what is known, familiar, and easily understandable. The mission of investigative journalism is now no longer the disclosure of morbid elements in public life or a similarly tainted business sector, but lies in reinforcing the image of reality that the manipulators have recognized and claimed as their very own. As the Rywin Affair broke in 2002, investigative journalism experienced glorious days. The disclosures revealed unknown elements of reality, compromised government figures, and forced them into changing how political business is done. Nevertheless, a side effect of such disclosure – in particular when politicians tamper with it – was to intensify the paranoid perception of social reality.
I have the impression that the imagination of today’s masses is determined by unfettered delusions. What should journalists do in such a situation? What happens to their mission to enlighten and inform? Well, this mission was in obvious crisis. More recent scandals added little to the binary image of reality. There is the system and the “clean.” Correction can only be made to the margins of the two respective sectors.
Flight from the present day
Historiography has become a lively sphere of action for politics. Access to the files of the Institute for National Commemoration for journalists and their cooperation with historians has resulted in a host of publications which shall – according to the explanations given by the predominantly conservative commentators – deepen, demythologize, and nuance the picture of recent Polish history. But we must not forget that this process of “deepening” is being played out on the stage of performative politics and media. And what did one of the old masters of Polish theatre say so succinctly: “On the stage, my ladies and gentlemen, one doesn’t play the violin but bangs on the drum.”
Instead of historical nuances we have a brutal struggle for establishing an image of the past being fought out amongst journalists. The history of the opposition is depicted as a singular moral morass. On the basis of dubious files from the secret police, theses are stated about the “cooperation” by persons who up to this point in time were undisputed figures of authority; the hunt for “agents” continues, without any consideration of the motives and contexts of the “betrayal.”
It appears to me that this historical revisionism is a kind of flight from the present day, evading reality by employing simple schematic models; this revision of history is a multifaceted snapshot and refuses to obey any kind of journalistic standards. Three brief sentences of commentary after the television news will never suffice, neither for meeting journalistic standards, nor for the consumers. As long as the present evades the grasp of journalists, the more they attempt to hold onto the past. These desperate attempts do not deepen the picture of history, and discussing the purported guilt of individuals only creates a situation where everything gets pressed into a simplifying pattern, often bordering on paranoia.
I am aware that these are grave reproaches. Even if they pertain to only a section of the journalistic milieu, I simply do not feel comfortable when panic responses to the present end with a presentation in the media that is completely neurotic and culminates in a widespread and serious crisis of confidence in journalists and the media.
Political reality show
What could unshackle journalism from this crisis? A forceful return to reality and the present: a shock, an affair, one which would defuse the delusional image of Polish political reality by showing the mechanisms of political goings-on and dealings with the help of a new, neoconservative government system. The media spectacle entitled the “cassettes of truth” has precipitated such a shock, and its realization takes place in one of the newest conventions of show business: the political reality show. I am convinced that it has destroyed the fear-driven image of reality launched by the governing group. After enjoying the television experiment overloaded with the political cynicism of the PiS and Samoobrona politicians, it is difficult to imagine that their actions are guided by principles – except for cold pragmatism. I am also convinced that the neoconservative crusade in its Polish version has its enemy in the form of an abstract media system. The enemy is hidden in the neoconservatives themselves, who believe that not only any means are permitted to realize their political goals, but that these are even blessed.
And yet it is rather sad that the protagonist in this media show is the parliamentary deputy of a populist party who is more suited to being a caricature rather than an icon of Polish democracy. It’s also sad that television voyeurism is today proving to be an outstanding form of investigative journalism. The image we are served up in this media show is – to return to the theatrical metaphoric – that of a bitter tragicomedy, one that is poorly written, with a poor cast, and placed in the hands of a fatally poor director. What is even sadder though is that it is all true – although not the entire truth was revealed. Nobody is so naïve as to believe that taking part in a political reality show represents a mission for Renata Beger. It was the usual act of self-promotion and a chance to return to the political mainstream. And further proof of how politicians depend on the media world. Should one now tear one’s hair out and moan about the decay of political morals and the transformation of politics into a kind of television show? I believe one should rather look for an antidote to this Polish “political reality.”
I remember a case where participants of a forum from the portal of “Gazeta.pl” tracked down an aggressive and shameless commentator who had flooded the web with xenophobic and anti-Semitic slop. They published his name. It turned out that he was local functionary of the Right. He had to apologize for his behavior several times.
In this way, a new quality is emerging, almost unnoticed, in the internet: citizens’ journalism. Internet newspapers enable ties to be forged around shared goals and de-masking ideological poses, forcing politicians to be more effective when solving concrete problems. One clear sign of the necessity for such citizens’ journalism is the vehemence with which local civil servants fight against it. Despite the development of local internet newspapers, citizens’ journalism in Poland is still in its infancy. But it is nonetheless a necessary counterweight to the enforced conformity between politics and media. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that it succeeds.
Paweł Goźliński (b. 1971) is head of the reportage department at the Gazeta Wyborcza and its reportage magazine Duży Format (Large Format); he has a PhD in literature and theatre studies and is the author of God the Actor. Romantic World Theatre.