A newspaper or a political organ?

It used to set objectives for politicians of its camp, today it is taking on the role of a bulletin of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy. While rejecting even the mere appearance of objective journalism and becoming openly engaged in the fight against the Law and Justice Party, “Gazeta Wyborcza” now more resembles a political group than a media outlet.

In existence now for more than a quarter of a century, “Gazeta Wyborcza” has actively supported successive political projects. The Civic Movement – Democratic Action (Ruch Obywatelski Akcja Demokratyczna), the Democratic Union (Unia Demokratyczna), the Freedom Union (Unia Wolności), Democrats.pl (Demokraci.pl), the coalition Left and Democrats (Lewica i Demokraci), the Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota), Europe Plus (Europa Plus), and most recently the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD). Apart from their proclaimed left-liberal ideology and their enthusiastic approach to the “historical agreement” of the Round Table negotiations, these entities also share another common trait. To put it in the mildest way possible, none of them has fulfilled the expectations assigned to them.

It appears that the lack of capabilities held by the politicians they support has finally irritated the editorial team to such an extent that it has decided to take matters into its own hands and it has in fact become a political party – following the appeal by Tomasz Lis claiming that “the opposition parties are not able to manage and must be replaced by the media”. While observing its actions in its new role – a representative one being a weak attack against Minister of Defence Antoni Macierewicz by using a “secret agent”, one starts to doubt whether Gazeta Wyborcza will be able to achieve more political success than the formations mentioned above.

Appearances of normality

It is very difficult to identify a single moment when it finally rejected the appearances, however, while comparing older editions of the newspaper with its current version, all doubts disappear. “Gazeta Wyborcza” has tried to imitate a normal, “serious”, and opinion-making newspaper for many years. However, it has not concealed that it sees itself as something more than just a standard editorial team: a “group of ethos”, as Adam Michnik used to call it, which feels committed as emphasized by the editorial motto, allegedly stolen from a “reformatory” STS fighting for a “true socialism”: “It’s not all the same to us”. It was not explained directly what its mission entailed, but it is not difficult to find out that it is aimed at making Poland secular and moving to the left as far as possible, as is the case in Western Europe.

However, Michnik’s newspaper was trying to do this from cross-party, meta-political positions from the very start. “Gazeta Wyborcza” regarded its primary task as being to reconstruct Polish mentality, “raise” Poles so that they may become “modern Europeans”. In order to achieve this, it used to create new left-oriented hierarchies and historical and political narratives, as well as dictate modes and promote authorities. To some extent, the activity included the promotion of individual politicians and groupings; from its very founding, the newspaper was engaged in propping up the candidacy of Tadeusz Mazowiecki in his bid for the presidency against Lech Walesa, it has not refrained from specifying who “an ordinary individual at a particular social level” should vote for; its managers have enthusiastically performed the function of “personnel managers” of the political scene by organizing campaigns and purges – however, the community around Adam Michnik would consider the function of a party organ to be a disgrace at the time of its glory.

Apart from anything else, such a “cross-party” position was dictated by the newspaper’s market logic. According to rudimentary principles of propaganda, being the most effective if not viewed as propaganda, the newspaper formulated its political and ideological postulates to be a “normality” (,) free from politics and ideology. Its opponents were party- and ideology-dependent, while “Gazeta Wyborcza” simply postulated “pragmatism”, a notion captured in the words of a female character in Bareja’s comedy: “things that are understandable as such for people at a particular social level”. It was a voice of a group of the enlightened, standing higher morally and ethically, however, willing to accept the masses inspiring to become a part of the elite, provided that the applicant has passed a test of “being different in a beautiful way” while declaring intellectual independence of fully supporting Michnik’s salon. Back then it could afford to follow such a reckless line based on the Orwellian “bilateral” way of thinking, as its power of impressing the “working intellectuals”, as well as the former young generation was enormous in the 1990. That was the attractiveness of the Michnik-made offer presented to these social groups, its adaptation to their aspirations and needs (the “huge deletion” of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) and the rejection of the whole difficult store of Polishness in favour of the neophyte “Europeanism”), neither the institutional pressure nor the promotion, if possible at all, of the Agora-made media janissaries, that made both private and public electronic media, women’s press and celebrities tabloids speak in the language of “Gazeta Wyborcza” with all those accepting any other narratives having immediately been stigmatized as having “right-wing” sympathies.

