The timing of the Latvian general election on October 2 is a godsend for TV executives. It means that throughout the long summer ‘silly season’ when nothing much happens (other than dozens of people drowning every weekend) they can pad out their schedules with lengthy and cheap to produce debates on the topical issues of the day – and look like they are doing a public service at the same time.
On the face of it, this is a good thing. Even the most boring, ill-informed political waffle is preferable to the endless stream of Russian “humour shows” and repeats of schlager music festivals from three years ago.
These shows can seem like – and sometimes are – laudable if uneven efforts to portray democracy in action. But some others are frankly nothing but cynical propaganda posing as reasoned debate.
I’ve just had the dubious pleasure of watching Latvia We Are Listening on the LNT channel. LNT actually produces a couple of good programmes, such as Martins Sirmais’ food shows. Its TV news department is probably the best in the country.
Unfortunately, LNT decided to bump its news bulletin in order to give us more of Latvia We Are Listening. The show is an absolute shocker, a craven piece of propagada for the political grouping For The Good of Latvia! (PLL).
On last night’s show, of the panel of ten people giving their opinions about agriculture, most had either direct or indirect links to PLL. The lopsided nature of the debate would almost have been understandable had the participants actually declared their interests at the start of the show – but they did not. As a result what we got was a party political broadcast masquerading as a debate.
Participants included LNT director Andrejs Ekis. Ekis is a prominent supporter of PLL. His name is often linked with that of PLL co-leader Andris Skele in connection with the so-called “digitalgate” investigation which involves allegations of huge fraud using offshore companies in the way Latvia switched to digital TV. Both Ekis and Skele deny any wrongdoing. The investigation continues. Ekis had his assets frozen in March.
Unsurprisingly, the journalist nominally in charge of proceedings, Haralds ‘the hair’ Burkovskis, didn’t exactly give his boss a rough ride.
Also taking part was Eriks Stendzenieks, advertising executive and self-styled film director. Stendzenieks has a long and well documented relationship with Ainars Slesers, the other co-leader of PLL. Stendzenieks famously said the infamous Latvian meteorite fraud was a really great idea then came up with the sixth-grade idea of promoting Slesers and co-leader Andris Skele as “AS squared” because they have the same initials.
Another participant was businessman Gunars Kirsons – yet again a prominent PLL supporter – whose restaurant played host to the talks that led to the formation of PLL.
Then there was cardiologist Andrejs Erglis, an on-the-record PLL fan and commonly seen on TV advertising proprietary heart tablets. Oh, and Rolands Gulbis, director of the Valmieras Piens dairy which just happens to be owned by the Skele family. So it wasn’t just Burkovskis who had to be on his best behaviour.
Making up the numbers was nervous journalist Iveta Tomsone, agricultural consultant Martins Cimermanis (who actually seemed to talk some sense) a couple of farmers from the regions (one of whom had talks with Skele earlier in the day) and artist Kaspars Zarins.
The show kicked off with a highly emotive tale of a farmer gone bust, complete with weeping violin soundtrack. “They’ll say it’s all the fault of the current government,” I said, only to be proved correct in about 10 seconds.
Despite the fact the farmer had been speaking in front of a rather swish looking shed built using EU money and a spanking new tractor, the show quickly degenerated into a familiar story. As we all know, everyone in the EU spends a large part of their well-paid weeks working on plans to stick it to Latvia. The whole EU project is essentially a just way for everyone to be as mean as possible to Latvia which would otherwise be the greatest nation on earth, no question.
Speaking of questions, viewers were invited to text in their answers to a question of staggering banality: “Does Latvia need agriculture?” The possible responses were Yes (98%) and No (2%). The ‘No’ voters presumably consist of a tribe of old school hunter-gatherers somewhere in the wilds of Latgale.
Along the way we got couple of real pearlers from contributors including: “Under the Soviet Union, all the fields were well organized and productive, today they are overgrown.”
Even better was a classic contribution from LNT’s very own Ekis, said with a completely straight face: “A British farmer told me the reason they have agriculture is in case the Germans decide to go to war and try to blockade the British Isles again.”
Yes, Latvia’s farmers do get quite a raw deal. They were also unlucky – along with a lot of other people – that they took out massive loans at just the wrong time for their tractors and barn renovations.
The promotion of a sense of victimised paranoia is not going to help sort out agriculture, but if it will help to win few votes for PLL from desperate farmers eager to believe the AS gang can wave a magic wand then it seems to be fair enough.
Best of all, this PLL love-in took place in a studio emblazoned with the words “Politics Free Zone.”
It is probably indicative that the best of the topical shows by a mile, What’s Happening in Latvia?, actually takes a midsummer break. Maybe that’s another reason pretenders such as Latvia We’re Listening and The Red Line (which specialises in psychedelic camera effects) rush in to hog the airwaves.
What Latvia really needs is a good, vicious satire show in the tradition of the US’s Daily Show or the UK’s Brasseye. God knows there is plenty of ripe subject matter, but it’s hard to imagine any TV station having the balls or commercial freedom to prick the bubble egos of the great and the good on a weekly basis.
In the absence of such shows, there are some laughs to be had from watching Latvia We’re Listening – but it is laughter of a hollow and ultimately depressing sort.