Polish editor: ‘We were underprivileged’ under previous government

Paweł Lisicki [Matěj Baťha/Wikipedia]

Paweł Lisicki, editor-in-chief of the conservative weekly Do Rzeczy, sees “no apparent threat to freedom of speech” in Poland, saying left-wing media outlets were currently suffering only because they lost their privileges under the new government.

Paweł Lisicki is editor-in-chief at Do Rzeczy, a Polish conservative weekly news and political magazine. As part of the #Media4EU series, he talked to Christophe Leclercq, Euractiv’s founder, about how new media can give a voice to alternative political ideologies. He also called on the EU to make sure national policy is more diversified and warned against public intervention in the media sector.

As an introduction, how would you briefly describe the editorial and political positioning of your media company?

First of all, we are completely independent. We are owned by a private publishing house and 20% of the shares of this publishing house belong to the journalists, myself included. This is quite an original ownership structure, which is hard to come by in the Polish media sector.

I would also say that Do Rzeczy is a liberal-conservative newspaper. We are conservative in terms of a general approach to the problems of civilisation, habits, traditions and general principles of ethics. We are also liberal because we support, generally speaking, the free market economy. That would be the most general picture of the paper.

In one English description I found online, you are also described as a Christian-oriented media organisation. Is that correct?

That could be a possible description.

Does it mean that you are close to one of the political parties?

Even though some commentators might say that we are very connected to the governing party, the Law and Justice Party, there aren’t any formal economic or legal links between us.

What we support is the general ideology of the party, especially concerning the past, their positioning on Polish independence and a general respect of Polish history and of Polish patriotism.

Would you say that European coverage is increasing or decreasing in your paper and online? How do you see this evolving in the future?

It depends from the situation. The Brexit referendum was a particular time in which maybe up to a third of all the articles in our paper were focused on that one issue. So if something unusual is happening, we are surely more focused on European topics. It is very difficult predict what will be news in the future, but generally speaking I would say we take into account current developments, but I think that it is possible to give more space to European issues.

During multiple interviews of the #media4EU series, we have discussed the parallel rise of populism and of social media and the issue of the lack of a factual basis for some debates. How is the situation in Poland?

Actually, I support the position of social media in that respect, because I think that they have the power of creating discussions. I don’t see a real threat to traditional media.

Isn’t it a challenge for the established media brands like yourself?

Yes, on the one hand it is a challenge, but it’s also a positive opportunity if you know how to support traditional content using social media. I believe we can do that and the results are quite good.

Do you take in a lot of content from social media commentators, bloggers, etc.?

We don’t take much content from them, but rather we try to discuss our content and to create a debate around it. That way, the people who are interested in the debate are able to buy the weekly. So our social media popularity enables us to develop our portal.

Some in Western Europe feel that the media have lost the argument in the debates on Brexit and Trump, which were supported by ‘post-truths’ or unfounded rumours. How do you feel about that?

I have another point of view. I believe that traditional media products still have problems with their relatability. They are perceived as partisan in these debates, and because of that more and more people are looking for new sources of information and then they try to use social media as an equal source to traditional media. That’s the point: they perceive traditional media as a part of the whole system.

Some argue that the rise of ‘opinion media platforms’ such as Breitbart News helped the election of Donald Trump in the US, but they also exist on the left side of the spectrum. Would you say that this is an opportunity for other political ideologies?

To some extent it is surely an opportunity for these political ideologies because in that way we create more space for these arguments, and this discussion is much more emotional than it was before.

I mean the problems of identity, the problems of the past are coming back. In that respect this is something new, and something that is surely supported by the development of the new media.

We are observing a number of fairly new developments regarding revenue models in the media sector. One is sponsored events, the second is native advertising and the last is having long-term partners for specific sections giving visibility to their logo but maintaining editorial independence. Where do you stand?

Presently 75% of our revenue comes from people buying the weekly and 25% from ad revenues. Some part of the latter, especially online, is connected with traditional sponsoring or with these new forms of advertisement.

On your website I saw some advertisements for large conferences with a number of sponsors, some of them state-owned companies. So is the event business also developing?

I would say that’s the most promising activity. Some conferences, meetings, discussions are supported by sponsors, both private and publicly-owned companies, and this kind of cooperation is an opportunity to win new revenues.

Press freedom is a sensitive issue in Poland since it has been alleged that the current government is not respecting the political press. Do you feel there have been infringements of press freedom, perhaps via pressure on advertisers?

No, I don’t think so. I know this kind of pressure, and I wouldn’t say that the present government is doing anything different from what the previous government did. The difference is that those in traditional media which are now hit by these policies were supported by the previous government.

In your case, for example, did you feel that under previous governments you had less access to advertising from state companies?

Yes you could say that, when the previous government was in power, we were underprivileged, to put it quite mildly. The situation has changed since the elections and this is actually happening to other media organisations now.

So, generally speaking, I see no apparent threat to freedom of speech, it’s just a difference connected with the particular government that is in power.

There are tensions between Warsaw and the institutions in Brussels, where obviously Council President Donald Tusk is one of the main actors. Do you think it’s helpful to have him as the head of an EU institution, even though he is not in line with the government?

I actually believe that it is better for Poland to have Mr. Tusk as president of the European Council. I don’t support the government trying to get rid of Tusk, I think it’s not quite reasonable.

After Brexit and Trump’s election, the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome will be celebrated in March. On that occasion, there will be efforts to issue a new roadmap to re-launch the EU integration process. What would you like to see in this roadmap, if anything?

I think that the EU should go back to its roots. By that I mean that it should put more emphasis on national diversity and get rid of this kind of unifying tendency which has unfortunately taken precedence in EU over recent years.

Would you say that the course adopted by the UK with Brexit is the right one?

No I wouldn’t say it is a good thing, but unfortunately I believe that the main reason for Brexit was the pressure from Brussels, which was too strong. European politicians try to unify all countries and make them follow the same laws. I think that national policy should be more diversified and that countries should have more freedoms.

Some people feel that the media sector has never been considered as a normal economic sector. Maybe it should not be subsidised, but perhaps helped with innovation funds or via regulatory support. Any ideas about that?

I believe that it’s too dangerous to subsidise the media, because in that way they become dependent on particular parties. I would prefer to keep political power as far away from the media as possible.

Do you not support innovation projects to develop R&D across borders either?

If we are talking to about technologies, of course that could be supported. The state could also create a more friendly tax system for media companies. These are general tools which could be used by the state.

You would welcome support from the state, but would you envisage cooperation with like-minded outlets in other countries if there was help to promote it?

I think that state intervention is quite dangerous. The media should cooperate by themselves without this kind of help.

One last idea concerning human resources has come up. The editor of The Times told me that if British journalists had spent more time on the continent, the media coverage and perhaps the public opinion on Brexit might have been different. So the idea is to have an Erasmus4media programme whereby young journalist could spend a couple of months in another company and learn from there. Is it something you would welcome?

Yes, that is quite a good idea. Actually, when I was a young journalist in the 90s I had the opportunity to visit some German newspapers, which was a very interesting experience. I also worked as a correspondent in Vienna. So I think that if such a system could be created it could offer good solutions, provided that it is impartial in terms of ideology.