Friday, 24 July 2009

Everyone's ally

Fakt - front pageThe front page of today's "Fakt" (Axel Springer's tabloid) brings an interesting photograph: young, half-naked man, his hand stretched in Hitler salute. It is the Acting CEO of the Polish public television TVP Piotr Farfał. The photo was made a dozen years ago. Within the issue we find more photos of this sort: young Farfał among other skinheads, their hands stretched forward in the sinister gesture.

Farfał's neo-Nazi past is hardly a revelation. The photos give graphic evidence to what has been known from the very beginning of his public career. It was already disclosed by the "Gazeta Wyborcza" soon after Farfał's nomination to the Board of Public TV in May 2006. At the time, the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) happened to be a highly uncomfortable, and yet indispensable ally in the ruling coalition led by Law and Justice (PiS). Scandals concerning the behaviour of All-Polish Youth (LPR's youth organization) emerged from time to time, and Hitler salute even came to be re-christened as "one more beer, please!" (People trying to play down the importance of All-Polish Youth's dangerous affinities claimed that the gesture was not actually Hitler salute, but a natural pose of young men ordering another pint of beer...) Law and Justice did not seem to be happy with its allies from League of Polish Families and Self-Defense, but they desperately needed allies anyway. It was within this context that LPR pushed Farfał as their candidate to the board of TVP. Even the revelations of his neo-Nazi past were not sufficient to challenge his position.

Law and Justice lost power in the wake of snap election in Autumn 2007. Civic Platform (PO) formed a new coalition government with Polish People's Party (PSL). But Farfał could feel safe as a member of the board. PO wanted to change the Board of the Public TV, to be sure, but there was no hurry. Their ambition was broader than just a personal purge. They wanted also to "reform" the institution itself. A new media law not only enabled the replacement of the enemy's team, but was also paving the way for the privatisation of public media. In April 2008, the law was passed through the Parliament, but it was vetoed by President Kaczyński. The President was opposed to the prospect of creeping privatisation of TVP, and probably also wanted to protect PiS' control over it (or vice versa). In order to overturn the veto, PO needed support from either Law and Justice or Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). And they proved unable -- or unwilling -- to gain it. Farfał and his colleagues could still feel secure in his post.

And this was not the end... In Autumn 2008 there was a conflict within the board of TVP between members connected with LPR and Self-Defense on the one hand, and members connected with PiS on the other. Both LPR and Self-Defense, now extraparliamentary, wanted more visibility in public media, hoping it will help them to prepare a comeback. And there was also a conflict around Piotr Farfał himself. In December 2008 a mutiny finally happened, the CEO Andrzej Urbański was suspended and Piotr Farfał became the Acting CEO in his place. PiS lost control over the public TV. And for the following five months Civic Platform seemed totally incapable of taking action to replace the board.

Was it really? Let's play with a perverse thought. What if Farfał as the CEO of the public TV was a tacit ally of the ruling party once again, Civic Platform this time? As the Acting CEO he took care to have views and activities of his far-right friends appropriately covered. Six months before the European elections it was invaluable. LPR joined forces with Declan Ganley's Libertas, so Libertas gained a tool to attract public attention. It helped. TVP was quite favourable towards Libertas, whereas liberal media were definitely hostile. But both were equally unfriendly towards Law and Justice. And both talked about Libertas incessantly, much more than about any other minor party. Was it turning the attention of eurosceptic voters away from Law and Justice, the Civic Platform's ultimate enemy other? It could have done it. And if the electoral achievements of far-right proved finally so miserable, it may well be because there are not so many eurosceptic voters in Poland after all.

To the end of May, some two weeks before the elections, a miracle happened. Civic Platform decided not to tolerate Farfał any more. A new media law was passed through the Parliament, almost effortlessly. The President does not seem happier with it than he had been with the previous incarnation, and he will almost certainly try to block it. The new law is, in essence, a double invitation: let's get rid of Farfał and -- at the same time -- let's open the door for privatisation by stealth. Diabolic offer, isn't it? It would probably have worked very well in January or February, still long before the elections, when the Law and Justice's need to replace Farfał was urgent. It will probably work even now, if the Social Democrats help PO to reject presidential veto. Will they? Is SLD ready to accept the prospect of privatisation of public media? I think so, but only if they get something in exchange. Not Farfał's head, to be sure, he is nothing but a token, but some real gains for the party. If they decide to support the PO's new media law, getting rid of Farfał will serve as a good excuse to accept the dismantling of public media at the same time.

Adam Ostolski

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