I’ve Got Some Prime Newspaper Real Estate To Sell You

So, this was suppose to be an expletive-laden rant about how newspapers don’t take good care of their resources and willingly get buttfucked by advertisers just to make the bottom line. Not that there is anything wrong with buttfucking per se, but you get the idea. Namely Delo, Dnevnik and Večer, the three leading Slovenian daily newspapers hit the stands today with what appeared to be near-identical front pages. Which would be sort of embarrassing by itself. But in this case the front pages were actually full-page adverts framed as articles about Mercator, the largest retail chain in Slovenia. And while there was small print attached indicating the pieces were actually adverts, the end result was that the three dailies all ran the same pieces with the same titles (Dnevnik being the exception with one shorter title, possibly due to space constraints), the same body texts and the same photos. Luckily, the front pages were actually faux front pages (or wraps) with a real front page and a real newspaper inside.

Today’s dailies (source)

Luckily, because this means that the newspapers and their management had not yet completely lost their bearings and sense of decency. Before today, there were other cases of wraps, although (this needs to be said) either as classic full-page adverts or running a different colour scheme and/or typography. Thus it would be unfair to say that new ground was broken or a new low reached, although it is fair to say that the ad is misleading in the sense that it masquerades as a series of articles by using the layout and typography of the real front page. True, the fine print saying “advert” is included somewhere at the edge of the field of vision, but clearly the ad aims to present itself as a genuine article and catch eyeballs. This, however, is completely in line with guidelines of the Slovenian Journalists’ Association, despite the fact that the said association issued a strong protest against the move by the three newspapers (both links in Slovenian).

At the moment pengovsky doesn’t have access to print editions of Slovenian newspapers and was initially led to believe that the wrap was the actual front page. My bad for not checking it out by myself sooner, but there you go. Drinks on me, I guess. But even with the way things are, it should be said that loud and clear that newspaper accept this sort of advertising at their own peril. I mean, yes, they gotta make money, people need to put bread on the table and all that jazz. And if you want to look at a wrap like this solely as a poorly designed advert, then by all means, do so. Nothing wrong with that.

But in the age where circulation is going down but for the select few (none of which are Slovenian, obv), where the like-fueled economy of content proliferation has failed to monetize and where website real estate is sometimes oversold to the point where only 20-or-so percent of the screen is devoted to content, the idea of “moar ads!” is dubious at best. Advertisers apparently know this, otherwise they would not have tried to imitate newspaper content, however crudely. The question is do the newspaper people know this or – rather – do they see this as their leverage or their liability. To put it crudely, are they being pressured into doing it or are they actively courting advertiser with what is essentially a print version of native advertising.

Obviously, there is no clear-cut solution to the conundrum that presents itself. Both approaches have pit-falls that are not easily avoidable. Catching eyeballs is increasingly difficult, doubly so with print. We often block out the ad sections almost subconsciously. Ad-blockers do it for us online. But doing native advertising means running the risk of blurring the line between marketing and journalism too much. First at the expense of the latter but ultimately, the former will have failed, too. Just look at the hot water BuzzFeed landed in with its native adverts.

The audience are not stupid and they can in all likelihood distinguish between an advert and news content. The problem is that the trend is moving increasingly towards blurring the difference between the two. Which is why newspapers, although understandably trying to make money and stay afloat, would do well not to dismiss the criticism of their advertising practices in an aloof or offhanded manner. After all, there is such a thing as peak advertising.

If you don’t believe that, I’ve got some prime newspaper real estate to sell you.

The Tale Of Two Prime Ministers

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. It was the age of Light it was the age of Darkness. Depending on whether you were Janez Janša or Alenka Bratušek yesterday. Namely, the two former PMs have seen their political outlook clear and muddle respectively less than 24 hours apart. Or so it seems.

Hand. Over. (source)

After a retrial was declared in the Patria Case, the newly assigned judge ruled the statute of limitations expired in this case as the alleged crime took place in between August and September 2005, before the Penal Code was changed to allow for a two-year extension in cases where the constitutional court ordered a retrial. There was some speculation that the extension will be granted especially since the new proviso was generally used retroactively, but mostly for post-WWII summary trials, thus paving a way for true acquittal of those innocent people who somehow were in the way of the Communist regime.

