Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Czech Public TV: The yellow-bellies

Jan Culik

The standards of TV journalism in the Czech Republic have long reflected those of the Communist years and the news largely consists of reporting what the government does without analysis, asking easy questions to interviewees and shunning hard-hitting investigative stories. Last year, it might have seemed that all this was close to ending when a shake-up put some new faces at the top of the nation's public-service television station, Ceska televize, with some adventurous plans for changing the face of TV news reporting. Politicians and news presenters, however, had different ideas.

On 4 February 1998, the Council for Czech Television appointed the then 28-year old Jakub Puchalsky Chief Executive of Ceska televize. Until then, Puchalsky had been Head of the small Prague office of the BBC Czech Service. The reason why Puchalsky was chosen is unclear. Critics, such as the former Ceska televize Chief Executive Ivo Mathe, argue that Puchalsky was appointed so that the Council for Czech Television could manipulate Ceska televize more easily (See Britske listy, 20 August 1998 and also Britske listy, 29 September 1998) . It might also be relevant that Jan Jirak, a former teacher of English, who now teaches the media at the Charles University Department of Mass Communication, is Chairperson of the Council for Czech Television. Jakub Puchalsky is Jirak's former student.

Puchalsky proposed to improve Ceska televize's news and current affairs according to the model of the BBC. He was appointed on the basis of his reform project, aiming to make news and current affairs more professional and more critical. This is why Puchalsky appointed Ivan Kytka, Czech television's London correspondent for many years, as head of News and Current Affairs. Unlike Puchalsky's proposals, Kytka's project for reforming the news and current affairs department has been published (see Britske listy, 2 April 1998).

Kytka became Head of News and Current Affairs on 1st April, 1998, the following month, he brought Andrew Stroehlein, an American specialist in Czech affairs, from London to co-edit the current affairs daily 21 Hours. Kytka and Stroehlein's plans were backed up by criticisms of Ceska televize's news and current affairs programmes from the Council for Czech Television and the Parliamentary Media Commission. Even so, the principles which Kytka and Stroehlein tried to apply in Ceska televize, were incompatible with organisation's mentality and the Council's findings, based on five or six week's worth of taped news programmes, were dismissed as being biased by the management of Ceska televize.

Absent guests

Among other things, Kytka and Stroehlein found that Ceska televize is often manipulated by politicians who determine under what conditions they might be willing to come for an interview and what questions they are willing to answer. The journalists in Ceska televize's news and current affairs deparment were considerably frustrated by this practice. In one case, a scandal brewed up when Stroehlein published the fact that the Czech Defence ministry was willing to send the then Secretary for Defence Michal Lobkowicz for a live interview to 21 Hours only on condition that the then opposition spokesman Jaroslav Basta from the Social Democratic party would not be present (see Britske listy, 18 May 1998.)

While 21 Hours was under Stroehlein's influence, it continued to publicise the fact that politicians were unwilling to appear in the studio in debate with their political opponents. At the end of May 1998, 21 Hours published the fact that the then Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus refused to be interviewed if he was to be asked to take part in a discussion with Jan Ruml, a politican from the Freedom Union. 21 Hours showed Klaus's empty chair on the programme to highlight his refusal. In the same week, the programme informed the viewers of the fact that Jan Ruml also refused to come to the studio for a debate with Klaus. The politicians were shocked by the fact that they behind the scenes machinations were published. Ruml released a statement, saying that he did refused to come to 21 Hours with Klaus but he "did not mean it badly".

A manifesto of agression

Stroehlein's views on the matter had been outlined earlier that month when he wrote an article for Britske listy on 13 May 1998. However, he did not just blame politicians for the unprobing nature of Czech news and called for a new breed of TV reporter who could "drag the answers out of reluctant, wary and savvy politicians". In order to be able to do this, Stroehlein thought that Czech reporters, presenters and moderators needed to be more self confident and aggressive and be able to back this up with firm knowledge and strong reputations for rooting out the facts in a manner that shows no servility but at the same time no insolence. However, he was pessimistic about the chances for this happening and cited two reasons why this is so.

First of all, TV journalists are too frightened to apply these principals. As Stroehlein recounts: "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."

Secondly, Czech journalists work on a system of networking and back-room deals to get their news and information. In being agressive with politicians, they feel that they might lose their precious contacts. Stroehlein argued that such a system should be swept away and replaced by "open, direct contacts that remain on a professional level and do not rely on personal friendships".

The similar fear is that nobody would want to appear on such a programme. Politicians are too used to having their way with interviewers, and they don't feel they should be tested and challenged. Stroehlein's remedy for this problem was less theoretical:

I will start a list of invitations and refusals, and... 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."

