Recapping the Crisis
As CER reported shortly before Christmas 2000, the employees of Czech public service Television made history by rebelling against the Council for Czech Television. The Council's duty as a regulatory body appointed by Czech Parliament was to professionalise Czech TV's news and current affairs programmes and make transparent the opaque and corruptive financial flows within Czech Television.
Like all the Councils for Czech TV since the fall of Communism, this Council was appointed to reflect the balance of political power in the Czech Parliament. However, in an alarming move, the Council for Czech Television, on the initiative of one or two of its most active members, began to act independently.
The fact that the Council for Czech Television began to act independently, demanding openness and professionalism from the public service Czech TV, seriously upset the Prague media and political establishment. From late summer 2000, repeated attempts were made to discredit the Council as "politically biased." Towards the end of 2000, with the dismissal of the then chief executive of Czech TV, Dušan Chmelíček, the media campaign against the Council intensified to an unprecedented shrillness.
The Council for Czech Television recalled Chmelíček in mid-December 2000 because he refused to fulfil the terms of the project for which he was appointed to in February. Moreover, Chmelíček refused to open up the finances of Czech TV for inspection, refused to professionalise news and current affairs broadcasting and created a budget deficit of half a billion Czech crowns.
From September 2000, when it became clear that the Council for Czech TV would eventually recall Chmelíček. In a move to corrupt his allies and to secure their support, Chmelíček suddenly increased the budgets for a number of programmes and also concluded a number of long term contracts with freelancers. Chmelíček appointed an alternative, advisory "Council for Czech Television" from among his supporters and organised a television conference in order to rally them. At the same time, intensive moves were afoot within Czech TV to prepare against any outside attempts at reform.
Perhaps rather clumsily, if not amateurish, the Council for Czech Television recalled Chmelíček in mid-December 2000 and appointed British citizen Jiří Hodač, a BBC man of 11 years, as his replacement. This provoked a rebellion within Czech Television, led in particular by the News and Current Affairs Department. The Czech TV journalists had clashed with Hodač and his BBC values earlier in 2000 when Hodač briefly worked at Czech TV as director of news. The journalists were mainly frightened by his plans to introduce a regular professional assessment of individual Czech TV employees.
The Council for Czech TV and Jiří Hodač and his new people did not have any viable strategy to counter the rebellion of the internal TV structures against change—they just attempted to do their work under impossible circumstances.
In an unprecedented move in the history of international television broadcasting, the rebelling employees of Czech Television hijacked the news and current affairs programmes of this public service TV station. They broadcasted—often very crude and emotional—propaganda against the new chief executive and the people he had brought in. They turned an internal labour dispute into a political crisis, calling it a "struggle for freedom of speech."
The television rebels accused Czech political parties of alleged interference in Czech TV. This was not true. Czech political parties were caught on the hop by the television crisis, were not fully informed of its roots and did not know how to react to what was going on. Little did they realise what a powerful tool for manipulation a television station could be.
A few days into the crisis, a small opposition party, the Freedom Union, suddenly realised that the TV rebellion had a large political potential that could be used in its interest. Freedom Union politicians at that point decided to side with the TV demonstrators, and used the crisis rather successfully for their own political ends. Tens of thousands of people were brought into the streets early in January 2001 to demonstrate for "freedom of speech at Czech TV."
The rebelling journalists from Czech TV successfully persuaded some of their Western colleagues and international institutions (unfamiliar with the Czech territory) that their uprising against the new boss was indeed a "struggle for freedom of speech." The European Union censured the Czech government for allegedly interfering with the public service TV, and the ruling social democratic politicians (who knew full well that this was a virtual crisis, created out of nothing) obediently assured Brussels that the rebelling journalists would be given a free rein.
Jiří Hodač, the newly appointed Chief Executive of Czech TV, ended up in the hospital early in January 2001 suffering from exhaustion. He resigned shortly thereafter and returned to Britain. Czech Parliament dissolved the Council for Czech TV and appointed a new interim chief executive, Jiří Balvín, who was forced to leave Czech TV in 1997 as a result of financial irregularities. Balvín duly fulfilled all the demands of the television rebels. Czech politicians backed off.
