World Radio Day with prize-winning journalist Jan Bednář

Jan Bednář, photo: Vendula Kosíková

The fortunes of journalist Jan Bednář were only beginning to unfold when he was kicked out of the School of Economics after signing the anti-communist Charter 77 and compelled to work as a night watchman for several years. The son of a dissident imprisoned for publishing samizdat literature, the regime was glad to be rid of him when he applied to leave the country in the early 80s. He went to England and was able to complete his studies in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, from where he proceeded to join the Czechoslovak service of the BBC in 1985. Today he produces a foreign politics programme for Czech Radio 6. Last week, Jan Bednář was awarded the Ferdinand Peroutka prize, the highest journalistic accolade in the Czech Republic. On the occasion of the very first World Radio Day we met with Mr Bednář in the studio and asked him first to recall how he came to be involved in radio journalism in exile.

Jan Bednář,  photo: Vendula Kosíková
“I didn’t have any experience before then. I just contacted the head of the Czechoslovak service and asked if I could do something for them - whether I could work there, basically. And since I was from Oxford University he was pleased that I was interested, and so I came, and I learned journalism there. Everything I know about journalism, I learned at the BBC. And so I started translating the news from English into Czech and broadcasting and editing. Most of the time in the BBC Czech service we were translating articles from the newspapers into Czech and then reading it live on the microphone in the studio - in similar studios as you have here. And we had shifts - sometimes I worked in the morning and sometimes in the evening. So that’s where I learned about journalism. I spent about seven years in Bush House in London. And then, when the Velvet revolution took place here, I was thrilled, and I wanted to go back. So a few years later, when it was possible, I left the BBC and went back to Prague.”

What was that community in the BBC Czechoslovak section like? I suppose it consisted mostly of other Czech and Slovak expatriates.

“Exactly, yes, they were exiles, expatriates. It was a community of some of the older generation who had left Czechoslovakia after 1948 and the Communist coup. Then there was another group of exiles who left after 1968 – they were often former communists who had become reformed communists of the Dubček style who had left after the Soviet invasion. And I was from yet another generation, I was younger than these people. I was an exile after Charter 77, which was long after the invasion.”

Most of our listeners will probably not have heard the broadcasts of the BBC Czechoslovak service, or Voice of America, where you also worked after that. Looking back today, would you truly say that those broadcasts truly were an impartial, objective and independent source of information?

Well, I thought it was independent, definitely. As for objective… it wasn’t propaganda. First of all you have to distinguish between Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and the BBC – these are completely different companies and completely different views and projects. If you talk about Radio Free Europe, as a radio station financed by the American Congress, that was supposed to be a Czech radio station with a predominantly Czech agenda. Voice of America was a radio station that was supposed to explain American policy; it was a governmental tool, so to speak. Meanwhile, the BBC was a completely different thing. All these language sections in the BBC were established during the war, that’s true, and during the Second World War they were providing yet again different news from London, but it wasn’t propaganda, certainly not. At least, in those days when I was there, we didn’t try to take sides. For my own part, I did sometimes think that I couldn’t be completely impartial, having had this experience from Czechoslovakia and having been expelled from university, and after my dissident years. Most of my colleagues didn’t have this background as a dissident, so maybe they were more impartial than me. And then, I didn’t want to be impartial about things like communism. So I think the other people there tried to be more impartial than me in this respect.

“But anyway, I want to mention another thing, which is that all these foreign radio stations provided, in a way, a very important reflection of what was actually happening here in Czechoslovakia. Especially in the late 1980s, we started contacting people in Prague; we would telephone someone here from London and were able to record interviews with the people here. So these radio stations, including the BBC, provided information about internal events; not only what was happening in the world but also what was happening here. So that was my experience. And I believe the BBC was impartial. But to a certain extent, of course, because who is really impartial? Nobody is completely impartial. I mean, you always want to balance various views, or at least both sides, but how can you balance, you know, fascism with something? I would actually think about this and we would discuss it when I was at the BBC. I thought, ‘how can I balance certain questions, should I have five minutes of Hitler and five minutes of the Jews?’ How would I balance that?”

Well this week you won the highest accolade that a Czech journalist can win in this country. The prerequisites for the Ferdinand Peroutka prize are, among other things, moral integrity, honesty, and responsibility for the impact of your work. I’m particularly interested in the latter criterion. After all these years that you have been involved in journalism, when have you had to face that situation?

“Well, it’s difficult for me to answer this, I have never been in a situation where I had a commentary for which I would be sacked, but this is what is meant by it. Basically, it comes from this philosophy of Ferdinand Peroutka, after whom the prize is named. He, of course, is a very esteemed person in the country, he was a journalist who had to endure many things that were direct consequences of his work. He spent the whole of the Second World War in a concentration camp. But I will tell you in another way what is meant by this prerequisite: In this country, journalists are perhaps not held in such esteem as Ferdinand Peroutka because there have been many journalists who worked under the previous regimes and they changed sides when the government changed. So what is meant by this prerequisite is that you do not change your positions depending on what the momentary political leadership is.”

Lastly, going back to radio - as a radio journalist yourself, what do you believe is the future of radio journalism from today’s perspective?

“I can only give you my own impressions. But I believe in radio as a medium, I don’t believe it will fade out, it will stay, just as newspapers will stay, in spite of the internet and television and various kinds of media. The number of people who listen to radio is decreasing – that’s a fact. But it will never be zero, it will not go down indefinitely. Because there are things like driving a car or cooking, when it is convenient for you to listen. And then it depends on how interesting the programmes we make are. If we make interesting programmes, people will listen to it – it’s as easy as that.”