False innocence: How Polish media deliberately distorts the past
Last week, the Polish media scene was rattled by an earthquake. For a first time since the peaceful transformation from Communism in 1989, a major media personality talked openly about its role in Poland.
The interview explained the narrative for neoliberal transformation that left Poland divided and paved the way for the current extreme right-wing rule of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). As a founding member of the Journalist Society, as well as an editor of major newspapers and magazines and a spokesman for Polish TV, Jacek Rakowiecki has been in a unique position to speak the truth as he sees it. In the interview, titled: "We were not liars, we were idiots," published in several Polish media outlets, Rakowiecki spells out the history of the free market Polish media, whose major role has become business rather than the cultivation of an informed citizenry in a democratic society.
The piece is important, as it is the first time one can actually look at the mainstream Polish media without a view that contains nationalism, political correctness and the propaganda of success. Belatedly, to say the least. For years, there were signs from political establishments all over Eastern Europe, indicating the wheels were already coming off the neoliberal project in both economic and political dimensions.
In a recording leaked in 2006, the Hungarian government, under leadership of the MSZP party, was brought down by PM Ferenc Gyurcsany admitting that the party lied about the state of the government's finances prior to its election victory. Similarly, in neighboring Romania, PM Victor Ponta was thrown out of office and indicted on corruption charges last year.
In Poland, the "Tapegate" of secretly recorded and released conversations between top officials revealed that the Polish state exists only theoretically, while reducing the Polish-American foreign policy alliance to the status of sexual activity. These crises blew over without deeper analysis by Polish media, in regard to the democratic experiment since 1989. However, when the extreme right-wing PiS won an election by announcing wide and sweeping changes in the economic sphere (an increase of taxation on banks and supermarkets, both owned by largely foreign multinationals) and limited pro-social policies, a sea change occurred. The attack by Polish media on the right-wing PiS is backed up by its own circular logic of money-equals-power-equals-democracy, while completely ignoring the previous eight years of violations of the same by the Civic Platform, the center-right party that lost. The media epitomized the Civic Platform’s rule in the propaganda of success narrative, while using the Polish stock market and GDP growth as benchmarks in a classical con game of economic indicators. Meanwhile, 2.3 million Poles have left the country for the EU, unable to make a living in their own country while being replaced by up to a million Ukrainians who were fleeing violence and economic collapse next door.
Rakowiecki's vision of the Polish media as ignorant, naive, overworked and effectively stupid is as unconvincing as it is self-serving at best – and completely dishonest at worst.
In 2004, I was in Warsaw investigating the story of Polish involvement in Iraq, as it became one of the major participants in President George W. Bush's so-called "Coalition of the Willing." As I covered the issue for Korean media, thus considered non-threatening, all conversations I had with top Polish media people were very clear and direct to the point. I was told of the midnight calls from the US State Department to the Polish government and the latter's express decision to send the troops overnight.
This is despite an existing constitutional framework that required any military action by Polish troops to be opened to committee hearings and lengthy political deliberations on both the pros and cons of the move. Ironically, the way the Polish military action was handled was almost identical to 1968 Warsaw Pact's invasion of Czechoslovakia, which put an end to the Prague Spring. Polish troops participated in that, also on orders from a foreign power, the USSR, and without any major internal deliberations on the legality of the action.
What came across in my conversations in 2004 was the utter cynicism and complete understanding of geopolitical realities by people in power and the media and those who made the decision to send the troops to Iraq. Polish media didn't question it then, and don't question it now. Furthermore, I was told that it was almost a commercial venture that will pay for itself twofold – first in payments of construction debts owed to Poland by Saddam Hussein’s government – and the new contracts for the rebuilding of Iraq and its military infrastructure. Ironically, these were the points made to the Polish government not by Iraqi representatives, but by the US. The second "benefit" was to give the Polish army valuable operating and combat experience, from which it could build itself as a professional force and the country into a fully integrated member of NATO. Poland had joined NATO just four years earlier, so the Iraq experience was to be its crowning achievement on the road to full EU membership, which happened in 2004.
In this context, the allegations made by Rakowiecki are just not credible and are actually reminiscent of the tenure of US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan, which ended in a confession of naiveté on how markets actually work.
At face value, it is also a very safe position to take as stupidity, ignorance and incompetence are not crimes under current set of neoliberal democratic order. The career trajectories of CEOs of major multinational banks, administration officials or major news outlets such as Fox, WSJ or NYT are the evidence and the proof. In this way the speed bump of mea culpa as presented by Rakowiecki allows the show to go on as before. For example, Bernie Sanders’ electoral win in New Hampshire was greeted by the leading Polityka newspaper under a headline: "Atlas of the leftist monsters," and reposted as Sanders started to gain electorally over Clinton last December.
Polityka also endorsed the Polish intervention in Iraq and its characterization of Bernie Sanders as a leftist monster, himself the son of a Polish immigrant, speaks volumes about the character of Polish media and its inherent bias.
The propaganda also extends to what the ruling PiS classifies as “political history.” It revolves around the creation of a historical, if not hysterical, narrative around the deaths of the Polish cabinet in the 2011 airplane crash near Smolensk, in Russia. In a classic example of a culture war, it used the politics of identity and historical memory to give itself credibility and a mission statement. That was done on purpose to deflect any criticism of electoral promises remaining unfulfilled, and made during an electoral cycle. The PiS later claimed that it had more important things to do, of economic importance, on which it was largely elected to begin with. Instead, the politics of identity would extend further to formulating history that can be used as a justification of its rule and decision-making processes. This trend is not, however, restricted to the PiS alone, but to all mainstream protagonists of the Polish political scene, where political history is used as a propaganda platform vis-à-vis its relevance and legitimacy to the masses in Poland and abroad.
Recently, I came across this tactic while viewing the documentary film “The Polish Transformation” made by the Community Film Institute in Warsaw.
According to legal disclosure, the institute is a foundation based in Warsaw and it has been provided funding by successive Polish governments for its projects. The film itself explains the transformation from Communism in the 1989-early 1990s period, with a variety of interesting interviews of Polish officials. There are many debatable points in the film, which it can be argued distorts reality of the transition process and how it affected the nation, but what is interesting is the role of subtitles in both English and Spanish. At times, they completely misrepresent what is being said, with the obvious result of the manipulation of its content. The film was released during Law and Justice’s first term in office in 2006, and as I attempted to track down its director I found out that his name doesn't register anywhere, despite an extensive Google and internet search.
The closing credits mention the Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University in Massachusetts, whose support is listed as making the project possible. "We had nothing to do with this documentary and I have never even heard of this film director," said Elizabeth Amrien, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Europe and the Latin American Studies Program at Boston University. A decade ago she was a managing director of now defunct Institute for Human Sciences and she had no idea how the documentary came to claim its support from Boston University.
Whether this is a typical example of a propaganda snow job, or a covert effort to massage international public opinion, is beside the point. The Polish media business is a business and as long it continues as such and the Polish public opinion doesn't mind being lied to, Poles will continue getting the best democracy money can buy. Literally.
The Community Film Institute did not respond to request for comment.
Derek Monroe will give a presentation on India/Sri Lanka politics on Feb 20, 2016, at 3:00p.m. at Evanston, IL Library, right off the Northwestern University campus. There is going to be a lively Q&A session as well and all are welcome. For free registration, please click here.