Last night (Sunday, January 15) was the annual Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (WOŚP). The title doesn’t translate well: it means “Great Orchestra of Holiday Help,” but it’s not an orchestral concert and it’s always held a couple weeks after the holidays. It was first organized in 1993 by Jerzy Owsiak, a musician, artist, promoter, and host of several rock music shows on radio and TV. He’s also the organizer of one of Poland’s largest music festivals, “Przystanek Woodstock.” The annual WOŚP is a massive fundraising campaign that helps provide hospitals with medical equipment for children and the elderly. At the “Grand Finale” each January, events large and small are held all over Poland (concerts, runs, auctions—just about anything that could possibly be turned into a fundraiser). This year they raised over 62 million złoty (about 15 million dollars). If anyone would like to donate, you can do so on-line by clicking here.
This should be about as controversial and partisan as apple pie. Of course, in today’s Poland nothing is nonpartisan. Many on the far-right are opposed to WOŚP because of Owsiak’s association with rock music and a “hippie” lifestyle. It is indeed true that Owsiak has promoted a message of tolerance and individual lifestyle choice, which some in the Catholic Church describe as the absence of moral principles. It follows, for them, that WOŚP itself lacks a moral foundation, which means that its charitable work is tainted and should be shunned. I should emphasize that this position does not represent the mainstream opinion among Polish Catholics. In fact, Caritas (the leading Catholic aid organization) joined together with WOŚP in this year’s campaign. Among the general public, a 2015 survey showed that WOŚP was viewed positively by 79% of Poles, with only 11% opposed (and 10% having no opinion).
But among the far right, hostility towards Owsiak is a useful litmus test for true believers. So the PiS government announced that (unlike every other government since 1993) it would not provide any support for WOŚP. For example, the army’s own musical group has traditionally performed at the grand finale in Warsaw, but they didn’t this year. Most importantly, TVP (Telewizja Polska, or nowadays better identified as TVPiS or TVPropaganda) refused to broadcast any of the WOŚP events. Fortunately, a private media still exists in Poland, and the TVN network picked up the coverage. That was doubtlessly a great business decision for them, because all the A-list stars appear in these concerts (for free). I was at the Warsaw show last night (see a few of my pictures below), and I can confirm that it was an absolutely amazing concert. Attendance figures haven’t been announced yet, but Plac Defilad was absolutely packed, all the way across Marszałkowska. For those of you who don’t know Warsaw: that’s a lot of people.
So what did TVP broadcast instead of the WOŚP Grand Finale? They showed a new documentary called “Pucz” (Putsch, or Coup). I’ll simply quote the publicity blurb for that show:
“From the moment PiS took power, in democratic parliamentary election, the opposition (PO, Nowoczesna) has tried to overthrow the legal authorities and call early elections. Over time, the means employed in the struggle against the state have become more extreme. The most recent act in this struggle was a failed coup attempt in the Sejm, planned over several months and carried out on December 16. This documentary will show the motives, the plans, and the methods of the conspirators. Who prepared the coup, and when?”
For those who haven’t been following the news, you can read more about the actual events of recent weeks here, here, or here. If you feel nostalgic for the propaganda of the communist era, or if you enjoy watching a show that is so bad as to be self-satire, you can view “Pucz” by clicking here. The audacity of the lies in the state media is truly jaw-dropping, and this example is no worse than what is shown every night on the news. They’ve gone far beyond merely “spinning” events in their favor, and are fully occupying a post-truth universe. Arguing with someone locked in that world has become both impossible and pointless. When one tries to do so, the responses are just smirks and eye-rolling, along with reminders that the “Lewacy” (“lefties,” but used as an insult) have lost power, so their version of reality is now irrelevant.
This was eloquently reflected in a recent survey by IPSOS, which asked people which TV news show was the most trustworthy (wiarygodny). 36% chose TVN (which generally supports the opposition), 25% went with the state-run TVP, and 23% opted for Polsat (which strives to be less partisan). In terms of viewership, the first two stations are roughly tied, with Polsat well behind. The partisan nature of this media landscape was made painfully obvious by asking people who deemed each station reliable what party they supported. 72% of those who trust TVP are PiS supporters, with another 7% going to Kukiz15, which is informally allied with the government. In contrast, among the viewers who trust the main news program of TVN, 64% support either PO or Nowoczesna (the main opposition parties), and only 6% support PiS. Only Polsat retains a mixed viewership—though it’s worth noting that 38% of those who trust that channel say that they don’t vote at all.
Yesterday’s competing television programs—a charity concert vs. a “documentary” about an (imagined) coup attempt—give us a perfect metaphor for Poland today. This is not simply a divide between two visions of reality, because such a description would fall into the trap of false equivalencies. We scholars are drawn to that trap, because we want to maintain a reputation for objectivity and distance. In Poland today, however, that would be a serious abrogation of our intellectual duty. The world presented by media like TVN (or Gazeta Wyborcza, Polityka, or Newsweek Polska, etc.) is weakened by “spin” and many unconscious biases. But the world presented by TVP (and by extension, the world occupied by supporters of PiS) not only suffers from those problems, but also unvarnished disinformation and cynical manipulation.
The TVP/PiS worldview characterized is by dark conspiracies against Poland, in which anyone expressing opposition to the current government is anti-Polish, corrupt, and anti-democratic. For those who believe in these fantasies—and that seems to be just over a third of the Polish population, and nearly all of those in the government—there can be no dialogue, negotiation, or compromise. There can only be victory or defeat. And since PiS has clearly embraced such a world view, their opponents are left with fewer alternatives of their own. And that makes me very frightened for the future.