Interestingly enough, this was exactly the spin Janša – more precisely, his stellar lawyer Franci Matoz – wanted to make by arguing that he’d like the extension to be granted in order to clear his name in front of a judge rather than simply through a legal proviso. However, you’ll be excused for thinking that the way things unfolded was good enough both for Matoz and for his client. Because, no matter how you look at it, Janša, as well as his co-accused Ivan Črnkovič and Tone Krkovič, as well as Walter Wolf, who fled to Canada, are once again innocent. That the first three will probably sue the state for wrongful incarceration (numbers around half a mil per person are being circulated) is almost a given.

What is not a given is any kind of reset to the way things were before. While sporadic shouts of how this government lacks legitimacy are almost unavoidable, it seems to have dawned on Ivan’s legal squad at least that any scenario involving a rerun of elections is impossible. Not practically impossible, not virtually impossible, simply – impossible. Not in the least because the public have, for all the deficiency and occasional amateurism of this government, come to appreciate the sense of political stability and even dullness of day-to-day politics. Not that there aren’t screw-ups, boat-rockers or a certain amount of mischief in general, it’s just that none of it seems to be cataclysmic.

Not to be discounted is the fact that the Party burned a huge amount of resources defending its Glorious Leader tooth-and-nail. This has had noticeable effect on the ability of the party to form policy and/or take positions on issues not directly connected with the main strategic objective.  Also, a number of high-profile individuals turned out to be lacklustre in the cause at hand and have as a result fallen out of grace of the party leader(ship).  And although this strengthened the party on the inside, it also reduced its reach beyond the immediate rank-and-file. Which might also explain why the SDS, while closely trailing the SMC in the opinion polls, did not get any sort of  lasting bump in the opinion polls. Which also helps explain the overall resignation regarding possible political dividends of the whole affair.

So, while Janez Janša is now scott-free, he and his party are now, optimistically speaking, back to square one, while the political landscape has changed quite a bit. Just how well they can adapt to the new reality and hit the ground running will decide whether theirs will be a slow but sure path to oblivion or whether they will be able to reinvent themselves and form a new and viable political platform. The party proper, however, has also managed to put off the question of a post-Janša future. The operative word here being “put off”, and not avoided. Because sooner or later this will become an issue.

But for the time being, Janša still has a party to run. Afterall, he at least has a party. Unlike his successor in the PM seat Alenka Bratušek who is literally seeing her Alenka Bratušek Alliance disintegrate before her eyes.

Namely, Jani Möderndorfer, head of the party’s parliamentary group is looking for a new political home. He quit the party and the group yesterday and is rumoured to be on the verge of switching to Miro Cerar’s SMC. All of which pengovsky predicted as early as July. And while the media are focusing on the dire political straits the former PM found herself in, the real story here is the new balance of the Force within the coalition.

You see, when Bojan Dobovšek quit the SMC parliamentary group and went independent, the SD, most junior of the coalition partners, went orgasmic at the prospect of actually starting to matter in terms of securing a parliamentary majority of 46 votes (at that moment SMC had 35 votes, DeSUS 10 and SD 6). Theirs was a short-lived happiness, however, as DeSUS poached Peter Vilfan from ZaAB in late July, thus once again making itself the sole indispensible coalition partner. Should Möderndorfer really sign up for the SMC, Miro Cerar’s party would be back to 36 votes and the coalition as a whole would have a vote more than it began the term with.

The story does not end there, however. The side-effect of Möderndorfer’s jumping ship is the fact that ZaAB is now down to two MPs, one short for making the cut to claim parliamentary group privileges such as hiring staff and advisors as well as securing seats in parliamentary committees. In effect, this means the end of ZaAB as a parliamentary party. And while Bratušek was lamenting the lack of fidelity and loyalty in politics (at which point Zoran Janković probably went all Top Gun), she was presented with a much more immediate problem: how to regroup in the parliament and keep at least some of the resources available.

