On the one hand: “We’ve had enough of Trzaskowski’s hypocrisy”, “President’s opponents’ unclean game”, “Trzaskowski is running a campaign of lies?” and “Trzaskowski will take away Poles’ money?”.
On the other: “President defends Polish families”, “Duda: I am banking on pro-Polish policy” and “Duda’s plan: Poland’s rapid development”.
These are all captions featured on Wiadomości, the main evening news programme of Poland’s public television broadcaster TVP during the country’s presidential election campaign. As the country grapples with the coronavirus epidemic, media attention has shifted to the election, which was originally scheduled for May, but ended up being rescheduled because of the virus.
Wiadomości has considerable influence among voters: it is one of Poland’s top two evening programmes, with almost 2.6 million viewers in June 2020 (slightly more than private broadcaster TVN’s “Fakty” news programme). 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 favour or promote any party, organisation, group or option.”
Despite this mission, Wiadomości’s coverage of Polish politics is far from impartial. Over the past four and a half years, the programme has strongly favoured the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015. This has involved a consistent pro-government narrative while seeking to delegitimise its critics, including the parliamentary opposition.
This pattern has been repeated during Poland’s presidential election campaign, the first round of which took place on June 28, after the original election on May 10 did not go ahead because of the coronavirus epidemic. With no candidate over 50 percent, the election will conclude in a runoff on July 12 between Andrzej Duda, the PiS-backed incumbent president, and Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, the candidate of the largest opposition party, the Civic Platform (PO). As the headlines above show, Wiadomości has covered their campaigns in strikingly different ways.
Duda has consistently been presented in a positive light as the defender of the Polish family, one of the key messages of his campaign. This has been done through Wiadomości’s captions and content, but also its visual language. A four-minute segment entitled “Pre-election mobilisation” in the June 24 edition of Wiadomości, four days before the first round of the election, shows Duda surrounded by crowds of supporters, with warm colours and stirring music.
“Towns, municipalities and villages, millions of people, loads of important topics and one shared goal,” says the voiceover in the clip. “Pride, dignity, respect, history and tradition, responsibility, credibility, keeping one’s word,” it continues, interspersed with footage of people making positive comments about Duda.
In contrast, Wiadomości has portrayed Trzaskowski in a negative light since he joined the presidential race in May. Outside the election context, it has attacked him repeatedly in the past in his role as the mayor of Warsaw. This includes segments presenting him as the “elites’ candidate” who is neglecting or slighting ordinary Poles outside the big cities. A segment broadcast on June 29, the day after the first-round vote, entitled “The president of the elites or of all Poles?” contrasts his and Duda’s election events the previous evening to show the former as out of touch and the latter as close to ordinary voters. The material concerning Trzaskowski consistently seeks to discredit him, which, in the context of the election, could serve to demobilise potential voters or convince them to vote for Duda instead.
Wiadomości’s biased coverage has been criticised by Polish and international bodies. In response to a complaint by a viewer concerning the segment on Duda from June 24 published on July 6, Poland’s Media Ethics Council stated that “In the presidential election campaign, TVP1’s ‘Wiadomości’ is solely a tool of PiS propaganda aimed at promoting Andrzej Duda and abusing his opponent.” That segment, like most other “Wiadomości” materials, violates all the principles of the country’s Ethical Media Charter, it added. The Council does not have the power to sanction TVP.
In its Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions after the first round of the election, published on June 29, the OSCE noted that the public broadcaster failed to ensure balanced and impartial coverage. “Instead, it acted as a campaign vehicle for the incumbent and frequently portrayed his main challenger as a threat to Polish values and national interests,” it noted.