Czech TV: Inside and out
I would like to summarise briefly my two-month experience at Czech Television (ČT). For anyone who has been reading BL and who has been read The Prague Business Journal of May 25-31, there will be little new in what I say. The situation seems quite clear. Perhaps my interpretation is a bit pessimistic, but I cannot describe these events other than how I witnessed them.
Pressure on Kytka
Kytka felt pressure on his position right from the beginning, and both he and Puchalský knew the pressure was coming from a combined force of those beneath Kytka in the newsroom and certain representatives in Parliament. This was only to be expected, because many members of the news team at ČT see these representatives as part of their ordinary daily work, and the reporters' dissatisfaction with Kytka's reforms could easily slip into a conversation. Puchalský and Kytka ought to have been prepared for it.
Pavel Dostál's comments to ČTK in the week before Kytka's resignation were the result of conversations several members of the newsroom had with the MP that week. Dostál, rather than hear both sides of the story, simply believed Klepetko and echoed the reporters' complaints to the news agency. Dostál called the Parliamentary Commission for the Media to invite Puchalský to answer for falling ratings of the nightly news that same week and to answer for other concerns he supposedly had about Kytka. All this came on the basis of complaints he had heard from some of Kytka's disgruntled subordinates.
Dostál's comments criticising Kytka were inappropriate not only because Kytka had been just a few weeks on the job and not only because a member of the Parliamentary Commission for the Media should not interfere directly into the workings of Czech public service television (the commission should address its comments to the Council for Czech Television, and the Council to Czech TV itself). His remarks were also off the mark, because he had heard only one side of the story (Klepetko's) and spoken publicly before weighing up the entire problem. It was a very irresponsible move on the part of the MP. I hope that in his new position as Minister of Culture, Mr Dostál considers his public statements more carefully (perhaps the fact that Dostál is now silent even though ČT's ratings continue to fall means that he has learned his lesson, perhaps it is something darker like a feeling of being Klepetko's protector -- who knows?)
In any case, by the time the Commission met late in the afternoon on 21 May, there was no point of contention between Dostál and Puchalský. Kytka's resignation was already announced. That meeting of the Commission was a hopeless muddle, because there was nothing to talk about. Kytka had already been replaced.
To call Dostál's actions "political pressure" on Czech Television, however, is going too far. Dostál's comments were politically inappropriate and grossly irresponsible, but it was not political pressure in any real sense, because there was no threat. In his position in Parliament and on the Commission, Dostál had no real power over Puchalský and Kytka. Sure he had a platform from which he could launch verbal criticism which would be picked up by the press, but in terms of real threat, there was none. Dostál's motivation was probably to get Kytka to be a bit more accommodating toward Klepetko so that Klepetko would stay on at Czech TV.
Klepetko must not have believed his eyes when Kytka resigned so easily. For weeks Klepetko had been lurking around the corridors of Czech Television conspiring against Kytka with little real result except that chaos and dissatisfaction spread through the ranks of the newsroom as most employees spent more time whining about their new boss then they did actually working. But then Klepetko took his moaning to Dostál, and his personal problem with his new boss was solved within a week.
This was not political pressure but just an amateurish attempt to find protection, and Klepetko was as surprised as anyone when Kytka resigned. And to top it all off, Klepetko even got a promotion - no doubt partly because the new Head of the Newsroom Zdeněk Šámal (along with Puchalský) was impressed with Klepetko's connections (they could hardly be impressed with his work on camera). I think Klepetko handled his intrigue rather amateurishly, but he was successful for the simple reason that his opponents were weaker.
Puchalský and Kytka could have stood up to Dostál's words. They should have said something along the lines of "Thank you, Mr Representative Dostál, for your comments, but we would prefer that such comments go through the proper channels (the Council). We also do not feel that you fully appreciate the scope of restructuring and reorganisation here in the newsroom. Any time a large organisation such as Czech Television goes through wide-ranging changes, there will always be some employees who are happy with the new scheme and others who are less satisfied. The leadership of Czech Television would ask that you talk to both sides of this debate before drawing your conclusions." With that, the matter would soon die out.
I must take partial blame for the fact that this approach was not taken. I tried to get this idea across to both Kytka and Puchalský at the time, but I guess I did not make my argument strongly enough.
Instead of confronting Dostál politely yet head-on, Puchalský, and to a lesser extent Kytka himself, panicked and over-reacted. As a person with pitifully few important connections in high places and being hopelessly too young and inexperienced to run a politically sensitive firm with 3000 employees, Puchalský took Dostál's words far too seriously. Rather than considering Dostál's criticism simply part of the rough-and-tumble of a difficult job, Puchalský panicked. He felt he had to react and respond with a symbolic action. The normal 100-day grace period would be ignored for Ivan Kytka.