She immediately tried to form an independents’ parliamentary group, consisting of herself, the remaining ZaAB member Mirjam Bon Klanjšček and SMC renegade Dobovšek, but apparently that won’t fly due to a quirk in parliamentary Rules and Procedures which require that non-aligned MPs not be members of any political party. And Alenka Bratušek quitting Alenka Bratušek Alliance is, well, humiliating. What she could do, however, is call a congress of what is left of her party, move to disband it and notify the president of the parliament that her party is no more. Has ceased to be. Is expired and gone to meet its Maker. Is a stiff. Bereft of life, rests in peace and pushing up daisies. Kicked the bucket and has shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. That it has fuckin’ snuffed it and that hers is an ex-party.

But that, too, could soon become an academic debate as DeSUS apparently set its sights on Bon Klajnšček as well and should the pensioners’ party poach her, Bratušek’s only chance of seeing the inside of the parliamentary group would be to join an already existing one. For example, the Social Democrats, who have a bit of a tradition for co-opting former MPs who lost their parties. And should this really happen, one could claim that ZaAB had indeed joined Cerar’s coalition. Albeit posthumously.



Intimidating A Journo, Secret Service Admits More Than It Wants To

Years ago, while pengovsky was doing a stint at a small privately owned press agency, a funny thing happened. The owner, an old-school journo, had good contacts in the Balkans and was approached by one of the many media emerging in post-Milošević Serbia on the issue of human trafficking in Slovenia. The man did some preliminary research, arranged interviews, provided support, stuff like that. He’s a nice guy, although cranky at times. But then, all of a sudden, interviews were being cancelled. Government officials remembered they’ve urgent stuff to do, press officers started stalling and out of a three-days-worth of field work he was left with one NGO, still willing to talk to them.

Anuška Delić of Delo newspaper. SOVA has a thing for her.

After the interview, with the Serbs already on their way back home, the offices of his press agency were burglarized. This was in a complex where CCTV surveillance was in operation 24/7 and where security guards make rounds as well. But that night, outdoor lightning suddenly went and the camera which could have caught the perps in plain view was malfunctioning. In a three-office business, loaded with technology, the only thing they took was the owner’s laptop and just ransacked the place. A person was arrested for the theft but he later wrote a letter to my boss saying he was just a scape-goat since he did burglarize a couple of other places that night. To this day the owner of the press agency says the incident reeks af a spook job, a “shot across the bow” by SOVA, Slovenian secret service, aimed at frightening him into playing nice and stop asking the wrong kinds of questions.

The case of Anuška Delić

Fast forward ten years and Anuška Delić, a Delo journalist is under investigation for allegedly publishing classified material. Charges were brought against her by none other than SOVA, the prosecution apparently agreed and wrote up an indictment and filed it with the court where it lay for almost a year. But now for the fun part: Delić was writing about Neo-Nazis in Slovenian Army and am alleged connection between Slovenian branch of Blood & Honour and Slovene Democratic Party of Janez Janša which. Published in 2011, just prior parliamentary elections, her series of articles sent shock waves through the political arena.

Now, Slovenian Neo-Nazis are a curious bunch. Pengovsky still likes to tell a story (supposedly true) from their sorry beginnings when they applied for membership of the international Blood & Honour organisation in London but were refused on account of Untermensch status of Slavic peoples in general. Well, times have changed and although beaten into submission by punkers during 1999 anti-Haider protest in Ljubljana, they’ve regrouped enough to star afresh. This time much more organised. In fact, by some accounts they were so organised that the only thing that prevented them from starting to make trouble in the open was the fall of Borut Pahor’s government in 2011. And it was at that time allegations of connections between Neo-Nazis, Slovenian Army and SDS emerged, sending Delić to do the thing she does.

Shameless plug: At that time Pengovsky also wrote a column on SDS drawing parallels between their own ideology and Neo Nazi mantra “you’ve got law on your side, we’ve got justice on ours”.

A pattern

Anyhoo, after some political wrangling Janez Janša took power in 2012 and (logically) replaced head of SOVA, the latter files charges against Delić fairly soon. This of course is nothing but a politically motivated intimidation of the most repulsive sort. But most importantly, it re-establishes a pattern of abuse power.

Namely, SOVA legaly does not have the authority to go after Slovenian citizens and must leave any such case to the CrimPolice. Curiously enough, in 2000, during Andrej Bajuk government where Janez Janša served as defence minister, Blaž Zgaga of Večer daily and later of Patria Affair fame, was given a similar treatment for leaking military secrets (cooperation between US and Slovenian military intelligence). While his appartement was searched by the police, personnel from military intelligence reportedly took active part in the investigation which should not have been the case, since military services can only busy themselves with military personel. Point being that every so often in Slovenia journos are subject to various (semi)clandestine services throwing the book at them – or worse.

