The fact that the EU uses taxpayers’ money to promote its own reputation in the media is concerning enough. It is doubly so when public funds go to shape the coverage of religious publications - and the views of schoolchildren.
The EU aims to advance development and diminish economic inequality between its 28 member nations through the EU Structural Funds program. The Polish government is now funding media outlets to print stories that will promote these funds and, in the process, the EU’s image and reputation. This phenomenon is more worrying when the beneficiaries are religious media outlets, such as Catholic publications, which we would expect to hand on the teachings of the faith free from political influence.
Promoting the EU
This funding came to light when Poland’s Ministry of Development recently announced the results of a competition, which awarded Polish government grants to the media in exchange for their agreement to publish “information regarding European Funds.” The Ministry said the aim of the competition was to “finance the best projects popularizing the subject of European Funds,” of which Poland is a net recipient. In all, it awarded 2,896,636 zlotys ($781,321 U.S.) in grants for these “informational” actions.
Every step away from limited government, accountability, and transparency is a step backwards in the long march to create a thriving and virtuous society.
The recipients represented diverse viewpoints. The grants were awarded to newspapers, websites, and news agencies – both those who supported and those who criticized the government. Its beneficiaries included two leading web portals (which received $130,460 and $88,801, respectively), three leading Polish dailies (which were awarded similar amounts), as well as tabloids and weekly magazines. The projects that were awarded the highest sums of money were: “Woman in the World of EU Funds” ($127,973), “New Perspectives – New Possibilities” ($87,107), “About the EU Funds” ($107,427), “Pulse of EU Funds” ($112,589), “European Funds - practically" ($107,893).
It is hard to justify spending taxpayers’ money on publicity campaigns that promote applying for more taxpayer-funded grants. Furnishing public money to private-owned media could easily make the media dependent upon the government and calls into question their objectivity.
Catholic media paid to promote EU funds
One of the beneficiaries was Poland's most-read weekly magazine, a generally conservative Catholic periodical that received $38,945 U.S. Aside from the power of government influence over the media, this grant raises additional moral questions. To what extent can religious media maintain their objectivity and independence if they receive government funding? Can this magazine be free to present objective truth about the negative aspects of European programs? It seems clear that any recipient, especially one that willingly entered a contest with such clear-cut goals as this one, would be inclined toward favorable coverage. The funding would also increase the pressure for any other religious publisher who wants to maintain his publication’s position in the market vis-à-vis his competitors, who are now supported by state agencies. Can a Catholic newspaper that does not accept public money compete in the free market against other periodicals that do receive taxpayer funding? In this way, public institutions that fund private media coverage create massive market distortions.
There are similar contests for Polish schoolchildren. Young people are asked to create a comic book, song, or board game praising the EU structural funds to get a tablet, a video game console, etc. It is not difficult to imagine whole schools in poorer regions of Poland involved in such an activity - or the impact that this may have on the political, social, and economic beliefs of these youngsters in the future. For those who have an experience of living under a communist regime, the idea of creating songs praising the government certainly calls to mind children being forced to sing songs or recite poetry praising socialism.
Polish or European Television?
The pro-EU viewpoint is also emphasized on Poland’s publicly funded television and radio network, TVP (short for Telewizja Polska, or “Polish Television”). TVP, by law, is intended to offer programming
characterized by pluralism, objectivity, balance and independence … and integrity of message.” This optimistic assessment is often not fulfilled during its coverage of the EU.
Polish national media portray EU structural funds as the determining factor in the nation’s development and economic well-being. This coverage comes despite the fact that the net impact of EU structural funds on the economy is, at best, unclear. No causal relationship between those funds and the development has been proven; data seem to indicate real harms that go unmentioned.
Nonetheless, the coverage remains remarkably one-sided. According to the EU Funds Portal, during one week – between Saturday, July 18 and Friday, July 24 – TVP broadcast 25 different programs promoting EU funds, and another five were broadcast over a private nationwide radio chain. The titles of the broadcasts have nothing to do with innovation – one of the funds’ stated goals. Their slogans – such as “A more beautiful Poland in the EU” and “Europe is us” – rather remind viewers of the Soviet-style propaganda slogans that were plastered around Eastern European cities during the postwar period.
Celebrations of EU funding are ubiquitous
European structural funds are often used to promote the European Union’s reputation. Virtually everything financed by these funds must be publicly marked as such. Large-scale investment such as roads or buildings must bear a plate stating that the investment was co-financed by EU funds. While citizens of EU are used to these omnipresent signs, visitors from overseas may be surprised by their sheer quantity. The plate usually contains the amount of money invested by the owner and the amount of the EU funding.
This information is often incomplete and not objective. Investments financed by the local or national authorities like schools, roads, or hospitals are not marked. This creates an imbalance that may give the impression that society owes more to the EU than the national government, which seems to be doing little to improve their lives.
The media’s moral problem
The main, stated goal of EU structural funds is to stimulate the economic growth of less developed member-states. In practice, these funds tend to harm entrepreneurship. More recently, they have been used as a means of wielding political influence over recipient countries. In this context, another hidden aim of this mechanism of redistribution is becoming clear: the funds serve to promote the EU paternalism over its more recent members. These public funds, intended to stoke private investment, are being used for other purposes.
Another official aim of the EU structural funds is to diminish economic disparities between European countries. A society that decides to redistribute a part of its revenue should prize transparency. The U.S. Conference of Bishops said in 1998 that all Christians, and especially their flock, should ask themselves every day, “How can we best carry the values of our faith into family life, the market place, and the public square?” Commenting on this, Bridget Lyons and Lucjan Orlowski of the business school at Sacred Heart University wrote that accurate information is an indispensable prerequisite:
A synergy between information sharing and a social engagement of individuals results in active participation and contribution of people to institutional development. It further promotes mutual understanding and social functioning on the basis of truth, not deception.
Citizens who see the government using their taxes, not for their stated purpose, but for the promotion of ever-larger government are more likely to withdraw from public engagement altogether. They may come to perceive their own country as foreign body, leading to a populist backlash against constitutional order. Every step away from limited government, accountability, and transparency is a step backwards in the long march to create a thriving and virtuous society.
(Photo credit: Public domain. CC0.)