Puchalský temporarily sided with Kytka's sub-ordinates and forced Kytka to resign. Kytka is not entirely without blame in all of this. To some extent Kytka let himself be convinced that the pressure on him was greater than it actually was. He had ways of contacting Dostál and confronting his criticism directly or at least presenting his side of the story. Most importantly, he could have stood his ground and demanded that Puchalský do the same. Together they could have stood behind their reform project loudly and openly. This they did not do.
Being the only employee who joined Czech Television at the request of Ivan Kytka, I knew that my position was quite precarious as of 21 May. At first, however, I was quite surprised when several people rushed to my office and tried to convince me not to resign. The promises I heard were numerous, especially from Šámal. I don't have to detail the various private conversations I had with Šámal on that Thursday and Friday, because the sense of them was made clear and public in his brief interview for Lidové Noviny on 22 May: "Nehodlám však dělat ani personální bouře, ani personální bouřičky." (I do not intend to do any major personnel changes.)
I was perhaps naive, but I wanted to believe that I could remain at ČT even after Kytka left. When I was assigned the task of preparing the harmonogram for the pre-election 21s, I thought that I might actually be able to stay.
Despite the promises both public and private, and despite receiving praise from everyone for the complex yet fair harmonogram I created, I was soon to lose all my previous authority on the 21 programme. I was forced out of the position of co-producer "vedoucí relace", and my name ceased appearing on the weekly scheduling plan. Šámal told me directly that a Czech should have final responsibility for the show.
Within a week, I lost the authority to choose topics and guests. I could no longer decide what would be used as video background material (příspěvky) for the show. The daily planning meeting which I had established for 21 was eliminated. My idea for formally publicising the difficulties 21 has with guests through a table on the Internet was shelved. Even my suggestions for topics and background material were ignored. All of the responsibilities I had under Kytka were taken away. Moderators who had once publicly praised my work were now shouting in my face and telling me they didn't want to work with me in any way.
This gave rise to a strange situation. Here was an employee of Czech Television called all the way from London to do a specific job but not allowed to do that job. I was paid very well for just sitting around with nothing to do (I worked about 14 hours a day when Kytka was there). I should note that no one had complained about my performance on the job at this point, so no reason was ever given for the loss of my responsibilities (except the fact that I am not Czech).
I began to feel very guilty receiving money for not doing anything, so I began discussing the problem with Puchalský and others in ČT. I wondered openly if they just wanted me to leave, but I was assured that this was not true, and that after the elections, a new position would be found for me. The pressure on me to resign came from within the newsroom, however, not from Puchalský.
I must take my story on a side-track for a moment and talk about the relationship between Britské listy and Czech Television. BL is like a drug in the ČT newsroom. People read it avidly and discuss it throughout the day. They even print it out which is a bit strange considering that every computer has access to the Internet.
When Kytka was still heading the news at ČT, newscasters and reporters would become very offended by the criticism of ČT in Britské listy, and they openly accused Kytka at various meetings that he was writing these critical articles even though the author on the article was usually Jan Čulík. They were just incapable of comprehending that someone outside ČT could have such strong opinions of the news programming.
When Kytka left, it became my turn: every article Čulík wrote about ČT was blamed on me. I recall one especially intense meeting when an otherwise quiet and unassuming moderator was red with fury and waved a printed copy of Britské list in my face screaming, "You wrote this, you asshole, you wrote this!" Pointing to the name "Jan Čulík" at the bottom of the article was no help.
I couldn't help but laugh, because I has seen this exact same scene played out with Kytka just a few weeks before. I also had to laugh at the pettiness of these moral midgets. I needn't tell the reader that laughing in their faces only made them more angry and vindictive, but I couldn't help it, honestly.
I'd just like to say for the record that what Čulík writes is Čulík's. When I want to write something, I put it under my own name and take credit and responsibility for it. The only time in my life I did not do this was when I wrote one pre-election analysis for Britské listy, which had nothing to do with ČT at all.
Someone should really analyse why Britské listy is such a force at ČT. Why are they so scared of it and yet at the same time continue to provide it with information about the inner workings of the newsroom?
Anyway, with both Kytka and me out of the picture, I wonder who the employees of ČT blame for the continuing flood of articles in Britské listy criticising ČT news. The only one of the original reformers left is Puchalský himself, so maybe they blame him.