Spectacular collapse

The newspaper used to set concrete objectives to politicians of its camp that were related to the postulated liberal revolution and that was to be achieved under its supervision at a particular stage, while the control by the editorial board on Czerska street involved the rule over its followers’ hearts and minds. Contrary to the overbearing message sent to the side-lined centre-right at the time, politicians belonging to groups promoted by “Gazeta Wyborcza” were not at all happy with this situation. They were aware of the fact that they were being subjected to “formatting”, that they could not speak their own language, because voters could get to know only what was delivered through Michnik’s filter, and that the perception of their political position was not being shaped by them, but rather by the daily’s columnists. Above all, politicians of the Democratic Union and Freedom Union Parties used to complain about this practice, however, always only in private and during “off-the-record” situations. The post-Communists went even further and decided to use the power they gained to create their own media and break the monopoly of Michnik.

The Rywin affair, which was a result of the political action – strictly speaking, the proverbial kicking of the table once Michnik realised that the tools to “rule people’s hearts and minds” had gradually been taken out of his hands by his former protégés, is often considered to be the moment when the power of “Gazeta Wyborcza” was broken down. In fact, it had been falling into decline for a long time. The power over the salon established by “Gazeta Wyborcza” has been deteriorating slowly, because new power elites of a cunning, post-colonial nature have gradually been created that neither aim at objecting the Michnik-made way of thinking nor do they need it as much as their predecessors during the the PRL era. They also pay little attention to any form of absolving or “European” fair, because they were more impressed by “posh cars” than gaining the recognition of the intellectuals. Contrary to Kwaśniewski, Tusk did not seek to be accepted by “Gazeta Wyborcza”, but he did give its editorial board a simple choice to select between him or Kaczyński, Lepper, and Giertych. The daily, which had originally hated Tusk for politically killing Geremek and the Freedom Union Party, could do everything but support him – under his and not its own conditions. What’s more, due to omissions by the directorship of the company Agora that had been brought up with a conviction shaped by Michnik, according to which the written word overrules collective thinking and the electronic media are only a resonator for a newspaper, Tusk found a more effective way to reach the electorate. As commented pertinently, the heart of the new power did not beat at Czerska Street anymore, but in the Augustówka district hosting the seat of the TVN television broadcaster.

A spectacular manifestation of the change was the 2008 premiere of the film by Anna Ferens and Ewa Stankiewicz bearing the title “The three chums” (“Trzech kumpli”). While accepting the “right-wing” narrative for a while, TVN emulated the newspaper by disclosing that the revealed agent Lesław Maleszka used to edit political texts at its order (by the way, it is worth reminding the event when “Gazeta Wyborcza” tried to shock public opinion by publishing an old entry from the National Court Register linking Antoni Macierewicz with Robert Luśnia, an agent of the Communist Secret Service (SB) – the daily had to recognise changes to the “pecking order” and beat its breast. However, more failures would follow. The success of the Independence March was fraught with consequences. The engagement of “Gazeta Wyborcza” against an originally small event by a group of nationalists and the intent to save the prestige of the newspaper by means of a “small successful war” against “fascists”, who were to be “whistled out of the city” by residents of Warsaw mobilised by “Gazeta Wyborcza, turned out to be a complete disaster – there were just a few followers of “Gazeta Wyborcza”, while the march was joined by crowds of people willing to express its dislike for the elites of the Third Republic of Poland the symbol of which the newspaper had intentionally become.

Unnoticed by many, the newspaper, which had formerly imposed its idea of “normality”, tastes and authorities, became a besieged fortress. It does not matter that the event did not immediately spark a significant fall in the edition for a long time; once it did cause this, it was still possible to hide the fact by means of different forms of assistance by the government: ranging from the purchase of announcements and promotional campaigns in the newspaper to the purchase of shares of Agora by state-owned companies. The situation of “Gazeta Wyborcza” changed dramatically, it lost its power to impose its narrative, its language and narrative became the object of scorn and parody. Finally, a spectacular blow was the electoral defeat of Bronisław Komorowski whose certain, as anticipated by the elites; victory was expected to reconstruct the power of the newspaper – parallel to the reconstruction of the political power of the Freedom Union Party. The prize “Man of the Year” awarded to the President was intended to crown a victorious campaign but instead had to be given surreptitiously and in the atmosphere of a funeral reception. As demonstrated by Piotr Gociek in his latest book, the staff of the youth group of the Warsaw University, who had originally been dedicated to Komorowski, helped build a new party led by Ryszard Petru.

Wrong turn

In the history of the newspaper, the defeat of Komorowski constituted a “point of no return”, a moment where there were only two solutions left – either to withdraw from politics and to try to become a standard newspaper or to become fully engaged in it. Taking into account the whole history of the existence of “Gazeta Wyborcza”, as well as the mentality of its staff, the first scenario was undoubtedly not taken into consideration.

Strictly speaking, while creating the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) or just becoming engaged in supporting it, Jarosław Kurski was trying to once again repeat a manoeuvre that had been made by his predecessor and formal chief editor, although the latter was on many occasions not able to fulfil his tasks for biological reasons. The only problem was that the “upwards, spontaneous initiative”, despite its whole raucous claque, lost the impetus a few weeks later and remained at the stage of an average group of frustrated Internet freaks sharing their hatred against Kaczyński, the Church and the rest of the Polish “idiocy” on Facebook.

There are also many indications that “Gazeta Wyborcza” has taken on the role of a bulletin of the KOD, while not fully realising that it was doing so. Similarly, to use a historical example, the Emperor’s Germany unconditionally supported the aggression of Austro-Hungary against Serbia without realising that it was a such a weak ally that they would have to fight instead of it.

The problem of “Gazeta Wyborcza” was simply that it threw its support at KOD too explicitly and it could not afford for any of the successive marches to turn into a spectacular defeat. Therefore, it was bound to change its pages into an advertising bulletin, by which the recycled authorities created by the newspaper over the past quarter of a century urge people to man the barricades; therefore, it must remind of meeting points, provide a list of passwords and organize the every-day activity of the KOD on the days when there are no manifestations, while urging people to participate in meetings and, finally, recruit new members to join the “KOD association” that is aimed at providing their actions with a formal framework. “Gazeta Wyborcza” defeated itself by announcing the declaration about joining the KOD to be published with the newspaper.

On the other hand, that imposes a line on “Gazeta Wyborcza” that is fully openly a party-related line with all zigzags that are characteristic for the party-related line resulting from the “wisdom of the stage” and fraction feuds – a good example being the fact that Ryszard Petru was disciplined once he noticed a “light at the end of the tunnel” despite of the “hard line” in the dispute about the Constitutional Tribunal, as imposed by the newspaper.

“Gazeta Wyborcza” plays its politics not only at home. In an interview with the Ukrainian newspaper “Vysokyj Zamok”, Adam Michnik uses harsh language that is usually associated with an aggressive opposionist, and not the chief editor of the all-Poland daily: “In Ukraine, nobody could foresee the Maidan riots. Had there been Maidan riots in Poland, I think that the authorities would use force, would shoot”. Afterwards, he explicitly defines its participation in the political dispute: “They [the Law and Justice Party (PiS) – editorial note] learned that way of thinking in the era of the PRL. They think that if a party has power, nobody has the right to limit it. In this sense, they are characterised by Soviet-style administration to a large extent. They did abandon the model of the state where the opposition way of thinking is tolerated. No, no, they do tolerate us, they do not put us into jail. However, there are strange events gradually appearing”.

The possibility to play a dispute between Petru and Schetyna snatching the anti-PiS electorate from each other and to urge both to the integrating KOD is a small victory of the newspaper. However, looking further ahead, it is hard to predict that the decision to base their success on a group of beneficiaries of the Third Republic of Poland, consolidated by the contempt not only for the PiS Party, but also the majority of Poles bought for a “five hundred zloty” social benefit, in particular women in the working age who have become big-headed and “prefer to stay at home with children” than “fulfil themselves professionally” for very little money, could be a way to regain their former importance. The political engagement of “Gazeta Wyborcza” is based on the constant faith that the PiS Party won the general election “by coincidence”, that the majority of Poles harbours constant, anti-PiS sentiment and it is sufficient to unite the whole camp of the Third Republic of Poland to form one electoral list so that Poland returns to the same track of laicization and neoliberalism on its own, as formerly experienced by Germany and France. The faith in the inevitability of the progress and its unique path has never been confirmed by actual facts, and now, after Brexit, it is becoming even grotesque. Of great significance is the fact that the newspaper reacts to the decision of the English voters in the same way as to the defeat of its favourites in Poland: through denial, insults, conspiracy theories and aggression.

However, even if Poles like a political party, they dislike party-related newspapers. While rejecting the appearance of journalism and becoming engaged in direct political actions, including the picketing of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and leading anti-governmental manifestations, “Gazeta Wyborcza” has embarked on the same track as the weekly “Przegląd” and the daily “Trybuna”.


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