The Czech Internet daily Britské listy published the following interview on 9 March with Jana Bobošíková, revered for her professionalism, who was appointed head of news by Jiří Hodač shortly before Christmas 2000, but was in effect never able to work in that post. She tried to broadcast alternative news bulletins during the rebellion, but was only able to find six or seven collaborators, who worked under conditions of extreme pressure and extreme abuse from the TV rebels. The alternative broadcasts were unprofessional and damaged Bobošíková´s name. The new director Jiří Balvín recently dismissed Bobošíková from Czech TV.
Bobošíková is a graduate of the Prague School of Economics and in the 1990s, she became well known as a competent interviewer on "21," a Czech current affairs programme. She was the only Czech journalist ever to tackle head-on the former Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus, who is well-known for his arrogance and of whom many journalists are normally afraid.
In 1998, Bobošíková left Czech Television accusing her superiors of incompetence. On leaving television, she has regularly chaired a number of specialised Economic Fora, she has briefly worked as an economics adviser for Václav Klaus and she edits an Internet site devoted to Czech politics and economics.
Britské listy reporter Tomáš Pecina conducted the following interview with Ms Bobošíková; it was translated into English by Jan Čulík.
Tomáš Pecina: Ms Bobošíková, you had met Jiří Hodač, who later became Head of Czech TV, many months before you became Director of News. As far as I know, you offered him an Economic Weekly programme, but he rejected your proposal.
Jana Bobošíková: Your information is not complete. I offered an Economic Weekly to the Chief Executive Chmelíček and I discussed this also with the Director of Programmes Mr Čapek. They said that they liked the programme and they asked me to analyse the existing economic programmes broadcast by Czech TV, which I did, and to prepare a project about what the economic programmes on Czech TV could look like in future. I wanted to create a particular type of economic programme for Czech Television, to start broadcasting it and then leave it a year later, preserving all the contacts with the news agencies and all the data processing so that the result would be truly professional and the programme would continue to be run by professional people.
I was told that everything had been agreed to and that the rest would be arranged with Mr Hodač, the Director of News. I saw Mr Hodač for the first and the last time in the spring or summer 2000. Mr Hodač told me: "I have not read your project, I have not seen your tape, but I do not want to work with you." That was all.
TP: Did he seem to be a person whom you would like to have as your superior?
JB: Naturally, he made me angry at the time, since if someone tells you that he has not seen your work and does not want to work with you that is not very pleasant.
TP: Who persuaded you then that Mr Hodač is a person to run Czech TV?
JB: The situation in December 2000 was quite different. Mr Hodač telephoned me on 23 December and anyone who knows what goes on in the Czech Republic could see that the situation at Czech Television was not normal. It was not a situation where someone had just been appointed Chief Executive and was now able peaceably to take over that post. It was the extraordinary situation, not Mr Hodač´s person, which made me accept his offer.
TP: When you presented the TV current affairs programme "21," you were capable of professional analysis. Do you think that you analysed the situation at Czech TV in December 2000 correctly?
JB: Absolutely, the current developments are a proof of that.
TP: So how will you answer my question? What persuaded you to "buy a ticket for the Titanic?"
JB: That is a question of personal choice. What was beginning at Czech TV at that time was something quite incredible. And since I had worked at Czech TV for a number of years, I could see—with respect, perhaps a little better than you—which particular people and what interests were behind what was happening. This is why I decided to go into it. From the first moment I knew I was ready to leave at any time and that I knew I would have to leave, sooner or later.
I went there to fight for a slightly different cause than for the cause of independent news and current affairs, which alone I regard as a sufficient reason. My main reason for going was that there were people shouting that freedom of speech was being suppressed and I felt that the principles of democracy were being jeopardised by this. I am convinced that democracy cannot be overruled by anarchy.
For me, a representative democracy is always more legible than anarchy and I accept representative democracy much more happily than the sight of some people wishing to seize power only on account of the fact that they happen to work somewhere.
TP: Can you accept that Mr Hodač may have been appointed legally, but that his appointment had a limited sense of legitimacy?
JB: Had the criteria of legitimacy been defined in advance, we could talk about whether or not his appointment was legitimate. But the law was very vague in this respect, and if you consider the way in which all the previous Czech TV chief executives had been appointed—and that can be regarded as a precedent—there is nothing else for me to say but that his appointment was both legal and legitimate.
But no previous Czech TV Chief Executive was appointed after a selection process which had lasted only a single week, on the first day after the applications had been received...
