NYT chief Mark Thompson: Political pressure is causing some reversion to type in CEE public media

Mark Thompson, photo: Ståle Grut, CC BY-SA 2.0

Public service media in Central Europe reflect growing populism in the region but are not the cause of it. That’s the view of New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, who was recently in Prague. Thompson shared his views on the media landscape in this region with Czech Radio’s Lenka Kabrhelová – and also explained a move to end Czech language broadcasting while he was director-general of the BBC.

Mark Thompson,  photo: Ståle Grut,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“The reason that the BBC took the decision – I was involved in this, I certainly ratified the decision – to withdraw from the Czech service was because the BBC had become convinced that the Czech Republic had emerging, but nonetheless strong, local media, and that it was very likely that the people of the Czech Republic would be able to sustain strong and independent national media of their own.

“The decision was straightforward. There were other parts of the world – and those would’ve been conflict zones in the Middle East – where this money and the intervention was more needed.

“Because there were people – in the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Syria, you know the list – who couldn’t rely on those things and needed more help.

“So that was why the decision was taken. And nothing I’ve heard suggests to me that we took the wrong decision.

“The BBC did not leave Russia, wasn’t satisfied that the same could be said of Russia.

“I have nothing to do in terms of decision making in the BBC today, but if things go backwards in parts of Eastern Europe, the position might change.”

Have you yourself been surprised by the way in which Central Europe has been going in the last few years?

Photo: Kateřina Křenová / Czech Radio
“I don’t think surprise is the right word, and I don’t want to say the opposite, which is that I was kind of expecting it all along.

“If you understand anything of the history of the region, the continued dimension of Russian influence and Russian interest in the region, and if you also reflect on the roots of public service broadcasting independence, the not many years of bedding down and becoming used a society to all of that being the case, then it’s not surprising that some of the new institutions have proven frail.

“And we’ve seen a little bit of a reversion to type by some of the public broadcasting institutions in Eastern Europe, under colossal political pressure.

“I think it’s very disheartening, but it would be hard to deny we’ve seen it.

“In other words, we can see it happening, we can see the events in Hungary and to some extent in Poland. It’s happening. So I think it’s a fact.

“I don’t think if you think about history, it’s surprising. I think it`s disheartening and disappointing.”

Have we missed something as media?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague International
“No. Particularly public media – and in countries of this size, politics and media are inevitably very close to each other and tangled up with each other – what’s happened first and foremost is a set of political changes and they’ve had an effect on the media.

“I don’t think it was in the media sphere where it began – I think it begins in the political sphere.

“Popular, relatively authoritarian individuals and parties have gained traction and they have their way of looking at the world.

“And there’s a kind of playbook – it’s got variations, but there’s a familiar playbook – and lo and behold bits of the playbook are playing out now.

“So I think to that extent, unfortunately, it’s all a bit predictable, in a way.”