With so much in the pages of BL lately about the condition of ČT and with so much advice for Ivan Kytka floating around, I thought the readers might like to hear a few notes from someone who has been on the inside for a few days.
I won't name names here, because that is simply not important. I want to describe a whole culture of the media and politics which stands as our greatest obstacle at this moment.
I also won't name names because I have been asked not to. But before the readers cry out against the censorship of Ivan Kytka, let me assure them, it has nothing to do with Ivan Kytka. The people I talked to are the ones who insisted that I not name them. This, as we shall see, is part of the whole problem.
Concluding this introduction, I would beg the reader not to waste time guessing who specifically I am talking about. I am trying to describe the overall environment here, not criticise any individual - that I do privately, don't worry.
The goal of the recent changes here is no secret to anyone. The point is to improve the quality of news reporting and analysis to make it more hard hitting and more critical. It seems that many Czech politicians have learned a bit of media savviness in recent years. Now it's time for TV journalism to catch up.
Paramount in this is finding and/or creating the right people for the job. We are trying to form strong reporters, presenters and moderators who drag the answers out of reluctant, wary and savvy politicians. We often joke that we are trying to create Czech Paxmans, but there is some truth in the humour.
What is such a person like? The ideal person for me is someone who is aggressive in an interview. Ale tato agresivita must come on the basis of knowledge, not on the basis of insolence. The person must be fully confident in his or herself and express no servility towards politicians. The person shouldn't be impressed by politicians. In interviews, he or she must cut to the heart of a matter quickly, because time on TV is extremely limited. A Paxman doesn't let the politician blabolit at will for as long as he likes.
An important part of creating that confidence is creating a certain image or more specifically assuring that our moderators have a reputation. That reputation includes not only being known for hard-hitting questions and an aggressive interviewing style, but also it has to do with the interviewer's reputation in society.
They have to be nationally recognised as insightful, intelligent, erudite and critical personalities. That strong personality will necessarily extend beyond the TV screen. Whether we like it or not, leading moderators must be public figures to some extent. (of course, as far as a public television station is concerned, moderators must consider themselves public servants as well).
From that gradually collected fame, there will emerge an internal confidence in that moderator. This will make him more effective in interviews with politicians, because the moderator will feel himself to be an equal to the famous and important guest. He will lose the feeling of being just a servile reader of questions, and with real self-confidence, approach interviews with an naturally embedded criticism of others that comes from feeling empowered by knowledge and prestige.
The Paxman, once created stands as a figure of some weight in society. His interviews are a challenge for politicians, and those who can stand up to the Paxman are clearly politicians with a respectable grasp of the issues and an effective speaking style. Those who avoid him are obviously inferior politicians unworthy of public support.
So, in fact, the Paxman does much more than ask questions. He plays a certain role in society that is irreplaceable. He stands as a challenge to dishonest and weaselly, conniving politicians, and thus helps to bolster democracy. He also becomes a strong role model for up and coming journalists.
I must emphasise at this point that by no means is Paxman unique in the West. I am using Paxman only as an example here of a general phenomenon one finds in developed democracies. The UK has quite a number of famous presenter/moderators who play this role.
I do not need to tell the reader that no one in the CR plays this role, and democracy in the CR suffers for it.
For anyone who has been watching CT in the past few weeks, a certain change is certainly notable among some moderators and reporters who are becoming more aggressive, or more hardened, and are examining matters more critically. The massive momentum of the operation in any case means that nothing is not going to change overnight, but things are clearly improving on this front.
However, these gradual improvements do not mean that it is only a matter of time before the Czech Paxmans emerge. Minor gains only bring us closer to our greatest obstacle, which we are going to have to tackle with more resources than time alone.
The entire culture of the medio-political relationship here is currently preventing the creation of the kind of moderators I describe above. Simply put, no one seems to want the job being offered.
It may seem strange that people who appear on the TV screen every night seem to think they can still avoid fame and all the joy and difficulty it brings, but it sometimes looks to be what is going on here. I'll give you some examples.
One moderator told me that he didn't want to increase his image and reputation in the way I have described, because it would simply be dangerous - as in life threatening - for him and his family. He saw the potential of being a leading figure in society only as a potential hazard.
In another country, a reporter or moderator could rely on the police and courts to protect him in the event of threats of physical violence. Obviously, some reporters and moderators here do not think the law can protect them. Are they perhaps right?
Another moderator told me that he didn't want to get too aggressive, because it would mean he would loose his contacts for inside information which he has built up among the political elite over time. No sense biting the hand that feeds you, his logic goes. Without decent legal backing for freedom of information in the Czech Republic, could such a sentiment also be appropriate?
I'd hope not. I would rather that these elite contacts simply cease. Obviously the people who call with information are doing so with certain intentions. Even when we call them, they still only give their spin on the issue. I would rather that these "back channel" contacts be replaced by open, direct contacts that remain on a professional level and do not rely on personal friendships.
Of course, all journalists are proud and protective of their sources, but that privileged access to information has a dark side. The question is basically this: does the journalist just become a mouthpiece for his (interested) sources? Getting a tip is fine, but it always has to be confirmed and analysed, and one must always ask himself whether this is just someone just spinning their side of the tale?
Another person at CT told me that such a moderator would be unsuccessful here, because guests would simply refuse to come to the studio. Politicians are too used to having their way with interviewers, and they don't feel they should be tested and challenged. In this they are certainly right - for the moment.
I may be here only one week, but it is clear that this phenomenon is happening now very regularly. When we invite a politician to the studio, that person's spokesman asks who will be the interviewer, and according to that, they decide whether they will come or not. Some moderators obviously have a better knowledge of some topics than others, and it is obvious to me that some politicians simply are scared to appear with knowledgeable moderators.
Some times we invite ministers, and they express interest in coming, but when they hear what the theme will be they drop out and try to send us their advisors and ridiculously minor spokesmen. It is only a pathetic avoidance of responsibility.
Of course, we will shame those politicians publicly by saying on air that we invited them, but they refused to speak to us, but CT must take additional steps to remedy this situation. So with this in mind, I have an announcement to make here and now.
I will start a list of invitations and refusals, and the Czech public can be the judge of whether there is a pattern in this data. We will form a table including invited guest, date and time called, the questions he or his spokesman asks our caller and whether that guest accepted our invitation or not and if not what was his excuse. I intend to post this list on the Net and update it regularly. This is public TV, and these politicians are public servants, so I see no reason why the citizens should not know all the details of these invitations.
Please note, I am not saying that everyone has to come running when we call them. That would be nonsense. We will simply keep a public list of invitations and the reasons given for rejection. The public can decide if certain ministers are avoiding certain issues or certain knowledgeable moderators.
The citizens should know whether one of their elected officials is a pathetic, cowardly, unimpressive, undemocratic weakling who repeatedly refuses to talk to knowledgeable members of the media on difficult subjects.
I must say that many of the people here are pretty frustrated when they have to deal with this non-sense from their own elected representatives and government officials. In fact, some are down right embarrassed for their country when they have to explain yet another groundless rejection. They know very well that things aren't quite right when a minister has to ask who the moderator will be or what the topic will be discussed before he decides to come to the studio. I don't have to convince the people here at CT that there is a problem with this situation.
I do have to convince them that things can be different. This list should help us along the way.