The previous Chief Executives were appointed even without the public being told what was going on. In this case there is nothing to discuss—we can try to distinguish legality from legitimacy if we define the criteria. We can agree that the Council for Czech TV maybe should have used head—hunting firms which would have perhaps chosen five applicants and the Council would have then chosen from among them. But none of this happened. It was possible to define these criteria in the law, just as the procedures for appointing members of the Council for Czech TV are now defined in the law, but it had not happened.
TP: According to my information, Mr Hodač is a person who has several "skeletons in the closet." The first of them has already fallen out. At the beginning of the 1970s, Mr Hodač wrote propaganda articles for the Communist newspapers. Did you know this in advance?
JB: I knew nothing about Mr Hodač. I had seen him only once before.
TP: How long did it take you to decide to join him at Czech TV?
JB: Approximately 20 hours.
TP: Jana Dědečková, a member of the Council for Czech TV, told Britské listy that preliminary negotiations were taking place even before Chmelíček had been dismissed. Did you ever think of doing anything else at Czech TV apart from working there as Director of News?
JB: I did not apply for the post of chief executive of Czech TV—so, no I did not. Although, in the long run, I am of course interested in having a programme on Czech public service TV, but not on the current Czech TV, the way it is now.
TP: Whose idea was it to broadcast two versions of the news bulletins? (Ed Note: Bobošíková and her team tried to put out their own news broadcasts for several days around Christmas. These news broadcasts were unprofessional and, later, also biased. Bobošíková did not have time to edit these broadcasts and had to rely on the work of a handful of her collaborators. The "Bobovision" news bulletins were broadcast by the terrestrial transmitters.)
TP: And you submitted it to Mr Hodač and he approved it?
TP: What do you think of this decision with hindsight?
JB: On 24 December, this decision was correct. To continue broadcasting these news bulletins on 27 and 28 December when the whole "Czech cultural front," organised by film director Zdeněk Svěrák, had come into existence in support of the TV rebels, was probably a mistake. Maybe we should have stopped it earlier. But on 24 December, the decision was correct.
TP: But many people were shocked by the first appearance of Ms Makrlíková, your news presenter...
JB: Ms Makrlíková is a professional broadcaster. The proof of this is that Czech TV wanted her to present the "From the Regions" programme before they decided to sack her after the TV crisis.
TP: But the structure of your news broadcasts was also wrong.
JB: What was so wrong about the programme? If we compare it to the news broadcasts on the same day which were broadcast by the other TV stations, it does not seem to me that Czech TV broadcast anything unbalanced, incorrect, manipulative, unprofessional. Maybe later, but on 24 December the programme was fine.
TP: Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Had someone else been Czech TV Chief Executive and had you been in the same position, would you have been able to influence the result of the crisis at Czech TV?
JB: No. If anyone deemed by the TV rebels as unsuitable had been appointed, it would not have been possible to influence the result of the crisis, either.
TP: So you do not blame Mr Hodač, but you put the blame squarely on the TV rebels.
JB: I put the blame squarely on the environment that simply refused to accept change. Under no circumstances were they willing to accept any change.
TP: But the environment consists of people...
JB: But you are talking about the TV rebels—there were lots of people who went there to support the rebels, various people (Ed note: for instance, President Václav Havel) telephoned them. This is why I am saying that I fully put the blame on the environment; not only on the rebels who with fiery eyes defended "freedom of speech" on the TV screens. All those who are in one way or another connected with Czech TV are to be blamed for this.
TP: Would the whole thing have ended exactly the same way if Ms Kateřina Fričová (another candidate, a commercial TV broadcaster) had been appointed Czech TV chief executive?
JB: I do not know whether Ms Fričová would have been so thoroughly disliked and whether she would have been willing to break down all those informal ties. You have to ask the rebels and the politicians who supported them whether they would have tolerated her; I cannot answer this question.
TP: Another hypothetical question: Could the situation have been resolved by taking Czech TV fully off the air?
JB: Absolutely. Had I been in the place of Mr Hodač, the TV screens would have been black until the state began to act. It was not a problem for Czech Television, it was a problem for the Czech State: a problem for the local authorities, of the course, for the police.
TP: I fully agree with you on this. In that case, the question is whether someone else, other than Mr Hodač would have been capable of switching off Czech TV for a long time, to make the state act in the interest of the law.
JB: I would have been.
TP: But your views were not sought.
JB: I had not applied for the post of Chief Executive—I did not have Hodač´s powers.
TP: Did you suggest to him that he should do this?
JB: Yes, of course.
