Whither Turkey’s fourth estate?
May 1, 2013
Once again, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to single-handedly dictate Turkey’s agenda, this time with comments made last weekend suggesting that ayran, rather than the alcoholic rakı, should be considered Turkey’s “national drink.” It was only the latest in the long list of examples demonstrating the same unfortunate point, which has become increasingly obvious throughout the current peace negotiations. Another little-mentioned illustration of the government’s authority over the media came early last month, when Erdoğan was asked at a press conference to comment on the sentencing of Fazıl Say, a day after the famous pianist was handed a 10-month jail term for tweeting anti-Islamic Omar Khayyam couplets. He simply brushed off the question, responding: “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” With hardly a voice of protest from those reporting the event, the prime minister was thus able to completely avoid answering a question on an awkward issue, despite the fact that it had grabbed headlines in both the domestic and international media. The episode chillingly highlighted not only the complacent mentality of the ruling authorities in Turkey, but also the necessary obsequiousness of the reporters attending the press conference. As fellow Turkey-watcher Aaron Stein has tweeted, Erdoğan “is the sun around which the Turkish media rotates.”
In a column written last December, the late Mehmet Ali Birand admonished his colleagues for asking genuflectory questions to elected officials. The examples he gave were as follows:
“Esteemed Prime Minister, you have an extremely correct Middle East policy. Are you going to take new steps in the next term?
“Esteemed Prime Minister, I also believe that the presidential system will solve Turkey’s problems. I know you also want this. Do you know why the opposition opposes it?
“You want to change the structure of the U.N. It’s true that the U.N. has a very anti-democratic structure. The vetoes of the five countries should be overcome. Do European leaders support you in this democratic demand of yours?”
As Birand went on to write, “Questions of this tone do not suit journalism. You are journalists. You do not need to butter up the PM. Your duty is to ask questions impartially and without losing your manners. Please don’t forget this.” Unfortunately, with a high-profile newspaper firing seeming to come every other week in Turkey, it’s hardly surprising that Birand’s words seem to have gone on deaf ears.
The situation in Turkey is worth comparing to the one prevailing these days in the U.K. Erdoğan’s casual batting away of the Fazıl Say question immediately contrasted in my mind with a now-infamous interview with London Mayor Boris Johnson that aired on BBC television last month. The interview coincided with the broadcast of an admiring Sunday evening documentary focusing on Johnson, but interviewer Eddie Mair pulled no punches, relentlessly posing uncomfortable questions about the London mayor’s integrity and previous professional misdemeanors. The exchange ended with Mair calling Johnson a “nasty piece of work,” while the latter simply squirmed in his seat opposite and offered barely a word of protest. He seemed to implicitly agree that this is what interviewers are there to do.
Viewed from Turkey, where reporters at news conferences feel obliged to “go soft” on whichever government figure is presented to them, the U.K.’s no-nonsense approach naturally seems healthier. But I’m not sure that either is flattered by the comparison. I really don’t want to be witness for the defense for politicians, but I’m suspicious of the pseudo-robust questioning demonstrated by some in the British media whenever an elected official is placed in front of them. There’s a hysterical, arm-waving phoniness about it, something forced and artificial; as if holding power to account is about little more than treating elected officials with barely concealed contempt, asking reductive yes/no questions, and then not waiting for an answer. I’d suggest that this is simply one unhappy symptom of the dangerous cynicism felt by an increasing number of Brits about the entire political process.
Needless to say, a robust and properly-functioning fourth estate is crucial for the health of any democracy. While the situation in the U.K. on this issue is certainly preferable to that in Turkey, it’s fair to say that neither gets the balance exactly right.