Untethering Poland’s Docile Media : Journalism: The BBC is giving Polish broadcasters a ‘warts and all’ view of their role in a democratic society.

A press officer for Poland’s new Solidarity-led government had just finished giving his first briefing to the news media last year when several local reporters followed him back to his office.

“What are we supposed to write? What were the most important points?” they asked the official, who was shocked to encounter such a subservient press corps.

While the Communist lock on political power in Poland has ended, the journalistic practices associated with the regime have not. Just as reporters once repeated the Communist Party line without question, many are prepared to give the new government the same type of uncritical coverage, says Polish journalist Robert Bogdanski, who recounted the story of the press briefing.

To help stimulate change in the Polish news media, the BBC has launched a program designed to introduce broadcasters from that country to the techniques and philosophies behind news coverage in Britain.


Bogdanski, an art history graduate who wound up working as an underground reporter in 1984, is among the participants who have been brought to the U.K. to see how broadcasters work here.

The program, part of the $83-million “know-how” fund that the British government created to help Poland make the transition to democracy, will bring 36 Polish broadcasters, in groups of six, to Britain. Each group will spend six weeks observing the BBC’s radio and TV operations, as well as the operations of other broadcast companies.

As part of the course, the visiting journalists also will produce stories for the BBC World Service that will be broadcast back to Poland.

The program is intended to give participants a “warts and all” view of the role of the media in a democratic society, says Gwyneth Henderson, head of BBC World Service training, who designed the program. She emphasizes that it is not a training program, but merely an opportunity for the Poles to see how things are done differently elsewhere.

“We are showing them what we do and telling them why we do it,” says Gienek Smolar, head of the BBC World Service’s Polish section.

Smolar and Henderson made two trips to Poland to choose journalists for the program. They were looking for broadcast reporters who hadn’t been completely immersed in the ways of the previous regime. “We wanted young journalists with open eyes and ears,” says Smolar. “The energetic ones. Editors of the future.”

The Poles, for their part, seem to be generally impressed by the British way of gathering and presenting the news--with some exceptions.

“For me, it can get a little boring,” says program participant Aleksandra Zieleniewska, a longtime underground reporter who is working to establish an independent radio station in Krakow.

She thinks Britain’s TV news shows get too bogged down in providing needless background when they should jump into their stories. “I’m not so interested in hearing the basic history of the Earth,” she says. “I like (stories) shorter and quicker.”

Henderson says she is not surprised to hear that the Poles might think British news stories are too long. She says that Polish TV news programs spew out items in rapid-fire succession. “If you saw their television news,” says the BBC executive, “you’d see they could not actually be explaining anything.”

The difference in news presentation styles might be chalked up at least partially to the difference in the political climates of Britain and Poland.

“They are so sure of reality here,” says Zieleniewska. “Of today, of tomorrow. The air of stability is everywhere. Of course in Poland, everything changes each week.”

The Polish journalists also are fascinated by the fact that reporters here generally do not include their own opinions about a story within their reports.

There is no recent history of nonpartisan reporting in Poland, says Smolar, head of the Polish section, adding that, “It’s very difficult to change.” Consequently, he says, many news reporters there still begin their stories “ ‘I think,’ or ‘In the interest of Poland,’ or ‘Solidarity wants.’ ”

“Journalists at the BBC do not present their own views,” says Jolanta Fajkowska, a news anchor on Polish television.

“The main rule is, they have no views,” adds Zieleniewska. “It’s a wonderful idea not to present your own ideas in the reports.”

While the Polish journalists appreciate the notion of balancing stories with opposing viewpoints, they say they’ve seen BBC reporters go to ridiculous lengths to find someone with a differing opinion.

Bogdanski, who describes British broadcast news as “brilliant,” has nonetheless come to the conclusion that the reporting is not as “objective” as it’s cracked up to be. That’s because, he says, the topics of stories that are presented and the amount of time spent on them are based on subjective decisions.

He was surprised to find that the coverage of Western hostages in the Middle East gets as much attention as Lithuania’s bid for independence. And he is amazed at the amount of time devoted to the doings of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.

“Maybe the West is a little bit ashamed about what’s going on in South Africa,” he surmises.

Although the type of journalism practiced in Poland is a far cry from the kind the British and Americans pride themselves on, Bogdanski believes his country’s system of news dissemination will be comparable soon.

“I think we will have normal journalism sooner than anybody expected,” he says. “By normal, I mean when journalists explain to the public what is going on without adding their opinions. Now we have some kind of semi-journalism.”