TP: What did he answer?
JB: Mr Hodač had his own views and he acted according the best of his conscience. I know that he wondered for a long time whether or not to switch on the transmission of programmes after that one short break in transmission. He made his own decision to switch the transmission on. Since I am trying not to be like the rebels, I respected the decision, made by my boss. I have nothing else to add.
TP: You also respected the decision of the new interim chief executive, Mr Balvín...?
JB: No, that was different. Everyone believed what Mr Balvín told the media. What really happened was that Mr Balvín invited me to his office and asked me whether I wanted to say something to him. I answered: "Mr Balvín, truly, I do not want to tell you anything. I am waiting for you to see what you might offer me." He offered me a job in the inspection department. I asked him whether the department assessed television programmes, but he said it did not. It was to be my job to check whether television contracts had been properly signed. He said that I had a university degree in economics, so that I might be able to do this. I did not accept his offer.
TP: What will you be doing next? You told the TV cameras, like the Terminator: "I will be back!"
JB: I said that I am taking the current situation as a break. I am naturally interested in public service media, because they are potentially the most independent and if it is possible, I will be attempting to return to Czech Television. Why not? I believe that-unlike some other people—I belong there.
TP: What is your view, with hindsight, on your decision to fire some 20 members of the news and current affairs team?
JB: The decision to fire them was absolutely correct.
TP: But would the courts have confirmed it?
JB: The decision was made, and those who did not respect it should have gone to the courts. Mr Balvín, of course, rescinded my decision and I cannot do anything about this. These employees were sacked under Article 53 of the Labour Law (Ed note: for not fulfilling their official duties at work), and if they felt this was unjustified, they should have gone to court.
TP: But the employer must be able to ensure that the dismissed persons no longer have access to their place of work...
JB: We asked the local authority to ensure the execution of this order, but the police refused to comply. What was I supposed to do, carry them out of the premises between my teeth?
Look, Mr Pecina, you have probably read the newsletters issued by the strike committee. One of these newsletters said that all invoices and all contracts were to be submitted to the strike committee, and the strike committee would decide which of them would be processed and which of them would not be processed, which people would be employed and which people would be paid. In other words, it was not within our power, believe me, even to switch off these people's mobile phones, unlike the mobile phones of the people on my team, which had been switched off.
TP: But, in the end, you did manage to block their telephones...
JB: Yes, but not until several days later. We did not even manage to have their salaries stopped. Our contracts remained unprocessed, we did not receive any pay, but their contracts, although these people had been dismissed, were being processed and these people were being paid.
TP: All this seems to be like a total defeat—you were not able to gain control at Czech TV over anything—except for the chief executive's office.
JB: It was a total defeat. But this is the problem: I did not come to Czech TV in order to seize control over anything. I went there to do my work. I did not go there in order to fight with anyone, to have a punch-up with the head of the Salaries Section...!
But if the employees do not obey you, you cannot do your work.
If they are using public property, and you have exhausted all options as a manager, someone else should act.
TP: But you and Mr Hodač have failed to persuade Czech politicians to act.
JB: That was Mr Hodač´s problem. If Czech politicians do not wish to see the law of the land upheld, there is nothing else left for me but to accept this. That is a reality. Yes, we have failed to persuade Czech politicians to act. What else can I say?
TP: What long-term plans did you have when you were appointed Director of News on 24 December?
JB: My plan was absolutely unambiguous: to turn the News and Current Affairs Department into a prestigious place of work that would serve this country as an independent news agency, because Czech TV does have the technological potential to do this. It would be a news department, which would no longer be copying the Czech News Agency, Reuters and the newspapers.
TP: How many of the current employees would have remained there in six months time? How severe was the "purge" expected to be?
JB: You call it a purge, I call it a personnel audit. It depends what the personnel audit would show.
TP: But of course your judgment as a manager would also have to have been used. How many members of the editorial staff would have remained there six months later?
JB: It depends on the individual professions. If we take the journalists, I think about 50 per cent of them could have stayed, some 20 per cent would have had to leave and the remaining 30 per cent would have been moved depending on their education and experience, either upwards or downwards.
TP: Did you plan bigger changes for the domestic section or for the foreign section?
JB: Both sections would have been affected roughly to the same extent. You see, I am afraid that although Czech TV speaks of globalisation and thinks of itself as a harbinger of globalisation into Czech society, Czech TV is, in fact, incredibly isolationist and xenophobic, and it does not really have a clue what globalisation means.
