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24 June

TRT’s failure as a public broadcasting institution

TAYFUN ERTAN

TRT’s eagerness to act as a government channel in the run-up to elections is a reminder how desperately we need a true public broadcasting service.

When Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, former secretary-general of the Islamic Cooperation Organisation, was selected as the joint presidential candidate for the CHP and MHP I couldn’t help but think what a difficult campaign period lies ahead of him. I don’t know if İhsanoğlu is the right candidate, and I don’t know what he can say to convince CHP, MHP or even AKP voters to support him rather than his likely opponent, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. What concerns me is that there is a high chance that any message İhsanoğlu tries to give to the electorate will simply not be heard.
 
What lies behind this concern is that in the pre-election coverage of the 30 March 2014  local election, TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) flagrantly violated the rules set out by the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), which try to insure that broadcast will “not be one-sided, or partisan; that the broadcaster would “ensure equal opportunities” between candidates, and “make broadcasts that are in line with the principles of impartiality, truth and accuracy.” According to the Monitoring and Evaluation report of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), of the total broadcast time from TRT News reports on political rallies, 89.52 per cent (13 hours 32 minutes) was given over to the AKP, 5.29 per cent (48 minutes) to the MHP, 4.96 per cent (45 minutes) to the CHP, and 0.22 per cent (2 minutes) to the BDP. There is no reason to suspect that the other channels in the TRT network exercised a different editorial practice from the main TRT News. This suggests the cumulative level of injustice towards opposition parties will have been much higher than these figures suggest.

 
TRT’s CONSTITUTIONAL OBLIGATION: “BROADCASTS SHALL BE IMPARTIAL”
 
Given that even privately owned channels are more balanced in their coverage, such grave bias at a station which claims to be a “public broadcaster” raises many questions. 
 
By making its pre-election broadcasts so one-sided and misrepresentational, TRT violated every aspect of the principle laid out in article 5 of the TRT Law that states the Corporation is obliged to “produce sufficient broadcasts on subjects of interest to the public in order to enable the healthy and free development of public opinion; produce broadcasts that are impartial; and [the Corporation]should not be used as an instrument for the interests of a political party, group, interest group, belief or idea.” TRT also knowingly violated article 133 of the constitution, which defines the Corporation as ‘the unique radio and television institution established by the State as a public corporate body” and entrusts TRT with a very important responsibility by stating that it
“shall be autonomous and [its] broadcasts shall be impartial.” I believe that deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, a politician who dislikes injustice and who is the minister responsible for both the RTÜK and TRT, should draw attention to these serious legal violations in advance of the two election cycles (presidential and general ) which lie ahead of us.


So what did happen when TRT was discovered to be in violation of its charter? It received a warning. That’s all.
 
Warnings and other irrelevancies aside, such a failing would, under normal circumstances, have prompted a long debate on broadcasting both within and outside the Corporation, a review of the ins and outs of what it means to be a “public broadcaster,” as well as a closer monitoring of TRT broadcasts A real enquiry would have considered measures to prevent such failings being repeated. But none of this happened, and the powers-that-be who claim the Corporation is a “public broadcaster” felt no need to make any kind of statement. Of course, TRT lost a great deal; its already non-existent credibility was trampled upon even further- although it is hard to see who was left to care. Of course the true violation was to the fundamental rights of the public, who were denied access to the information needed to form an opinion, and who were subject to blatant influence and manipulation But we were not surprised by any of this, because TRT has a history of being used as media outlet of the ruling party. What is happening today is an exaggerated version of what has happened in the past with only the name of the party and of the government being changed.

 
BROADCASTING DOMINATED BY A LACK OF PRINCIPLES 
 
The serious failing in TRT’s election coverage is nothing new. Viewers of both TRT and other private channels are exposed to broadcasts that that spout propaganda, that obey the rules of protocol rather than news values, that have few principles other than not to rock the boat, and which, at the end of the day, insult viewers intelligence. The only real solution to this is to institute real “public broadcasting.”
 
Turkey must embrace the reform of “public broadcasting” as an urgent priority. It is only through such reform that quality reporting can be resuscitated and it is only by restoring integrity, balance and a notion of public service that viewers and listeners will be able to follow and be well-informed about current events. Public broadcasting is the key. We can only perceive and understand the different flavours, viewpoints and beliefs that exist in society through public broadcasting. 
 

