The Nature Of The Beast

Pengovsky skipped on blogging altogether last week and he really has no excuse other than…. Ah well, there’s no excuse, really. Sleeping is for pussies. But there you go 🙂 Anyways, there’s a lot to write about. The date for municipal elections has been set, a referendum is to be held on the new Ljubljana zoning act, Kosovo‘s independence has been declared legal, PM Pahor is doing rounds on post-war graves, Nova Ljubljanska Banka just barely passed the stress test, so shit is going on.

However, pengovsky has an axe to grind first.

Authors of the manifesto in audience with PM Pahor (photo by Voranc Vogel/Delo)

Last week (or was it a week before?) a group of journalists of pengovsky’s generation (i.e.: not as young as we’d like to be, but “young” for all intents and purposes, especially with regard to the old journalistic farts out there) issued a plea, nay, a list of seven demands, prompted by yet another shady media takeover or an attempt thereof.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

Namely. Laško Brewery, now headed by Dušan Zorko is desperate to get its finances in order after Boško Šrot wrecked havoc during his prolonged and ultimately failed MBO. One of the brewery’s assets is also an indirect stake in Maribor-based Večer daily, which is officially owned by Delo daily which in turn is owned by Laško Brewery. To cut a long story short: Delo has to unload Večer due to possible competition infringement, while Laško needs assets and will possibly have to sell Delo as well. It turned out that Delo’s 75% share in Večer will be bought by a Murska Sobota-based IT company 3LAN, which has no record of media ownership or even anything remotely connected to the field. The sum? 9,4 million euro.

One can see from a mile away that 3LAN is basically someone’s straw company. The company does not have even remotely enough assets to buy Večer. It’s total assets amount to some 350.00 euro, while it ran a 44.000 euro profit in 2009. It employs four people. Not what one would call a traditional media owner.

The manifesto

Journos went apeshit. It looked the same old story all over again, only with different players. With the situation in the industry hitting new lows basically daily, this was only the last push a group of journos in their 30s (or thereabouts) needed to draft a seven-points list of demands which the government must in their view fulfil if Slovenia is to have a decent media market. The abridged version is as follows

1. Media are institutions of particular importance which ensure the constitutional right of citizens to be informed.

2. Before OKing a sale of 20+% of a particular media, the ministry of culture must obtain an opinion of journalist of media in question

3. When credible suspicion that the buyer is a straw company is aroused, ministry must act and alert relevant institutions.

4. Managerial and editorial functions must be separate unless agreed otherwise by the journalists of the media in question

5. Journalists must give their consent to all crucial decisions of the media company affecting their work, including changing of content profile, appointing and dismissing editors, et cetera.

6. The law on media should stipulate that journalists should use the highest ethical and professional standards in their work

7. Every journalists must be allowed a degree of autonomy and independence regardless of any and all personal circumstances (including but not limited to race, gender, sexual and political orientation)

Now. In general, there’s nothing wrong the above list. Pengovsky might take an issue with a couple of points which either show that the authors are naïve or have little idea about the other – managerial – side of the business. But be that as it may, their demands are not the real problem. The problem is to whom they made them.

Upon drafting the list of demands (which could liberally be even interpreted as a manifesto), the leaders of the movement demanded an audience first with minister of culture Majda Širca and then with Prime Minister Borut Pahor. Both agreed to meet them and listen to their demands. And this where problems start.

When one of your job descriptions is to keep tabs on what the government says and does, the last thing you want to do is call them to help.

Just who do you think you are?

Let me explain. What we witnessed Monday before last was a pure lobbying action. A couple of people used their access to decision makers to plead their case. If the media owners had done it, it would be sort of OK (I’m knowingly neglecting the fact that it would be taken as a final proof that these-and-these media are pro-government). Hey, if you run a big business and run into a problem, the PM can at least be told about it in person.

