No Politics and Bad Politics: Lessons from the Failure to Reform the Public Broadcaster

Ghia Nodia

The sad and confusing story of electing, half-electing and not electing the Board of Trustees of the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) is a small storm in the Georgian political environment. The “talking classes”, i.e. those publicly active and popular people whom we often refer to as “civil society,” were directly involved in this mini storm. I will call them the “civil elite” as I deem this definition more to be accurate. This story – starting from the adoption of new amendments to the Law on Broadcasting down to parliament’s inability to appoint a new board of trustees – is a failed project of the civil elite. Whenever a project falls through, one should analyze the mistakes that were made and draw out lessons. In such a case, failures may even prove beneficial.

What was the main mistake in this instance? The civil elite expressed its indignation about bad politicians who thwarted its generous undertaking. Emotionally, this reaction is understandable. However, this is not the way to learn from one’s own mistakes.

In my opinion, the idea of drafting new legislative amendments and, based on these, creating a new board of trustees was faulty from the outset and it is very good that it fell through. It rested on a fundamentally wrong perception of what should ensure the independence of the public broadcaster. I do not question that the reformers pursued generous aims, but this is a classic instance of wanting the best but ending up with the worst. It is also true that the GPB was already in a bad state of affairs for other reasons, but if we want to learn, we must analyze the mistakes anyway.

How can the public broadcaster become independent?

I have previously stated that attempts to “de-politicize” the GPB (which is usually equalized to its independence) are futile, and I will repeat this again here. An absolutely apolitical public broadcaster is a chimera, whilst attempts to achieve that resemble a search for the philosophers’ stone. The GPB must be run by someone in the name of society and the only body that legitimately represents society is parliament. Parliament was created with the very aim of pursuing politics. No matter what kind of formulas we invent, parliament cannot take an apolitical decision in principle. Parliament may, however, restrict itself with laws or prohibit itself from appointing members of a political party to the Board of Trustees of the GPB. This is correct, but it does not solve the problem: nominees for the board of trustees will each have their own political sympathies and antipathies and parliamentarians will view them exactly in this light. It would be ideal to appoint such members to the board who are equally acceptable to both the government and the opposition, but this is something I can hardly imagine in our political climate.

What should we do then? Should we put up with an idea that will bear no fruit? Or should we privatize the public broadcaster and put an end to all this? The latter option is possible, but not necessary. A public broadcaster can be quite independent from government pressure (is that not something we want?), and examples of that can be found. To achieve this aim, the rules for the selection of the board of trustees are not decisive (though they certainly count). The key thing is that the government should have fewer levers of influence on the new board than it has on the existing board. The board should also not be able to have a director, whom it itself appointed, to play to its tune (this is for the ears of those who lamented that the board “lacked levers”).

This is a classic instance of wanting the best but ending up with the worst.

How can this be achieved? Legislative mechanisms are important. First and foremost among these is the rule for defining the budget of the public broadcaster. Parliament must not have discretion to determine the public broadcaster’s funding: the amount must be determined by a formula provided by law. Moreover, it must be very difficult to replace the elected board and, in turn, the board must find it very difficult to replace the director. These preventive measures have been in effect since 2004. However, nothing is absolute: if the government does not like the editorial policy of the broadcaster, it can just change the law, can it not? In this case, however, the government’s desire to have a public broadcaster that suits its tastes soon becomes apparent.

Legislative guarantees are important, but they are not enough. The independence of the broadcaster must be established in practice. Its audience, the political class and the management and employees of the broadcaster must each get used to the idea that this entity is not a means of government propaganda. This is a relatively lengthy process and it is important that landmark precedents be set that clearly show that the rules of the game have really changed.

Why was the involvement of the civil elite faulty?

For democracy in general, such landmark precedents are first and foremost set with the change of power. For example, in 2012, power in Georgia changed within the framework of the law for the first time. If this practice takes root; if the political class and the electorate come to realize that it is possible to change government only through elections, and not through other ways; if such a concept becomes ordinary and the idea of revolutionary overthrow becomes confined to the minds of marginals alone – this will mean that electoral democracy has been established (researchers call this the “consolidation” of democracy).

But this is not enough. For democracy to be deemed as having been established, it is necessary that the change in power is not followed by a change in everything else. True, the parliamentary majority and the cabinet of ministers will be new, but the courts, local self-governments, and the national bank – let alone the media, businesses and so on and so forth – must all continue their operations as usual. Such precedents actually establish and strengthen liberal democracy. The events that unfolded after the 2012 parliamentary elections must also be assessed in this very light.

The same logic applies to the public broadcaster. A landmark precedent for the GPB becoming independent would have been the government being unable to exert decisive influence on it, i.e. being unable to replace its leadership. The question of how “good” the previous board was is of secondary importance: any such judgments about people are always subjective (and, by the way, political too). Keeping the previous board under the new government would have made us get used to the idea that the GPB was politically independent.

Let me remind those admirers of international precedents that the current government of Hungary is accused of backsliding on democracy and one of the first complaints towards the government of Viktor Orban is that after coming to power he tried to change the leadership of the public broadcaster.

