The Central European country is facing similar challenges to those around the world, and the campaign strategies of the government and opposition are trying to harness all the influence they can.
The results of the most recent European elections resembled (sans Slovakia) trends from around the region, with the government taking the lion’s share of the vote. Analysing how the government continue to control the public media and – along with the opposition – reach members of the electorate with the their message can act as a road map for understanding the state of Polish politics today.
Politics and campaigning in the Polish media
The nature media coverage during political campaigns in Poland is determined by three essential factors.
First, the state-owned media are essentially controlled by the government, which means the Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Second, the private media market is split right in the middle between the pro-government outlets and the liberal media that supported the European Coalition during the recent elections.
Third, the bipolar division of the traditional media market means that alternative political options (fringe parties) that do not fit into this context focus on social media campaigning. This tool was very effectively used by the far-right Confederation.
Media market structure
According to the opinion polls published by the polling agency IBRIS, television still dominates the media market with 83% of Poles considering it their main source of information.
Television is followed by online publications with 59% of Poles using it. The third, garnering 48%, is radio and the fourth is the printed press, which is read by 35% of the population.
26% of Poles are drawing their news from Facebook and 21% use other social media such as Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat.
However, media usage preferences are very different amongst the younger voters, those at the age between 18-29. In this group, online publications represent the main source of information, dominating with 69% surveyed. This is followed by Facebook with 58% and 32% for television. Only 16% of young voters read printed press.
Campaigns in state-owned traditional media
With television remaining the primary sources of information about politics and political campaigning in Poland, it is crucially important that the state-owned broadcaster –TVP – occupies a significant share of the market.
TVP is in competition for primacy of the TV market with the private TVN that is owned by the Discovery Channel. But whilst TVP and TVN occupy a comparable share of the market, they appeal to very different constituencies.
Public television is watched in households with middle to lower incomes, in smaller towns and rural areas. Its programming and appeal are reflecting the focus on a more provincial consumer.
State-owned Polish Radio remains a clear leader of the radio market, especially in the news niche. Again, its audience is larger in smaller towns and the countryside. Law and Justice won decidedly the European elections with these groups of voters.
Since PiS came to power in autumn of 2015, it has taken absolute control over the public media. Previously television and radio were regulated by the National Broadcasting Board, which was composed of representatives of all major political options.
Since coming to power, PiS dismissed the board and changed the law so that the oversight of the public media became a direct responsibility of the government. Consequently, public media, TVP and Polish Radio have become tools of party propaganda and dissenting journalists were fired.
During the recent elections, TVP ran an exceptionally aggressive campaign on behalf of PiS, which included portraying the opposition figures as foreign agents and people of shadowy past tainted by communism.
Opposition members were either not invited to the studio or when invited they were often attacked by anchors.
Amongst the motivating factors for the more than usually pro-PiS aggressive campaigning at TVP has been its dependence on government funding. TVP represents an overblown structure inherited from communism, which has never been reformed.
Despite generous hand-outs from the public purse TVP runs into deficit every few months. Following the elections, TVP was given the largest ever subsidy from the government of 1 billion PLN, more or less 250 million euro.
Campaigning in traditional private media
Whilst TVP campaigned on behalf of PiS, its major competitor – TVN – favoured the European Coalition. The channel’s former anchor, Sekielski, was the producer of the documentary about paedophilia in the Catholic church that embarrassed PiS in the last weeks of the campaign.
Whilst TVN did not finance the production (which was entirely financed by crowd-funding), it has subsequently been shown during the peak hours, even refraining from breaking the showing with commercials.
TVN’s best-known anchors run aggressive conversations clearly biased not just against PiS but also against other political competitors, such as Biedron’s Spring (Wiosna).
The other private television Polsat, formerly centrist, is now leaning towards the government especially since it run into financial difficulty related to government regulations.
The dwindling printed paper market is largely bipolar. Gazeta Wyborcza, Newsweek and Polityka are firmly on the liberal camp.
Gazeta Polska, Sieci and Do Rzeczy are essentially pro-government propaganda tools.
In the middle there is Dziennik Gazeta Prawna and Rzeczpospolita, though the later leans towards the government.
Whilst the whole traditional press market is suffering from the fall of readership, the pro-opposition press is also affected by the decline in advertising revenue. A major share of advertising in Poland is provided by the state-owned companies or companies with the state’s majority share-holding, mostly from the energy and petroleum sectors.
The government appointees control all these companies and consequently they do not advertise with the press favouring the opposition. Conversely, their advertisement with the pro-PiS press is nothing short of the government subsidy.
In reality, with the current very poor readership numbers for the pro-PiS press, it is clear that this section of the market is massively dependent on the advertising revenue from the state-owned companies without which it would have probably collapsed.
The printed press bipolar structure was reflected during the campaign. The pro-PiS sector ran stories that reflected the government’s campaign line. Amongst those was a consistent attack on the LGBTQ community and minority rights as well as daily stories highlighting the threat of migration and the decadence of Western Europe (especially in reaction to the Notre Dame fire).
At the same time, the opposition press broke the stories about alleged corruption in the government, such as the story about Prime Minister’s purchase of land from the Catholic Church for a token payment. The opposition press also engaged in cultural wars publishing the stories about paedophilia in the Catholic Church.
The online media market is dynamically growing in Poland. It is split between news publications and social media, with the former sector being considerably larger but the latter being stronger within the younger sectors of the population.
The two largest online publishers – Onet and Wirtulana Polska – are less partisan than printed media, and their teams are more diverse.
Onet, which is owned by Axel Springer, broke stories that hit both the government and the opposition. However, whenever Onet publishes a story that exposes issues within the government it is immediately hit by the pro-PiS publishers with the allegation that Onet is serving German interests. In fact, pro-PiS pundits regularly refer to Onet as a “German press”.
Pro-government on-line publications – such as WPolityce.pl or Niezalezna.pl – are even more partisan than the pro-government printed press.
Over the campaign period these publications focused on personal attacks on the leaders of the opposition, anti-migration and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. However, reflecting the change of PiS’s campaign tactics, these publications refrained from anti-EU attacks and portrayed PiS as a pro-European party.
The social media sector is the only one, which can be used as a campaign platform for the smaller parties from the fringes. The platform was consistently and professionally used by the extreme-right Confederation, which in the last three weeks of the campaign outspent all the other parties in Facebook political adds.
The content of the Confederation adds and its YouTube and Twitter campaigns were professionally produced and had a successful appeal for the youngest voters, amongst which it had a very strong showing during the elections.
Surprisingly, the same is not true for the left or Biedron’s Spring party. They did not successfully use social media and did not even register a strong showing on these platforms. There is no doubt that the left was suffering from the lack of resources and a lack of professional advice.
None of the above seems to be a problem of the extreme right, though, it is not clear from where the Confederation had the sources for its social media campaign.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.