Public broadcasting is also the way to gain exposure to other cultures of the world and an understanding of international issues. The basis of public broadcasting is to tell the truth and correctly inform the public, and to do so in line with the universal principles of journalism. Public broadcasting means respecting the right of the public to access information. It means broadcasting in line with fundamental human rights. It would be hard to disagree with the proposition that today we are in grave need of this in order to perceive and understand events in Syria and Iraq that are painful for Turkey.
 
An in-depth examination of the basic characteristics of “public broadcasting” will have to be left to another article, but let us at least touch on them before moving on. In the eyes of the public broadcaster, the person at whom broadcasts are aimed is, like the broadcaster him/herself, an equal citizen of the country, and it is for this reason that public broadcasting is inclusive of everyone living in the country. As the public broadcaster does not categorise citizens according to their religion, language, race, social status or income level, its broadcasts are egalitarian and democratic. Broadcasts based on the principles of public broadcasting contain diversity within a wide range of programmes, from news to light entertainment. In this way the different interests and issues of society can be covered. Public broadcasting creates a forum in which opinions can be freely expressed and in which information, different opinions and criticisms can be articulated. Public broadcasting should inform, educate and entertain. 
 
 

REAL PUBLIC BROADCASTING IMPEDED BY GOVERNMENT

Achieving all of this depends on the level of independence and freedom public broadcasting has from political and commercial pressures. And this is the basic problem in Turkey, besides which issues related to infrastructure and manpower needed to produce quality content according to the basic principles of journalism or with preparing this content for publication using the latest technology are trivial.
 
The fact that public broadcasting has not been able to take root in Turkey stems from the authoritarian nature of ruling parties that cannot tolerate different opinions. Laws are written in a way that serves this purpose. Governments appoint people that will support them to corporations that are supposed to be independent, and these corporations can easily violate the theoretical principles of impartiality, autonomy and independence. This is the actual reason for the imbalance in TRT’s pre-election coverage; the problem is not an editorial one, it goes much deeper than that.
 
THE BBC FIGHTS TO PROTECT ITS AUTONOMY 
 
It would seem that the problem is also related to being able to resist pressure, show resistance, refuse to submit to orders, protect the profession and act according to your conscience. More importantly, these do not concern only TRT but also other media bosses and administrators, particularly news broadcasters. 
 
In order to explain what I mean by this, let me tell you of a first-hand journalistic experience. The year was 1982. At that time I was working at the BBC in London. Britain had declared war on Argentina. All of the BBC’s news stories and programmes used an impartial language; they did not include descriptions such as “our soldiers” or “enemy Argentina” or phrases like “glorious Britain” or “our great navy.” There was no obvious change in the content of the broadcasts. In fact, when speaking of as yet unconfirmed stories, reporters used phrases such as, “According to the statement of the UK Ministry of Defence…” In short, the fundamental principles of journalism were followed, no more no less. When looked at in terms of principles, there was no difference between the broadcasting and reporting during wartime and the broadcasting and reporting of the previous day; it was only the subject that had changed.
 
This approach greatly angered the then Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who had never liked the BBC, accusing it at every opportunity of being under the influence of “liberals” and “leftists.” She accused the BBC of “betraying the country” and “demoralising the troops.” At that time, the BBC’s director general was Sir Ian Trethowan, known for his close links to the Conservatives, who in response to the criticisms gave the following statement: “In times of hostility, as at all other times, the BBC has to guard its reputation for telling the truth. Of course the BBC could not be and is not neutral as between our country and the aggressors. But one of the things which distinguishes a democracy like Britain from a dictatorship like Argentina is that our people wish to be told the truth and can be told it.” 
 
George Howard, then chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC, appointed on the personal recommendation of Margaret Thatcher, defended the BBC against these criticisms, saying that the Corporation was determined ‘that in war truth shall not be the first casualty... The public is very rightly anxious about the future, and deserves in this democracy to be given as much information as possible. Our reports are believed around the world precisely because of our reputation for telling the truth.” Richard Francis, then Managing Director of BBC Radio, also joined in the on-going debate: “It is not the BBC’s role to boost British troops” morale or to rally British people to the flag... The widow in Portsmouth is no different from the widow of Buenos Aires... The BBC needs no lessons in patriotism from the present British Government or any other.”
 
I tell this story not only to the administrators at TRT, who are responsible for public broadcasting, but also to other media bosses, particularly those producing news broadcasts, and to news administrators. But perhaps there is no need. The point makes itself.
 
 
 



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