ALL THE PRESIDENT'S HACKS

by Petar Popdimitrov; photography by BTA

Bulgaria's 'independent' media might have been rendered leaderless as a result of a minor flying incident

georgi parvanov_0.jpg

The news was dramatic enough: At the end of January, the airplane President Georgi Parvanov and his retinue were flying in made an unscheduled landing in the Azores. It later turned out to have been caused by a minor flying incident. Bulgaria's free press reacted with lightning speed. Suppositions about what had caused the landing mushroomed. Thousands of faithful citizens appeared to be holding their breath in front of TV screens and morning tabloids (no broadsheets in Bulgaria any more) waiting for the latest news about the failed state visit.

You may think the job of any proper reporter is to report quickly, accurately and in a balanced way, unlike the days gone by when, under Communism, all news was censored. Then such an incident might have gone completely unreported.

You are absolutely right - especially when you realise that all the reporters onboard were in fact the “top pens” in this country - the chief or deputy chief editors of most of Bulgaria's now “free” press.

But what were these people doing sitting in the same airplane as the Bulgarian head of state?

Democracy has changed many things in Bulgaria, including of course the press. There is no official censorship, and instead of bringing in a law about print media, a succession of governments has chosen to let the press govern itself through an ethical code, modelled on British and other Western examples. Free trips and dinners, however, do not seem to be a matter of ethical concern, at least not when they are provided by the politicians in power. In the days of Communism, top journalists and editors were appointed by the Party which thus ensured they toed its line. Nowadays, no party appoints anyone, at least not directly - but both reporters and publishers willingly accept free rides and lunches from those in power. The former know that any trip abroad is better than none, and the latter realise that lucrative advertising contracts will follow. Whether this influences journalistic judgment is as good a guess as any, and is best determined by looking at the copy being produced.

There are many explanations. For one, journalists in Bulgaria are generally underpaid (as indeed is everyone else except those related to Russian oil and gas projects). A trip abroad, especially in the security and obvious non-newsworthiness of a state visit to Mexico, is considered a perk for good performance rather than yet another hacking job.

Few media, including the foreign-owned newspapers, would opt to pay for their reporters' foreign trips if they were offered a ride in the government Tu-154 instead.

And there is the sense of pride that you have been chosen among many others to be put in the same plane as the president. No one would doubt a journalist's integrity just because of the kickback.

Of course, there is the positive aspect as well. Had the hacks not been in Parvanov's plane, the public would have been deprived of the phone calls and text messages informing them of the latest developments in the trenches. In this way the men and women responsible for providing fast and accurate information to the public fully lived up to their job descriptions. Maybe the BBC should reconsider its guidelines and let its reporters accept free rides from Gordon Brown?

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