Friday, 20 January 2012

Money for new rope

Refraining from commenting on public TV, private unsubsidised TV companies have a great appetite for news channels. From the small amount I see, Poland's best at the moment is TVN 24, but I was interested to see from that "a new popular television news channel" is being opened by the Super Express newspaper company. (If they would like a name suggestion, I propose S Ex News'.)

A fun station full of muck raking, distorted stories, inventive journalism and loads of smut would be great and an extension and enhancement to Polish tradition. I was surprise at how little it costs, even though it is described as: 'Benbenek made no secret that that project requires immense investment. “The launching of the channel alone will cost over 10 million zloty [2 million euro],” he acknowledged.' A lot for the company, but not a large sum in today's media world.

The worlds of private and public finance are, of course, very different. The next thing on was the announcement of the opening of "a new music centre" in Kielce at a cost of 15 million euros. I had to check that sum, but it seems to be about right. How can opening a private TV station costs as little as 2 million euros, whilst opening a concert hall costs 15 million?

The Kielce 'music centre' is the International Cultural Centre, the new home of the Świętokrzyskie Philharmonic Orchestra. (Click here for some nicer pictures From Gazeta Wyborcza, Kielce.)

I used to know someone in Kielce who, over a few beers, gave the impression that he ran the Orchestra, although when we went to listen to a (dull) concert he just seemed to play the cello. ("Six [new] pieces by contemporary Polish composers", as played at the International Cultural Centre, would, whtehr good or bad, at least have been interesting. The Orchestra was then playing in the Kielce Cultural Centre, which needed some internal renovation and tidying up, but seemed fine. It still looks much the same from the photos on their website. Miles Davis, a statue on the lower right, is something of a local obsession.

The International Centre is the type of EU funded project which, back in the UK, I would have expected to be looked at closely (but fairly) to ensure it provided real benefit to the development of the area, rather than being a minor interest, political cause. I was never involved in decisions on giving money, but as central advisor on the principle's of support (and writer of the Woods' Manual that set out the principles, not rules), I was often asked on my views about how to deal with projects. (The decision makers were themselves independent from project creators, but
they had to deal with local political pressures and central advice could be reassuring.)

Coming over to Poland, I had to readjust my point of view. The first trigger for this may seem strange, but it was EU Commission officials deciding to refuse certain types of projects that they (as individuals) considered to be a complete waste of money. Anything that such Commission official refuses to countenance must be of some value as far as I'm concerned. If you see this as blind prejudice on my part, fair enough, although I suggest that 15 or so years' experience with such people counts for something. Imagine a group of applicants coming to a meeting with the Commission official when he bluntly says "I'm fed up with road projects so I'm not going to support them". He then went through the list, crossing out the projects he was rejecting and thus letting people know they'd wasted their time and (at that time), considerable money preparing everything. He hadn't even done his homework enough (eg reading project descriptions) to decide the list beforehand. (Quite a nice guy, actually.)

This was an early experience, but it immediately generated my wish to be more open minded. I hope - in fact I'm sure - that I quickly understood the difference between public investment benefits in Poland and in the UK, not only in terms of roads. I remembered the Commission criticism of investing in local town halls - only for the personal aggrandisement of local ruling politicians - when I drove past the completed Nadarzyn Town Hall (self-financed, not EU funded). I immediately saw it as changing the nature of the town, with the potential to lead to development of the area into a modern, thriving, but still small, community. I wonder whether, without the Commission, I would have been much more sceptical and only thought of short-term cost benefits.

More illuminating about my narrow mindedness, was a discussion we had when visiting the Krakow opera house, still under construction at the time. (I can't find the photographs.) There was a combination of Polish, British, French and Italian 'advisers'. The Polish official (Lesser Poland's/Krakow Marshal's Office) thought it was good for the city in terms of encouraging tourism, although he didn't think he'd ever set foot in it again. The Brit perspective was to question the value of a minority interest facility and suspected it reflected little more than a questionable belief that every worthwhile city had an opera house. The French view was a bit fence sitting, but our Italian guy was marvellous. Every decent town (not only city) had an opera house and it was essential that there be one.

Fortunately, we were just visitors, not project assessors. Our remit was to assess whether the system for making judgements was working well. The important thing (as in the establishment of UK principles rather than rules) is that all the right things are considered and not the final balance of judgement, which varies not openly between areas and individuals.

I think we pushed the assessor a bit hard in Poznan, in questioning (as far as I remember) investment in a theatre and stage in the ballet school when the old one was on the opposite side of the road (according to the papers). He was clearly a fervent supporter of the concept (not coldly independent as in the UK), being the person in the region best able to judge major cultural projects in the region (ie a Poznan supporter of developing things like ballet). We had to apologise and explain that we did not want to question his judgement, but just to see if he was considering, not the importance of ballet, but the importance of the project to the region. I'm not sure he recognised the difference, but he answered well.

So what about huge amounts of money spent in Kielce in order to move the orchestra down the road. The facilities are immensely better, but how important is that in comparison to other potential uses of the money?

I liked living in Kielce. I fond the people very friendly and accepting, and there was much more a sense of community than in Warsaw (and, obviously, London.) There was a sense of mission there that Kielce should be maintained and improved as an important regional centre. Although this is all emotional (and infectious) stuff, it is exactly the sense of purpose that assists in transforming a backwater into a thriving centre, recognised on a national scale. The importance here being that it was not a concept generated by the rhetoric of politicians but a broader public (possibly aspirant decision maker rather than general population) feeling. The aim, in my words, would be to establish the city as a place where potential investors in Poland would naturally ask "What about Kielce?".

In contrast, when Babcia in Warsaw was told I was going to work in Kielce, she laughed and said "why?. In a survey, What do you know about Kielce?, the main thing was that everyone carried knives, as was mentioned in a song by a rapper who came from there. I was made an honorary mountain person by the presentation of a folding pocket knife, but I doubt whether this sort of utensil - generally useless to me - was what people thought about when they gave this answer. TV power will have us thinking about a knife that can speedily cause bodily harm.)

New facilities for an orchestra would not be my priority. I suspect that few people in Kielce would disagree with me and, since the money is for the development of the region as a whole, it may well be that the vast majority in the region would not feel it worthwhile. However, I do see how it fits into the overall emotional strategy and, if nothing else, any addition to the limited stock of new, quality designed buildings would be an enhancement to Kielce marketing both in Poland and elsewhere: it actually featured on the English language news website, which is quite an achievement.

I can't imagine that anyone I knew there would ever read this, but if by some strange stroke of fate you do, my heart is with you and all my respect for you and gratitude for your acceptance of me remains with me. The photo contains too few of you,

No comments: