Solidarity and the television issue

By , Rob Steiner, formerly an associate producer with public television's Bill Moyers' Journal, has recently returned from Poland. This article is adapted from a longer article to appear in Channels of Communications.

Throughout the 1970s it was television more than any other medium that drilled into the Polish consciousness the "propaganda of success" -- a sense that all was well with the country: the economy booming, the military strong, the government concerned, united and well run. In exleader Edward Gierek's view , the media constituted "the ideological front of the party."

What could not be achieved through persuasion was enforced through censorship. Not only was discussion of serious subjects like price increases, health services, or the standard of living prohibited, but the most basic information was kept from the Polish people. Automobile death tolls, epidemics, plant diseases, water pollution . . . the list goes on and on.

It is this past abuse of the state television by the party that motivates Solidarity's drive for television access. The liberalization of television that began after the Gdansk agreements in August 1980 -- broadcasts of previously censored programs, air time for Solidarity and other critical voices -- has steadily been coming to a halt. News of the English trade unions, once fraternal in tone, now speaks of "workers' exaggerated demands." Stefan Olszowski, the ranking hard-liner in the Polish government, has been in charge of all media since last Nov. 28.

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Solidarity seeks to decentralize Polish television. It wants a separate editorial board, nominated by the union's national coordinating committee, built into the structure of state television. According to an agreement signed on May 26 this board would be responsible for a nationwide 40-minute weekly program, plus 20 minutes spread out over other shows.

The union plans to produce public affairs programming -- documentaries, interviews, and discussions -- but has been, perhaps understandably, noncommittal about subject matter. It states plainly that its programs will not be only about Solidarity but about "all important matters." When pressed in late July as to what it would broadcast if it had television time then, a top official of the union's radio and television branch answered without a moment's hesitation: a show about the food situation and the government's incompetence in handling it.

This is the kind of challenge that troubles the government, and that led to its charges recently that Solidarity's media demands are political in nature. The more accurate charge might be that Solidarity is itself political. Its members are eager to participate in the renewal of their country.

Television access will give Solidarity the broadest forum in the land, but it is difficult to see how an hour per week will give it political hegemony. The kind of power the party fears losing is total control. Behind Solidarity stand the autonomous trade unions -- key workers like air controllers, customs officials, and communications personnel. They, too, want access to television. The party sees mass media as a pillar of political power, but it is this only when it is totally controlled; when a piece is missing, the power crumbles.

It is difficult given the union's mandate -- "to defend the social and material interests of the workers" -- to avoid a political role, but the negotiated boundary, to which Solidarity has adhered, is that the trade union neither challenges the legitimacy of communist leadership nor advocates a change in Poland's international alliances, i.e. its ties to the soviet Union. And there is no evidence that it intends to breach this contract on television.

The Poles' support for a socialist system is both overwhelming and long-standing. It is not a political revolution that the Poles are seeking so much as reform of a system of privilege and control which the party condoned. Another long-cherished national ideal, freedom of information, was the greatest casualty.

Clearly, arguments can be made that Solidarity's effort to decentralize Polish television is a "political" act, and that the purposes to which the union intends to put television are political. But the driving force of the union's movement for television access is the knowledge that the medium is corrupted when only one group employs it. It is hard to forget that while Poland sank $27 billion into debt to the West, television said everything was fine.

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