You know, there are lots of people in the News and Current Affairs Department who have a potential to be good, but in that environment it is extremely difficult for even the best person to be good. I believe that many of them have potential, but Czech TV is not developing this potential.
TP: Do you watch Czech TV now?
JB: No. It is not a point of principle. Formerly, I rushed home to see the main evening news, these days I watch it maybe once a week. I do not seek it out.
TP: Do you think that Czech TV news has undergone any change over the past two years? When Mr Klepetko, the current head of News and Current Affairs, assumed his post in the summer of 2000, he promised he would professionalise the News and Current Affairs Department...
JB: Mr Pecina, a professional nobody like Mr Klepetko cannot professionalise anything. I think that Chief Executive Jakub Puchalský made a fatal mistake in 1998 when he allowed the News and Current Affairs Department to choose its own boss. I know that Ivan Kytka as head of news maybe was not ideal, that he had faults as a manager, but after he was forced to leave, Puchalský should not have allowed the members of the News and Current Affairs Department to dictate to him who their new boss would be. That was the beginning of the current crisis. That was the beginning of the end of the Heads of News and Current Affairs at Czech TV. From that time onwards, they became puppets...
TP: After Kytka was forced to leave in May 1998, he was replaced by Zdeněk Šámal.
JB: Yes, but this was no official selection process. Šámal was the product of the "invisible," informal ties at Czech TV. These people told Puchalský: "We would like to have him as the boss." Of course, Puchalský will deny this, but this was the first retreat from managerial principles, and, from that time onwards, the News and Current Affairs department found itself on a slippery slope.
When he was appointed in February 2000, Chief Executive Chmelíček had an ideal chance to break the informal web of relations and to straighten the situation at Czech TV. He should have started introducing normal managerial mechanisms, because the work of journalists does not differ terribly much from other professions, even though journalists do not like hearing this. Even the quality of journalistic work is—up to a certain point—measurable. Those who deny this are liars who are defending their own vested interests.
To begin with, Chmelíček had full support of the Council for Czech TV, but instead of starting to do something sensible, he abolished all the existing cost cutting measures and began to do exactly what the informal structures within Czech TV and around it wanted him to do.
TP: What will happen now, after Mr Balvín has been appointed chief executive?
JB: The future is clear: Czech Television will continue to act as a funnel for CSK (Czech korunas) five billion, and its share of the market will continue to be marginalised. The decrease in its viewing figures will accelerate. Not as a result of the Christmas TV crisis, but simply because Czech TV is not doing its job; it is not doing what people expect it to do.
In other words, there will be fewer critics for the same money. This will be more comfort for the Czech TV employees. Viewers will watch the commercial television stations, yet the "friends" and the informal structures within and around Czech TV will continue to be given CSK 48 billion annually. What more can a mediocre filmmaker wish for? He or she will be paid for his work, and nobody will watch it and nobody will criticise him.
TP: Will it be a total triumph of the mediocre?
JB: It depends. There are a few ambitious people at Czech TV who truly did believe that they were standing up for Truth and Love and Freedom of Speech. It will be difficult for these people to come to terms with the fact that their appearances on the screen will be increasingly ignored by most of the population. But the overwhelming majority of those who stood in the background of this rebellion are absolutely pleased. I do not know whether TV journalists would like the fact that fewer people will watch their news programmes. This would bother me.
TP: And will Czech politicians accept the situation?
JB: Absolutely. The Czech politicians are happy that the whole thing has blown over. There will be a few individual MPs who will not like this situation, but the political class as a whole is glad that the problem of Czech Television is no longer on the table. Simply, Czech politicians have acted in a way which I regard as highly immoral when we consider all those citizens who are not employees of Czech TV. By acting in this way, Czech politicians have bought for themselves "peace and quite for their work." That is all.
Jan Čulík, 12 March 2001
The whole television drama started in 1998, when the first attempt was made to reform the news and current affairs department of Czech TV by Ivan Kytka and Andrew Stroehlein. The whole story is documented in Czech in a new book by Jan Culík and Tomáš Pecina: V hlavních zprávách: Televize. Fakta, která pred vámi zatajili (On the Main News: Television. The Facts They Have Hidden From You), Prague, ISV Publishers, 366 pp., CSK 139, ISBN 80-85866-78-1. It is available on the Internet from the Kosmas bookshop.
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