Reform was being pursued elsewhere in the organisation as well. This was to have been just a beginning. News and current affairs on Czech Television was planning to become fully independent on political structures in the country. The new news and current affairs management was preparing to build up independent news gathering structures and to create a good background for professional journalists.

The cronies stand firm

Puchalsky, however, failed to support the independent practice of 21 Hours. Even though Puchalsky's original intentions were probably commendable, he turned out to be a weak Chief Executive. He was incapable of implementing his reforms. The new approach was absolutely unacceptable for a system heavily entrenched in its practices. A mere seven weeks after his appointment to the post of Head of News and Current Affairs on 22nd May, 1998, Kytka was forced to resign. It seems that the main reason for the removal of Ivan Kytka from the post was Kytka' s attempt to abolish the informal decision-making structure of several cronies in the News and Current Affairs Deparment who were very influential in Ceska televize. These cronies were largely members of the editorial team who were bound by only informal relationships and held ad hoc meetings to decide editorial policy. One of them even admitted to Kytka "It has taken us a certain amount of time to bring up Petr Studenovsky to fit our needs as a boss." Kytka's independent policies did not, therefore, go down well with the newsroom oligarchy.

Kytka recognised this himself in an interview he gave (see Britske listy, 2 September 1998):

I clashed with the powers that be about the whole concent of public service news and current affairs. The previous Head of News and Current Affairs Petr Studenovsky and the previous Ceska televize Chief Executive Ivo Mathe were satisfied with a narrow interpretation of the law. They reinforced the view that the task of Czech public service television should be to provide a passive, pictorial version of the Czech News Agency output... (Reporters and ministers) were not ready for this kind of work... But it is an absolutely normal principle in British and American journalism.

Kytka also lamented the lack of strength of journalists and described Ceska televize's reporting as being based on a "pre-1989 model". However, Kytka was also disturbed by the amateurish organisation of news gathering in the TV station before his arrival that before his arrival. Ceska televize had about eleven news programmes and journalists contributed to all of them more or less arbitrarily. Kytka found out that the main news team at the home news desk was made up of university students, who work at Ceska televize part time. The news shift was made up depending on whenever students had time to work in between lectures at their universities. Kytka wanted to make permanent appointments for the key positions in news and current affairs and set up specific editorial teams for the individual news programmes.

He also wanted to create an independent news gathering and news evaluation team since the Ceska televize news and current affairs suffered from "infringements of some basic journalistic principles especially of the necessity to convey information precisely and impartially." He wanted to change things quickly because as the Editor-in-Chief, according to law, he personally was criminally liable for inaccuracies in the news programmes.

A democracy of relativism

I cannot quote arguments from the other side because no systematic criticism of Kytka's reform is available. We have never managed to obtain a statement from Ceska televize on this matter. The Chief Executive, Jakub Puchalsky, and the new Head of News and Current Affairs, Zdenek Samal, repeatedly refused Britske listy's requests for an interview. Other media in the Czech Republic have not dealt with the reasons for the failure of reform at Ceska televize.

Most Czech media reduced the serious problem to a personal issue. Kytka personally failed, he was incompetent. The former Head of News and Current Affairs Petr Studenovsky said in a Czech News Agency report on 22 May, 1998, on the day when Kytka's resignation was announced that "Kytka has simply paid for the fact that he had behaved as though he was bringing us civilisation from Great Britain. He behaved as though we lived in the trees here or something and that is not quite true."

It has transpired, in the meantime, that many other parts of the Czech media, and indeed many Czech businesses are run by such an informal cabal of friends which overrides and paralyses official decision-making structures. Direct and decent behaviour is often regarded as a weakness in Prague. Instead of saying openly what they think, and stand up for their views people in the Czech Republic often prefer intrigue. Those who do not enjoy the support of a network of conspirators, will not be able to implement his ideas, no matter how good they might be. Personal loyalty is more important than professionalism and knowledge. It happens so often that people are appointed to official posts in the Czech Republic not on the basis of their qualifications, but on the basis of whom they know.

This goes hand in hand with the absence of a generally respected standards of civilisation by which the behaviour of people is usually measured in the "well-established democracies". It is impossible to realise a good idea because most people do not know that it is good. There is not generally accepted value system, so it is difficult do distinguish what is of worth and what is inferior. There is an atmosphere or relativism. Anyone can do what they like. This is then called democracy.

Jan Culik, 21 August 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.

The background material of this article can be found under the heading "sdelovaci prostredky, Ceska televize," in the thematic archives of Britske listy, where there are more than 230 articles in Czech on Czech public service television, published since January 1998.

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER:

Zelezny Pulls the Plug on Czech TV Nova, 16 August 1999

Czech Media and Civil Society: A survey, 16 August 1999

Czech Revival: No Pulse 99, 9 August 1999

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press , 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999




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