I am not surprised about the Georgian government’s attempt to subject the GPB to its will: every government wishes to expand its power and would pursue this aim if nothing were to prevent them from doing so. In this particular case, the government was prevented from doing so by the law that prohibited parliament from replacing the existing board until the expiry of its tenure. What option was the government then left with? To change the law. This does not seem to be a problem if you hold the majority in parliament.

The paradox is that it was precisely that group that considers itself as the champions of democracy that assisted the government in realizing this intention: the amendment of the law was initiated by the civil elite. Why? I will refrain from hypothesizing about direct political instruction and prefer to think that the initiators were driven by generous aims. But I was unable to hear any serious argument about why the change of law was necessary. Assumedly, the initiators were driven by a stereotypical (and fundamentally wrong) opinion: if something is not the way we want it to be, let’s change the law and everything will be fine. Moreover, if we want to have a good public broadcaster, we must bring good people into its board. That is how the new legislative amendments were created.

Yet another paradox is that the government started dealing with the GPB without even amending the law. All of a sudden, members of the existing board discovered, one after another, that they either no longer had time for this activity or their health did not allow them to continue with it. This rendered the existing board inoperative even under the un-amended law, thereby giving parliament the chance to replace it. One can only guess those methods the government applied in order to achieve this overthrow, but there is little reasonable doubt that those members of the board that resigned received offers that they were unable to refuse. The assistance from civil society proved unnecessary: assumedly, the GPB was dealt with by applying thuggish methods.

This sad story can be summarized like this: the civil elite, nolens volens, became an accomplice in the government’s project to gain political control over the GPB. The law drafted and advocated by the civil elite proved to be stillborn in two senses: first, the government was able to do its job of rendering the previous board inoperative without it; second, parliament openly opposed the formula provided in the law that it itself adopted. However, the brave and principled civil elite did not utter even a single word in protest when unacceptable methods were applied to tame the existing board (as it comprised of “bad people”).

Political profile of the civil elite

What was the root cause of the mistake? I have already mentioned one: a large segment of the civil elite has a very superficial understanding of the essence of democracy in general, and in particular, about what can ensure the (relative) independence of the GPB. The self-perception of the civil elite, that it exists in a supra-political space where only sacred values (democracy, human rights) have importance, is also a problem. Such a fantasy prevents them from realizing their true place in society and, consequently, from seeing the correct strategy of action. They then express their sincere (or perhaps not so sincere?) surprise about parliament not voting in favor of such “good” people.

The civil elite is indeed “non-political” insofar as it has no direct obligations to the government or the opposition. Nonetheless, as a rule, it has clear-cut attitudes towards various political actors, which inevitably become manifested in their evaluations and actions, which, in turn, can influence the political field. Besides, if the civil elite wants to gain any margin of concrete control, it must engage in cooperation or conflict with political actors.

The minority of the parliamentary majority needs some sort of support base aside from Ivanishvili’s disposition. The civil elite offers exactly such a base.

In short, describing the civil elite as apolitical neutrals is largely wrong. The largest segment of it does not even hide the fact that it prefers the new government to the old one. One of the reasons for that is simple: the civil elite is better treated now. The Georgian Dream government has enough sense to be courteous and not turn the civil elite into its foe (even when it makes the government lose its nerve). This is in stark contrast to the arrogance of the government of the United National Movement, whose attitude, if expressed in a concise form, would be: “what's it to you?” The correct policy of the Georgian Dream attains its aim: although non-governmental organizations criticize it too, they do so in a more measured manner than they did with the previous government; never forgetting the key messages that the current government certainly beats its predecessor and that since 1 October 2012 things are getting much better.

However, boiling everything down to this alone is incorrect. Pragmatic interests converge with sincere hopes. Declarations of political neutrality are hypocritical, first of all because the absolute majority of “neutrals” apparently have their favorite political heavyweights – not the Georgian Dream as a whole, but its Republican Party and/or Free Democrats segments, or, to be more precise, Davit Usupashvili and Irakli Alasania, respectively. This enables them to keep their distance from the Georgian Dream and yet, at the same time, support it. On the other hand, these political parties make up the minority of the parliamentary majority and only remain part of the leading coalition owing to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s good will. It is obvious that they are both overtly and covertly attacked by mainstream Dreamers who loath their coalition-mates and call them spies of the United National Movement. The minority of the parliamentary majority thus needs some sort of support base aside from Ivanishvili’s disposition. The civil elite offers exactly such a base. From the standpoint of electoral politics, this is not a large base, but its media support can certainly ensure some degree of this. In return, the chairperson of parliament, Davit Usupashvili, does everything he can to give civil initiatives a fair chance. The interests of the civil elite and the minority of the majority are interwoven (which does not exclude that their values and views coincide).

A new Board of Trustees for the GPB was a joint project of Davit Usupashvili and the civil elite. The mainstream Dreamers easily figured out their plot and the majority of the parliamentary majority thus rebelled against Usupashvili, the chairperson who had been imposed upon them, and prevented him from fulfilling the plan. What else should they have expected?

This final opinion is not a criticism directed at anyone. Georgian civil society engaged in a political game and lost. Whilst it is normal for civil society to seek political allies, the problem is that it does so wrongly. Its posture of being outside politics throws it into bad politics.


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