“Opposition with no offer for voters”. “Poles want changes in courts, not protests”. “Total opposition’s total hysteria”. The next day: “Total opposition in total disarray”. And, two days later, “Total opposition totally divided”. These are not the headlines of a marginal right-wing website or, indeed, a satirical show. They are taken from Wiadomości, the main evening news programme of Polish public broadcaster TVP, shown daily at 19.30.
How Wiadomości portrays current affairs matters: it is one of Poland’s top two evening news programmes. As the public broadcaster’s news programme, it is also bound by its public mission. This includes a commitment to impartiality:
“As an institution serving all of society, TVP, in its programmes […] does not formulate its own stance. It does not formulate or express its own views on political matters or others that are the subject of public debate. It does not favourise or promote any party, organisation, group or option.”
Yet as the headlines above show, Wiadomości’s coverage of Polish politics is far from impartial. Over the past two years, the news programme has strongly favoured the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. One of PiS’s first changes after coming to power in October 2015 was to pass a law terminating the contracts of the heads of Poland’s public television and radio broadcasters. On Jan. 8, 2016, Jacek Kurski, a former PiS member of the European Parliament (and brother of Gazeta Wyborcza’s deputy editor-in-chief Jarosław Kurski), was appointed director of TVP. Marzena Paczuska, a long-term journalist at TVP, became head of Wiadomości, until she was eventually replaced by the director of the Television Information Agency (TAI), Jarosław Olechowski, in August 2017.
Under Paczuska and her successor, TVP has served up a consistent pro-government narrative, while seeking to delegitimise its critics, above all the parliamentary opposition. As an illustration, take Wiadomości on Nov. 28, 2017. The news opened by with a clip criticising the opposition for trying to “torpedo” PiS’s proposed changes to the judiciary, which have sparked international concern. It included footage of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński saying that a “great reform of the judiciary is needed”. This was followed by a clip accusing the opposition of “political hypocrisy” for trying to block PiS’s efforts to change the electoral law. Another clip focused on PiS politicians’ calls for reparations from Germany for damage to Poland during World War II. Again, the opposition was criticised. “Today, Civic Platform and Nowoczesna politicians consider reparations an unnecessary irritation of Germany,” the voiceover said, referring to the two biggest opposition parties. Two more clips looked at the problems of the former leader of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a Warsaw-based NGO, and sexual harassment allegations against two left-wing journalists. In both clips, broader groups critical of the government were presented in a negative light.
Alongside Wiadomości’s daily offerings, TVP’s political bias can be seen in “Pucz” (Coup”), a 30-minute film described as a documentary broadcast on TVP1 on Jan. 15, 2017. It was released shortly after opposition lawmakers’ occupation of the lower chamber of the Polish parliament’s plenary chamber, which the film presented as an attempt to overthrow the government. A text box at the end told viewers that the opposition had tried to “kindle hysteria abroad to present the coup in Poland as a Maidan against oppressive authorities” and “lead to regime change through riots, the revolt of the security apparatus, pressure from abroad and the media, and the paralysis of the Sejm and government”.
In addition to the parliamentary opposition, Wiadomości has targeted other critics of the government. In November 2016, it featured material on NGOs involved in promoting civil society, presenting them as bastions of the previous governing party. Using animated diagrams, it linked them to Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.
More generally, it has presented organisations or movements critical of the government as being supported from abroad. For example, in its coverage of protests against the government’s changes to the judiciary in November 2017, Wiadomości described Akcja Demokracja, one of the organisers, as “funded from abroad, including from Germany and the Netherlands” (01:00). This was accompanied by an animated diagram featuring German and Dutch flags to illustrate the thousands of foreign euros flowing into the organisation.
In parallel, Wiadomości has attacked foreign critics of the Polish government, while presenting Poland as a haven from Islamic terrorism through the government’s refusal to take in refugees from the Middle East. “Germany not coping with islamists”, stated the title of a clip broadcast on Dec. 3.
Screenshots of Wiadomości’s boldest headlines are circulated on social media by critics of the government, where they are often the subject of ire.
Yet Wiadomości’s current pro-government bias reflects a longer-term attitude in Poland. Despite TVP’s public mission, the tradition of an apolitical public broadcaster has not taken root here. Instead, politicians have long treated it as a tool in the struggle between successive governments and oppositions. From this perspective, TVP is like a prize for whoever wins the elections. This attitude is visible in PiS’s takeover of TVP in January 2016 – and, unless a future government decides to put an end to it, is likely to continue under future administrations.
Observers have suggested that abandoning pretences of impartiality would cause Wiadomości to lose viewers. Indeed, this now appears to be the case.
According to Nielsen Audience Management data, published by Wirtualnemedia.pl, Wiadomości had an average of 2.15 million viewers on TVP1 in October 2017, over one million fewer than a year ago. Another 492,000 people watched it on TVPInfo, the broadcaster’s news channel, which started showing Wiadomości in August. This gave it a total of 2.64 million viewers, or a market share of 18.10 percent – still less than a year ago, when Wiadomości was only broadcast on TVP1. This figure also puts Wiadomości further behind Fakty, the 19:00 news programme of private network TVN, which is more critical of the government in its coverage. In October, Fakty had an average of 2.91 million viewers on TVN and another 159,000 on its news programme TVN24 BiS, giving it it a total of 3.07 million viewers, or a market share of 22.74 percent. While that figure is also lower than a year ago, Fakty’s lead over Wiadmosci has grown.
Kurski, TVP’s director, has responded by criticising Nielsen Audience Measurement’s statistics, accusing them of undercounting TVP’s viewers by failing to account for their geographical spread, especially in rural areas. TVP will publish “alternative viewing statistics” in the near future, he told Gazeta Polska, a right-wing weekly, in a recent interview.