OSCE gets interested

But what of Anuška Delić? Pengovsky and Nataša Briški did a podcast with her for metinalista.si where she explained how things went down. The podcast is in Slovenian, but here’s a decent interview she gave to Lawyer Herald in English. There’s been enough commotion internationally for the OSCE to start asking questions.

Now, on one hand this reeks of attempts at curtailing media freedom. Demanding that a journo reveal his/her sources is just wrong. But on the other hand, this is more of a psychological warfare than anything else. Despite what the SDS will have you think this still is a democracy. Journalists don’t disappear, they aren’t beaten up by masked thugs and save an occasional threat they can pretty much do their job. Indeed, the main threat to media oversight in Slovenia is not state control or threats of physical violence but journalists’ social security. Much easier to have a “cooperative” journo if he or she finds it hard to put bread on the table. But I digress…

SOVA admits more than it wants to

At the end of the day, the whole thing is hugely embarrassing both for SOVA (which went from a respectable service to a joke, mostly by abusing it for political needs of Janez Janša and the SDS – that included blowing a cover of its safe house in Ljubljana and derailing a joint SOVA-BND operation) as well as for the state in general. Which is probably why the indictment was put in a bottom drawer and almost forgotten until now. Because if it was thrown out, all hell would break loose about judiciary being infested with “left-wing fascists” or some other derivative of SDS propaganda. But if the case went forward it would constitute an implicit admission that reporting of Anuška Delić was spot on and that the documents she used, regardless of their nature, do indeed prove a link exists (or did exist at the time) between Slovenian army, the SDS and the Neo-Nazi element.


Apology Of Ineptitude

Minister of education, science, culture and sports Žiga Turk a.k.a. superminister (due to many a portfolio that were joined together under one roof) recently held a speech where he touched upon what he called “the lost moral capital”. Delo daily ran the speech titled Why Nothing Happens and What Should Happen verbatim in its Saturday supplement Sobotna priloga and it definitely deserves to be commented upon.

minister Žiga Turk at a recent event (photo by yours truly)

First of all, it has been ages since this particular newspaper (or any newspaper worthy of its name, for that matter) ran a transcript of a politician’s speech. True, Delo once did that. Regularly. But in those days its tagline was “Workers of the world, unite!” and was officially still a socialist and party-sanctioned newspaper. In other words, running a speech by a sitting politician has an unwelcome taste of times past. One can hope the newspaper went with it for less obvious reasons, but still. A good three pages were spent on what was primarily an agenda-driven political discourse.

Because that’s exactly what is was. For what it’s worth, here’s a Google translation of the speech. In it Turk submits that the main problem of Slovenian society is the lack of moral capital and quotes Jonathan Haidt‘s Moral Foundations Theory to further his case. Bottom line? Moral principles are not only acquired, but mostly passed down genetically from generation to generation.

Now, we don’t have to spend a lot of time on whether Haidt is right or wrong. He is controversial, to say the least. The problem here is the approach minister Turk takes to explain the current sociopolitical situation in Slovenia. In short: it is a classic example of first defining a conclusion and then using whatever (pseudo)science there is to support it. The conclusion being that both sides of the political spectrum are equally right. Or, better, equally wrong. Also, morality of the right should be equally legitimate as morality of the left. And vice-versa.

Here, Turk enters the slippery territory of WWII history in Slovenia and declares that the fight against the occupation should be set apart from the social and political revolution that took place alongside it. To simplify: rebellion against Nazism and Fascism – good. Revolution – bad. And goes on to say that those who opposed the revolution were guilty of nothing more than a different set of morals. If it were only that simple. While there is no such thing as a clean war (and pengovsky wrote time and again that it is high time we bury our dead), fact of the matter is, that there was no middle ground in WWII and those who sought it usually made the disastrous miscalculation of “picking the lesser evil” which more or less amounted to (at the very least) tacit toleration of the occupation. Also, revolutions happen because the existing societal structure is not fair. They do not happen out of the blue.

