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Battle over Romanian National Television (TVR): Social Democratic Party (PSD) can only win if they change their tough attitude

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Translation of the article written by Iulian Comanescu, published on the portal comanescu.ro on March 28, 2016

The battle for the role of president-general manager (PGM) of Romania’s public television network (TVR) has begun last week; it’s a case which perfectly illustrates the control the political class exerts over the public network. Depending on the result of tomorrow’s vote, we will be able to talk either of maintaining the status quo or the beginning of the depoliticization of the institution.

A short recapitulation, for the better understanding of the circumstances: last Wednesday, after having been approved by the Parliament, the new Administrative Board (AB) surprised everyone by voting for an outsider named George Orbean, a representative of the Government, to be appointed as PGM, in spite of predictions that favoured insider Irina Radu of the Social Democrats (PSD), expectedly supported by the party. PSD representatives grilled George Orbea at the hearings of the Culture Commissiona, after which the same party blocked his appointment as PGM in the plenary, simply walking out before the vote, leaving the National Liberals (PNL) and the others unable to act in the absence of the quorum.

The hostility of the social democrats was self-evident in their blocking the plenary vote and the exchange that happened in the Commission hearings, where Georgică Severin, president of the Commission for Culture and Mass Media of the Senate, set the tone. What would PSD gain from the appointment of Irina Radu?

The response to this question could encompass all the speculations about the politicization of the TVR, in a year with two electoral campaigns, and the access to the institution’s resources. Although TVR is in great financial distress at the moment, the palliative solution of insolvency, increasingly likely, is equal to tens or millions of Euros being made available for current expenses, however there is no guarantee that they will be spent more efficiently and in accordance with the public network’s mission.

But, all speculation aside, PSD and its leader, Liviu Dragnea, seem to have taken the surprise vote in support of Orbean as an offence, which is the definite and up to date explanation of the whole situation. Dragnea’s tendency to control the party down to the smallest detail is clear enough, and the fact that Georgică Severin became vocal in a context such as the leadership of the TVR is a telltale sign. Severin is involved in another ballgame as well, namely that of separating the roles of president-general manager of the television and the public radio network, through a legislative initiative which well informed sources claim aims to restrain the powers of Ovidiu Miculescu, PGM of the Radio and survivor of former prime minister Ponta’s regime.

The background of the situation also includes the attitude of current prime minister Cioloș, who appointed Orbean for the Administrative Board. Both in public, as well as in a meeting with the members of the Parliament, he refused to offer concrete help, like clearing TVR’s debt to the state, doubting the legality of such financial support and especially whether rescuing the institution would offer any guarantee that things wouldn’t head towards the same kind of financial catastrophe: a debt of 150 million Euros at the end of 2014. Orbean inherited some of Parliament’s hostility towards Cioloș, also caused by interest of the social democrats in reminding the current technocratic government of its circumstantial nature.

Thus, we have a PSD united around the support for Irina Radu, interim president-general manager of TVR and so far politically neutral TV producer, but who has been branded with the party precisely by what happened last week. If, by any chance, she becomes PGM of the institution, Irina Radu will suffer the consequences of the brutality with which PSD handled the situation. And she won’t be the only one, as TVR can become the weapon which PSD opponents use against the party, regardless of its de facto behaviour during the campaign.

But what is in fact better for TVR? In order to tell, we would first have to take a look at Orbean’s and Radu’s resumes. The latter is a former TVR employee, with a few years spent at Kanal D in its beginnings, when the Turkish station launched a massive local celebrity acquisition campaign, which ended with substantial losses and small ratings. We also know that she organized a couple of editions of The Golden Stag Festival (Cerbul de Aur) in the early 2000s, and was a member of the Administrative Board of TVR. In 2013, under Claudiu Săftoiu and then Stelian Tănase, she became program director of a network left without any programs as a result of the austerity measures. I

don’t know her very well, we’ve only met a few times, but in my opinion what recommends her most are the frequent warnings voiced about TVR’s situation while she temporarily headed the institution after Stelian Tănase left.

George Orbean has an entirely different story. We should overlook many parliamentarians’ jabs at him about his dropping out of Spiru Haret University, considering many of their colleagues and bosses drape themselves in plagiarized PhDs, and take a look at Orbean’s career in the private sector. After filling various roles at networks such as PRO TV, Realitatea TV in its hey day or the beginnings of Prima TV, Orbean built two televisions from scratch: Jurnal TV in Chișinău and Digi24 Bucharest. I know Orbean a lot better, we’ve crossed paths in Chișinău and I know how difficult it is to build something there. I already spoke about Digi24 and, from what Orbean was saying at the time, what is noteworthy is his obsession for neutrality, factuality and more generally a TV rhetoric which differs from the histeria of so-called news stations, who have lately become increasingly propagandistic and tabloidized.

On paper, from my standpoint, Orbean is much closer to the manager that TVR needs, provided he would manage to stay sane after two months spend in a catatonic institution.

But, if the Parliament votes against Orbean on Tuesday, the consideration of a third name will not be excluded. Regardless of its PGM, after TVR becomes insolvent, the new Administrative Board will have limited responsibilities. A great deal of its prerogatives will be assigned to the judicial administrator, who will have to put together something resembling a business plan. And this means that names which have been circulated, the likes of Gheorghe Piperea or Remus Borza, will eventually become talking points. In fact, the political class (PSD right now, but generally all parties at some poiny in the history of TVR) have a lot fewer reasons to maintain a strict control of TVR than appears at first sigh). Have you turned on TVR 1 at 20:00 lately? The news is somewhat outdated, objectionable, but it can be watched. The last censorship scandals happened in the spring of 2014. It was about TVR 3 not broadcasting an interview with the then-president Traian Băsescu, produced by TVR Timișoara, and blocking a documentary called Clandestine inheritance (Moștenirea clandestină) on TVR Moldova, which had been produced by Monica Ghiurco, voted by employees to the new AB of TVR. But, the censorship debate aside, which remains important as a matter of principle, it is suggestive that it revolves around seemingly negligible matters relative to the hot topics of the day and TVR 1, the only channel of the network which still garners a significant audience in 2016.

TVR 1, the first channel of the public network, had an average rating of 0.8 points in 2015, four times smaller than that of PRO TV. With its astronomical losses and monumental organizational chart, there’s a lot less propaganda at stake in TVR right now than there was during the time of former PM Adrian Năstase. PSD is making a huge mistake by creating a hype around the PGM much bigger than any benefits it might reap in both of this year’s electoral campaigns even from the most subservient PGM of a public television. Aside from sinecures and the cash cow status TVR has in the clientelist system, the only stake the political class has in the public network is precisely its depoliticization. The Cioloș government understood this and assigned a non-partisan representative and refused to offer financial support. The hard line toed by PSD shows precisely the fact that it is losing its footing.

Technically, PSD has enough representatives to invalidate George Orbean as PGM on Tuesday’s vote. Practically, it remains to be seen how party discipline works and whether the Social Democrats will perhaps understand that they have pushed things too far.

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UPDATE

On the 29th of March, George Orbean was rejected by the Parliament, as 206 voted against and 185 for. The Administration Board gathered the second day in order to propose another candidate. On 10th of May, the Parliament voted for Irina Radu as president – general manager with 304 votes for and 8 against. The proposal of the Board, Monica Ghiurco, was rejected by the comissions.

The liberals contested the vote, as the social democrats didn’t follow the law and announced that they will contest the decision at the Constitutional Court.

 

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