True, the situation in Slovene media is literally fucked up. Media owners as a rule have no concept of what they want to do with their assets and generally view them as a tool to further their political and/or business interests. There are notable exceptions to the rule, but in general this is very much true. As a result, the quality of media content is nose-diving and shows no signs of levelling out, let alone rising again. This is further increased by the fact that ever more journos either don’t have the slightest idea about what quality content really is or they just don’t give a fuck and simply go for shameless self promotion, without any regard for what they report on or how they report it. Thus the plea by journalists who are competent (and on the whole, the authors of the manifesto are competent) is even more understandable and welcome.

However, these guys and gals misinterpreted their access to top decision makers as leverage rather than just a cool, if biased, source of information, which is what it really is. Going for cover to the people you cover (pun very much intended) is simply not kosher. It is in fact tantamount to selling one’s soul.

Between a rock and a hard place

Slovene journalists are caught between a rock and a hard place, i.e.: between the urge politicos have to plant their version of the truth and the need of owners to have a content that sells. Years ago, when Janša’s government bulldozed through the media, journalists who would not bow to political pressure skedaddled from some media companies to some others, where they were supposedly safe from having to believe in The One Truth (as interpreted by then-PM Janez Janša and his flock). However, there’s no free lunch and soon those who provided safe haven presented their own bill, mostly in terms of demanding content “that sells” which meant content that is cheap to produce. And a lot of it, if you please.

However, now that media owners are bringing the pressure to bear the younger generation of journalists (for want of a better word) is doing that same mistake, just in the opposite direction. They are seeking alliance with a powerful player (politics) in trying to ease the pressure of the other powerful player (media owners). Needless to say that they too will be presented with a bill.

What they forgot or decided to ignore is the age-old truth that a journalist’s only true ally is his or her public. In this case, the public was ignored, or rather, it was simply notified of the journalists’ plea. It was never asked to get involved actively. Journos may be the ones producing (or being forced to produce) shitty content, but it is the public which consumes it. And the fact that circulation of printed media and ratings of electronic media are dropping fast is one of the indicators that the public is instinctively fed up with the shit Slovene media put out daily.

It’s about the ownership, stupid!

However, pengovsky fears that the fight might already be lost. The sad truth is that quality content can be produced but it is not. Why? Because it is expensive and the owners just won’t have that. And why is that? Because they do not understand the way the media work. And truth be told, it is somewhat hard to understand why ludicrous amounts of money should be spent on journos and their teams chasing stories which more often than not turn out to nothing, financing wild-goose chases and hanging around in bars, binge drinking and trying to pick up rumours. But good content comes from years of experience and the ability (given or acquired) of sorting though tons of bullshit to find what is really important.

But to have the balls to pay for that, one must understand media. And no one understands it better than people who work in media. Sadly, they do not own the media. Not anymore, that is. You see, once upon a time, when Slovenia went about its particular version of privatisation, journalists (and other media people) were given stock in the companies they worked for. However in a true early-capitalism manner most of them sold that stock. Sure, they got a new car, maybe even bought a flat, but with that they relinquished what little control they had over the company they worked for. And with that they lost the leverage on what is being produced.

Which brings us to the very core of the manifesto: the question of journalistic autonomy. In this case, the autonomy from short-term interests of media owners. Which is all fine and dandy. I mean, it would be nice if the owners, editors and journos would be on the same boat as far as content and development of any given media company is concerned, but the responsibility for making this happen lies predominantly with the owners. However, politics is neither the place to seek autonomy not the instrument by which it will be achieved. It never was and it never will be. Again, the only way Slovene journos regain their autonomy is by winning back the respect and appreciation of the reading (viewing, listening) public.

Blood money

Therefore if (and pengovsky has no reason to believe otherwise) proponents of this latest journalistic cry for help really want to bring Slovene media to a new high, they should get the public, not politics, behind them. The way they went about it now is trying to do the right thing for the right cause, but fucking up big time. Not unlike what Judas did some 2k years ago, at least according to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Oh, and one more thing: The fight for autonomy never ends. It’s just the nature of the beast. And a little pressure usually is a good thing. It keeps one on their toes.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.