Tilting at Windmills
When I was invited to appear as a right-wing columnist on Dutch public broadcasting corporation NPS' main Sunday politics show Buitenhof my friends had warned me that it was a recipe for disaster.
Surely they couldn't be right, I argued.
After all, NPS is a taxpayer-funded corporation whose charter clearly states that its news broadcasts must to be representative of all legitimate political persuasions. And besides, the editorial board's decision to hire me had been "unanimous". Or at least, that's what Buitenhof editor-in-chief Corinne Hegeman told me three or four times when she phoned me to tell me I'd landed the job.
I was therefore full of optimism as I reported for duty for my first column in March 2007. Sure, there were a few glitches. They said they didn't have the money to pay for my television training. But then you can't be too careful about spending taxpayers' money, right?
True, I only got two minutes of speaking time whereas both my leftist counterpart D√©sanne van Brederode and my predecessor, the Social Democrat Ronald Plasterk (who left the show to become a cabinet minister in the new Dutch government) both got three minutes. But I was confident there was a sensible explanation for that one too. 'Remember', I kept telling myself, 'it was a "unanimous" decision. Have a little faith.'
And so I tried to believe. It wasn't made any easier, however, when Hegeman told me my first column was just "not suited" for their show. Not suited? Why not? Was it because of the rhetoric? Yes, it was hard hitting, but it was hardly Ann Coulter.
Or was the problem content-related? That could be. In my column I deliberately targeted a progressive icon -- Pieter Broertjes, the editor of Holland's biggest left-wing newspaper, de Volkskrant. Just days before the general elections, he published a false report about the torturing of Iraqi prisoners by Dutch soldiers - a blatant attempt at election-rigging, if ever there was one.
Using this and other examples, I attacked the hypocrisy of journalists who used their media outlets to attack conservative politicians and policies, only to seek cover behind their journalist badges when there were attacked in return: "Don't hit me, I'm a journalist! I'm not a party to this debate, I'm only covering it."
Maybe the show's editor didn't like me attacking her leftwing friends? No no, I told myself, that can't be it. They had specifically hired me for my rightwing views. "Unanimous", remember? I figured I knew little about television, about what makes it tick. Maybe some subjects work there and others don't. So I decided to be flexible.
Alarm bells first started ringing when, in preparing for my next column, Hegeman invited me to an impromptu crisis meeting an hour or so before the broadcast.
The column was an attack on the idea of a double 'Cordon Sanitaire' against the leftwing Socialist Party of Jan Marijnissen and the rightwing Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. Together, these two parties scored as high as 30 percent in recent polls. For established parties to exclude them both on a permanent basis from any governing coalition (aka a 'Cordon Sanitaire') would make a mockery of the democratic process. And, I suggested, there's no need to do so because "Geert Wilders isn't a fascist and Jan Marijnissen isn't a communist." Editor-in-chief Hegeman seemed shocked by this statement: "Wilders isn't a fascist? Are you serious?"
I was astounded, but I managed to keep my cool. Yes, I explained, I was being serious. He's an old-fashioned rightwing conservative populist √† la Pat Buchanan. That's something completely different from a fascist.
"But surely he's at least a racist?", she continued.
I was caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, this was bias at its worst. But on the other hand it wasn't enough to justify any dramatic moves on my part. I could hardly resign over a single sentence. After all, its removal didn't materially alter the column's message. Any claims of censorship just wouldn't stack up. If I wanted to make that case, I needed solid proof. And more than anything, I needed more time, time to think things over, time to come up with an effective strategy.
My next column was an attack on the pretend-solidarity of the Socialist Party leadership. It claimed to be on the side of the oppressed but in practice always sided with dictators, provided these dictators opposed the United States. Hegeman didn't like it. At all.
As she herself put it, she "just didn't agree".
'And if I insist?' I asked.
"Well, then we have a serious problem," she replied. There it was, censorship raising its ugly head.
Now what was I going to do? I'd spent the weeks in between columns two and three thinking about that question. An obvious choice was to blow my top and hand in my resignation. But the more I thought about it, the more I was persuaded that there was a better way. I wasn't going to get mad. I was going to get even. I was given a unique chance to show the Dutch viewing audience what really went on behind the scenes of Dutch public broadcasting's flagship current affairs program, and I wasn't about to walk away from it.
Where there had been merely speculation regarding bias, I was going to bring facts - cold hard facts, and plenty of them. From then on, every banned column, every politically correct statement, every e-mail, all the minutes from editorial meetings: every scrap of evidence would be filed, for use in a tell-all undercover story about leftwing bias and censorship in taxpayer-funded public broadcasting.
If a serious problem is what Hegeman wanted, a serious problem she was going to get.
