Friday, May 30, 2008

Editorial: Not Just the Facts

There is, I will swear on the bible, no national or political prejudice involved, but I must confess to a growing distaste for many things Gazeta Wyborcza.

I’ve been reading Gazeta pretty much since I came to Poland 10 years ago, and have understood its language fully for about five. So it’s not that I’m not attracted to it. And we’re not talking about just any paper – Wyborcza was established on the back of the Roundtable Talks that eased out communism and was a major force in re-establishing Poland’s civic consciousness in the early 90s. But I’m increasingly convinced it has made a bad choice between the two ideas that founded it – delivering a partisan political message and supporting free speech.

A paper like Gazeta should be a centre for free, unbiased, responsible journalism as the country develops – and it is becoming the exact opposite.

Reporters at the paper are quite frank about its motives over the past two years.

“It was decided after the last election that it was simply vital to get the Kaczynskis out of government,” a senior member of the paper’s editorial staff told me late last year.

“The paper’s leaders believed that PiS’s impact in the long term would be so negative for Poland, for our development as a democracy, that removing them was of overarching importance. So journalists were told to focus on writing stories that attacked the Kaczynskis.”

Varying degrees of this approach clearly exist across the western world. Newspapers are never without a political bent. Wyborcza’s competitors, with the possible exception of the tabloids, all have their agendas.

But what singles out good newspapers and good journalism is that the news pages stick as much as they can to a balanced presentation of the facts of a story. Not to presenting particular facts to back up an assumption.

This leads us to a deeper problem. The Polish state is in the mess it is largely because, after two decades of democracy, politics are so ruthlessly partisan. Throughout the state sector, the new government has replaced people, yet again, on the basis of their political allegiances and contacts.

Unbiased journalism should be here to fight that. To find objective criteria and judge our politicians by it. You can’t expect readers to believe that you’re criticising or praising politician X for objective reasons when they know that you just want to lay into him for political ones.

And yet. The Warsaw local supplement Gazeta Stoleczna has a team of young journalists who generally go after hard news and only hard news. They ask: is there a delay with opening the new airport? What is the problem? What were the grounds for official X making decision Y? Did the council fail to consult locals? Are bus ticket prices about to rise? They just want the facts, and they just want them first.

Now isn’t that a good idea?