Or, of you want a more recent example, Turk cites the Family code debate as a typical example of morals that neither right nor wrong. Just – different. Pengovsky, however, is still at a loss as to how exactly is “gays and lesbians do not deserve a happy family” morally equal to “everyone deserves a happy family”.

This of course is nothing more than the moral, social and especially political relativism which is at the core of neoconservatism. My morals equal your morals. Regardless of the effect they have on the society as a whole as well as on the individual. If right-wing morals are that some are by definition more equal than others, then – according to Turk – this should be accepted as a valid set of morals, no more right or wrong than the opposing set of left-wing morals that all people are created equal.

But all of the above is just a sideshow for the ultimate kicker: Turk adds that the left-wingers who (according to Haidt) subscribe to the first three moral foundations (care for others, justice, liberty) show disdain for symbols of Slovenian state while happily parading around with symbols of the old socialist state and that in this they are markedly different from right-wingers who (in addition to the first three foundations) also subscribe to loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. In other words, left-wingers are unpatriotic and as such are not being constructive in the attempts to heal the state of the nation. Well, here’s a newsflash: This has nothing to do with (non)patriotism. Rather, it has to do with substance. Or the lack thereof.

You see, most people who today display the red star (or other symbols of the old regime) are doing it as a sign of protest. Just as they were defaming that very same red star and other symbols of the old regime twenty-odd years ago. The problem of this nation is not its inherent division, but a complete and utter lack of substance. Just as the old regime became a caricature of itself and needed to be mocked, so has this state become an empty shell, devoid of all inspiration, prospect and happiness. And this is where a large number of our elected representatives and other key players failed this country. Scattered across the political spectrum, too many of them are locked in a self-perpetuated power-struggle, suffering from a complete lack of imagination and – once in power – will pull no punches when their own positions are threatened. Even if it means shoving the country and its nation further down the drain.

Out of sheer benevolence, I will subscribe to the fact that Turk and people with whom he shares the reins of power these days genuinely want to do good. But this will not be achieved by wearing countless hats, switching at pleasure from role to role. A minister is a minister 24/7. He or she cannot choose to be a politician in the morning, a professor in the afternoon, a weekend economist and a moral philosopher on special occasions. Whatever a politician in office does, is inherently political. In fact, the more apolitical they claim it to be, the more political it is. They were elected and/or appointed to further an agenda. And if that agenda is not furthered or is having disastrous results, someone isn’t doing his or her homework. Looking outside for causes to this only makes it worse.

In fact, rather than “searching for moral capital”, the whole thing should be titled as “an apology of ineptitude”.

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Code Name “Linguist”

POP TV seems to have stumbled across a whooper. Earlier today they ran a story claiming that Mitja Meršol, former editor-in-chief of Delo daily and now MP for Positive Slovenia of Zoran Janković was in fact an operative for Yugoslav secret service (SDV) while being a member of the Slovene desk at the BBC. Namely, documents produced by the POP TV namely show that the SDV ran an operative code-named “Linguist” who joined the Slovenian BBC desk in 1971 to cover culture, but was also tasked to report on Yugoslav immigration and internal BBC matters. Another document shown by POP TV then identifies Meršol as joining the Slovenian desk at the BBC in September 1971. Meršol refused to comment beyond saying that “most of the report is wrong” but also said that he will not provide details of his actions during the 1971-1984 period.

Mitja Meršol during the launch of his latest book (source: The Firm™)

This is more than just embarrassing. Although SDV (still commonly referred to as UDBa, after its predecessor) went through several transformations during the socialist regime and despite the fact that “working for SDV” could mean as little as unknowingly providing a piece of information (no matter how useless), documents provided by POP TV suggest that Meršol was recruited and knew full well what he was doing. That he continued in this role even after his BBC stint, when he became the London correspondent for Delo daily, only adds to the gravity of the situation.

At this point it needs to be said that a wise decision has been made twenty-or-so years ago, not go after everyone who worked for the socialist regime. The so-called “lustration” was – although often called for by the political right – luckily avoided and for two simple reasons. First, the last thing you need is a McCharty-style witch-hunt, and second, the Communist party and the socialist regime were so all-encompassing, that at some point in their lives almost everyone ended up working for them in one form or another. Be it a journalist, teacher, manager, deputy, you name it. Hell, even Janez Janša was a member of the Communist Party, until he was kicked out for being too hard-line. But avoiding lustration didn’t and doesn’t mean that people made a clean break with their personal histories. In fact, lack of lustration ensured that people can be held at least morally accountable for their past deeds. Sure, let bygones be bygones, but the past can still catch up with you.