In the execution of my plan, I was ably (though as far as he or she was concerned unwittingly) assisted by Buitenhof's own version of Deep Throat, a member of the editorial board who gave me off-the-record briefings about editorial board discussions. One of the things Deep Throat revealed to me was what a dog fight it had been to get a right-winger like me appointed in the first place.
Apparently, the board had been deeply divided on the subject. Some members didn't much like the idea of a rightwing columnist like me joining their nice, clean-cut progressive outfit.
"Unanimous"? Think again.
My decision not to walk out straight away was vindicated in the week of my fifth column. It was the weekend of the fifth anniversary of the murder of Pim Fortuyn, whose calls for immigration reform led to him being murdered by an animal rights extremist. Initially the deputy editor, Jan van Friesland, and I had agreed I wasn't going to speak on that subject. He was planning a separate item on the issue, with guests in the studio to discuss Fortuyn's impact on Dutch politics and society.
Doing a column on the same subject just didn't make sense. But by Friday afternoon Van Friesland had changed his mind: Fortuyn was no longer on the menu for Sunday's show, and so he wondered whether I would be willing to write a "really provocative column" on the same subject. Well, I was, and so on Saturday evening I sent him a new text called "The shots came from the left". In it I showed that not just Fortuyn's murder but nearly all acts of terrorism committed in the European Union in recent years were perpetrated by left-wing extremists. I concluded with a warning to politicians on the left not to legitimize such acts of terrorism with careless words or half-hearted quasi-denunciations.
Late on Saturday evening, I received a phone call from Van Friesland. He said he thought it was a good column, but he warned me to tread carefully: "With a program like ours, with its left-wing audience, you've got to remember: leftist columnists will be praised even for third-rate efforts. Right-leaning columnists have to be much more conspicuous in the way they operate." Right now, he suggested, reading out this column just wouldn't be a good idea. Better switch to a safer option. I gladly jotted all of this down in my notebook.
Based on the flood of complaints the program routinely received in the hours after the show, by the way, I wonder whether the editors really know what makes their own audience tick. The e-mails all complain of similar issues: biased, leftwing presenters, and a biased, leftwing editorial policy, with a clear preference for guests and issues on the left.
Looking at the statistics for the four months I was involved with the program, I can only say the e-mails understate the extent of the problems. I looked at the period between the beginning of March (when I was first hired) and the end of June (when my contract was terminated). In that period, the editors invited nearly twice as many liberal guests as conservative ones - 23 versus 14. Among government ministers, the bias was even more obvious. Five different ministers from the governing left-of-center Social Democrat party appeared on the show. And from their coalition partners, the right-of-center Christian Democrats? Not a single one.
By the end of the season, I had all the evidence I needed. So when after my final column I was told that the editors had decided that "unfortunately" my efforts would no longer be required next season, I sprang into action.
I phoned my editor at Holland's largest circulation newspaper, the solidly conservative De Telegraaf (I write the foreign affairs column there). Within a matter of minutes, we hatched a two-part plan.
Stage one was a hard-hitting column combined with front-page splash in which I revealed the censorship and political bias with which I'd been confronted during my time at the program. With their response inevitably focusing on my not meeting their exacting standards (what else could they say? They were hardly going to admit to being biased), I was then going to use phase two to leak minutes of editorial board meetings and e-mails from individual editors which refuted that claim.
The minutes were always brief, but what little they did mention was invariably favorable. One column was called 'funny', another 'good', a third 'nice and short, forceful'. E-mails from individual editors were equally supportive. "Nice column! I completely agree!", editor Barbara Coolen wrote about one of them. "Good analysis, good subject," was Van Friesland's comment on another one.
By the time these quotes - as well as the censored columns, which I offered to a newly founded Dutch conservative magazine called Opinio (www.opinio.nu) - had made their way through the Dutch blogosphere, it was "game over" for Buitenhof. What started with a minor problem - getting rid of an unwanted columnist whose views just didn't fit in with the cozy progressive consensus - ended in a week from hell: Members of Parliament asking questions about censorship in public broadcasting, newspaper editorials and columnists rounding on the Buitenhof editors, inboxes filling up with e-mails from members of the public complaining about the misappropriation of their tax money, and the management of NPS and its sister station NOS being forced publicly to defend themselves against charges of bias.
So, you ask, at the end of all this, do I feel good about what I've done? Good? I feel great! And would I do it all again exactly the same way I've done it now?
You bet I would.
Somehow, though, I think that, after all this, the NPS are unlikely to invite me back for one of their shows. Well, for those of us fighting for a truly "fair and balanced" public debate in the Netherlands, that's a price we're more than willing to pay.