The Very End for Me
The pettiness of those now above me in the newsroom continued to worsen in June. It would be silly to document it all, but one good example sticks in my mind. I had been promised the use of a company car from ČT until I found a flat in Prague (I came from London remember). After wrongly accusing me of writing for Britské listy, Šámal took my car away from me and then blamed me for coming to work late when I live 30 kilometres outside of Prague. I received an official warning, and they threatened to cut my pay by 60%.
Shouting matches in the corridors continued, until I realised that I was not going to remain very long. In the end, only five people in ČT would even talk to me civilly, and the fact that one of them was Puchalský was no help in the news department when Puchalský said he couldn't interfere there on my behalf.
I am embarrassed to admit that I eventually came to find myself shouting as well. I could no longer laugh at them, and I was becoming as bad as they were. That is when I knew I had to leave despite my promise to myself that I would try to stick it out. I was worried I was turning into one of these uncultured wretches - someone who screams in corridors. I don't want to become like that.
When the offer came to take the post as managing editor of The New Presence, I knew that I should take advantage of the new opportunity and move on. It is nice to work among decent people again.
I do not want to hear any nonsense about this failure of reform having something to do with "the national character" or being the result of "democratic Westerners clashing with the mentality cultivated under Communism". That is all rubbish. The reform of Czech Television news failed, because specific people made specific mistakes. It is not philosophical, national or historical - it is much more simple than that.
Everyone who was on the side of reform must take some responsibility for its failure, and that includes me. Puchalský and Kytka foolishly over-reacted to mild criticism. I failed to convince them to act otherwise. Part of the blame for the failure of reform at CT also belongs to Jan Čulík. In February and March, he was in discussions with Kytka and Puchalský about various ways to assist the reform project, but when offerred the chance to interview for the new Sunday debate programme, Čulík refused to be interviewed and refused to even send a CV, stubbornly thinking that to be judged by the young, less experienced Puchalský was simply beneath him.
But the primary blame for the failure of improvement of ČT news, of course, lies with those who are now too small and too petty to even attempt the reforms Kytka started. Worried more about the minor feuds between members of the newsroom than about the quality of the news itself, Šámal and Klepetko cannot change anything for the better on screen. Interestingly, eliminating Kytka and Stroehlein did nothing to solve the personnel chaos in the newsroom, and bitter and open animosity between Šamal and Klepetko, according to several internal sources who continue to provide BL with information, is now poisoning the atmosphere there even further. Absenteeism among staff is on the rise. Viewership continues to fall.
The newsroom has now returned to its absurdly servile pre-Kytka state. Only Ota Černý is missing to make the pre-Kytka picture complete. I am not saying that the news in those few short weeks under Kytka was perfect, only that it was better, and it was improving. That cannot be said today when Czech Television news is nothing more than illustrating party and ČTK announcements and has absolutely no investigative element.
Previous reforms of Czech Television after November 1989 turned the newsroom from a one-party propaganda instrument into a multi-party propaganda instrument. Each political party now has their reporter who basically acts as a spokesman for that party. Most "journalists" there are more concerned with hobnobbing with party bigwigs then they are about providing a service to the citizens and democracy in general.
There can be no greater sign of their lack of professionalism and downright corruption then the fact that many of the reporters tykat party bosses (use the informal form of address in Czech). Perhaps they would like to move on from TV and get a job as party spokesmen or ministry spokesmen as several have in the past. They provide a service to the parties today, and they expect something in return in the future. A handful of reporters despise this system and want to change it, but they are keeping very quiet at the moment. They saw what happened to Kytka and Stroehlein. In any case, they are few in number.
It is more than just symbolic that editors, reporters and moderators, when they start to work at ČT, sign a promise to be "všestranný" (all-party). That is what ČT news is. What it needs to be, and what the individuals working at ČT need to be is "nestranný" (no-party).
The reforms of Kytka and Puchalský were meant to take that multi-party propaganda system and turn it into a no-party system. Kytka's greatest success in his 51 days was that he broke up the improper "all-party" system for a brief period. The proof that he had succeeded to a certain extent, was the frustration of the parties who complained to us that we were not covering every ridiculous press conference (i.e. attempt at free TV advertising) they decided to call at the drop of a hat.
The reform programme of ČT news is dead and buried. I am one-hundred percent confident that Puchalský knows he made an error, but of course, it is too late now. He kicked out his only allies in the newsroom, and now, his hopes to reform the news department cannot be realised. Don't expect him to admit any of this openly, of course, but it will be years before he can even attempt to regain the upper hand there.