The spook MP

Should Meršol resign? Probably yes. According to some reports he is thinking seriously about it, despite the party saying that the whole thing is his business. But the fact that he was apparently an SDV operative is not as important as the fact that he was in the spook business in the first place. Snitching ain’t kosher, no matter how you look at it. While being an elected representative of the people requires no special certificates save being of age, a certain moral standard is expected of people who run for office. Nothing much, just not too spotty-a-record. After all, we’re all human. But if you’re running for office, you really shouldn’t have the past haunt you too much. And a former spook – no matter which side he or she worked for – is in no position to take a stand, well, on anything, really. Because each and every time he or she will take a stand for something, the snitch-jacket will fall out of the closet. An elected representative with too much luggage is of little use to anyone, least of all to the citizens, regardless of how benign he or she is – and trust me, Mitja Meršol today is as nice and as benign a person as they come.

The Timing

But there’s another aspect which is also worth mentioning. The timing. Meršol, in addition to being an MP for Zoran Janković’s Positive Slovenia is aslo one of Janković’s Ljubljana city councilmen and as you very well know, Zoki is running for mayor in by-elections on March 25. With this in mind, the whole thing does get a wee bit more sinister.

Namely, the whole sifting-through-SDV-archives thing bears all the hallmarks of Janez Janša and his SDS. Just remember the Archivegate with President Danilo Türk at its centre. Only that the SDS seems to have nothing to do with it this time around. The Meršol-SDV connection was apparently discovered almost by accident by a POP TV journo, who was following another lead. Namely, some weeks ago, Veno Taufer, the new president of the Slovene Writers’ Association led one of many protests against abolishing the stand-alone ministry of culture and merging it with several other portfolios. In response, allegations were floated through media close to SDS that Taufer was an SDV operative. These allegations were false, naturally. Turns out, however, that Taufer too worked for the BBC Slovenian desk and – well, it was a relatively short walk from there.

Conspiracy Theories

But what if it wasn’t a coincidence? What if the POP TV journo found what he was supposed to find? Janković seems virtually unbeatable in Ljubljana, but dusting off an old spy story and selling it for more than it’s worth could be quite a coup. That and maybe chip off a couple of percentage points off his election result. As an added bonus, the whole thing could even out the fall-out from another scandal, pertaining to a DeSUS MP Ivan Simčič, who was found to have forged his high-school graduation certificate and is under heavy pressure from the media and the opposition to resign immediately (more on that in the coming days, it really is ugly). If both Simčič and Meršol resigned, two MP seats would be up for grabs in the near future, one on each side of the aisle, lessening the damage for Janša’s coalition a bit.

But pengovsky can’t shake a funny thought. Meršol was very adamant about how he will not go into details but said that most of the report (but not all of it) was wrong. You see, this was the Cold War and Yugoslavia was a founding member of the non-aligned movement, technically no-man’s land, although it was a nominally a part of the socialist camp. Back then it was common practice for journos on foreign posts to be at least vetted by the secret services of both country of origin as well as that of the recipient country. And in case of the BBC, both countries had to agree on every specific posting. This is pure speculation on my part, but what if SDV wasn’t the only service Meršol was working for? What if he was turned and worked both for SDV and – say – MI6? There’s not a shred of evidence to corroborate any of this, but it would be possible, given his relatively low-level posting and the thirteen-year-long stay in London.

Vetting process fail much?

But back to reality: until yesterday, Mitja Meršol was the Slovenian epitome of a gentleman journalist. Always wearing his trademark bow-tie, well versed in manners and protocol, of sharp and witty pen and all style, he was the definition of old-school journalism. As of yesterday, we know there’s a more sinister side to him as well. Which is not wrong in its own right. God knows what his reasons were. Patriotism? Naivete? Blackmail? Who knows. Today, it doesn’t really matter.

One would wish, however, that political parties would put take the vetting process seriously.

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