One on One Jindřich Šídlo – one of the country’s most prominent political journalists
Jindřich Šídlo has been working as a journalist for two decades. It is safe to say that he has experienced most of the scandals, upheavals and milestones in recent Czech history. After a nine-year stint at the weekly Respekt, where he says he learned his craft, he worked for a variety of dailies as well as the public broadcaster Czech TV. Currently, Šídlo is a political analyst at the daily Hospodářské noviny. In the first part of this two-part interview, we talk to him about what it is like to cover Czech politics for such a long time, if he ever gets tired of it, and what first spurred his interest in becoming a journalist.
“I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, which was not the best era to decide to become a journalist in this country. But I first started considering it in 1986, when I started reading a magazine called Mladý Svět, and I liked it very much and started writing my own pieces, concert and record reviews, into my notepad.
“I told my mother I wanted to study journalism and she said I was crazy. But the developments in the late 80s helped me a lot. So I was 17 years old in 1989 and I graduated from high school in 1991 and decided to study journalism, which was not the best decision of my life, but I do not regret having chosen to become a journalist.”
How did you experience this very tumultuous period, the Velvet Revolution, as a young man, as a teenager just about to graduate from high school? Is this what stirred your interest in politics?
“I am not sure that that is when I started being interested in politics. But you are right, I was a teenager, just 17 years old, and it was one of the most important and fascinating experiences in my life. We went to a strike with my high school. And there is actually a funny story about that, because every year, on the anniversary of the revolution, Czech TV broadcasts old footage from that time, and I always get a lot of emails and text messages from my friends. My high school was the closest to Czech TV’s headquarters at the time, and so they came to our school and wanted to record interviews with students. And my classmates decided I was the right person to speak to them. So that was the beginning of my career in the public eye. Of course, I am joking a bit when I say this.”
You worked for the weekly Respekt for 9 years during the 1990s, which also saw their share of interesting events in Czech society and the transformation of this country. Would you say it was a bit of a luxury, a journalist’s paradise, to get to report on that?
“I was 19, almost 20, when I joined Respekt in 1992. And I felt that my dreams had come true because I admired the magazine from the very beginning, I was a regular leader and really admired guys like Ivan Lampe and Jaroslav Spurný, and they were my childhood heroes. So I was very surprised when I was offered a job as a teenager, before then, I worked for a revolver right-wing daily that no one remembers today, Český Deník. And I started to learn about journalism. I was also studying journalism at university, but my real and only university was Respekt, and everything I learned about writing, I have learned there.
“I am to this day friends with many people who work there and I am very grateful to them. They taught me everything. And sometimes it was very hard, because I was very young and not able to discuss or bring arguments to discussions with my editor, Ivan Lampe. So sometimes I suffered a lot, but I am very thankful and when I left the magazine in 2001, I realized how important this period of my career was, and how much I am still able to put the experience I gathered there to use today.
From there, you went to a daily, Mladá fronta dnes. Was it a difficult transition to go from working for a weekly to working for a newspaper that puts out content everyday?
“It was completely different. But I did know a bit about dailies from working as an editor for Lidové Noviny, which I did during my time as Respekt. So I knew a little, but of course, I was still surprised because they made me speed up. And it was very interesting because the first thing I covered for Mladá fronta was the aftermath of 9/11. I had been at the paper for two weeks when it happened. And they were looking for someone who knew New York, had an American visa and knew a bit of English. And it was one of the most interesting experiences in my career. I spent a week in New York and I still think back to that time.”
You have worked for a variety of Czech media, including Czech TV. Maybe you could talk a bit about the quality of reporting in this country. What are the shortcomings of Czech journalism?
“I am not sure that I am the best judge of Czech journalism. But I have experienced a lot and I remember a lot. After 1989, there was a strange and very interesting period, which cannot be replicated. There were reporters who were 20 and were interview prime ministers and people at the age of 25 became editor-in-chief. Today, we are 20 years older, so about 40 years old. And I feel that my generation should take more responsibility for the quality and development of Czech journalism. The problem is: We have many problems. We cannot compare ourselves with British, German or American journalism. I spent a month at the offices of the Daily Times in London, in 2005, and it was like… you cannot compare it, it’s like comparing the Bohemians in Prague with Arsenal. But there are still rules and conventions we should be aware of, and I am not sure that all Czech journalists know them.
“The other thing is that it is not common for Czech journalists to criticize each other, because the market is quite small and it is quite likely that you will run into each other again at some point in your career. Maybe I could say that I am a bit disappointed with the level of Czech journalism today. And that some years ago, we were more accurate and spin was not that big of an issue. I am still waiting for a new generation of journalists who will tell us dinosaurs to get out and tell us how to produce good newspapers. But it has been ten years and I am still waiting.”
It recently came to light that a boy who had claimed that he was brutally beaten up by Romanies had in fact caused his injuries himself. Of course, before this transpired, the media reported on the incident. I would be interested in your opinion of the role of Czech media when it comes to tensions between Romanies and white, mainstream Czechs, which is a huge issue in this country.
“I spent almost ten years writing about the relationship between Romanies and white Czechs. At the time, in the 1990s, Respekt and Mladá fronta were the only two media who took a different approach in covering this subject. We tried to show that this was not as easy as it seems in everyday life. That these problems have very deep roots in the past.
“But I think that something has changed recently. Even media that used to take a fair approach covering this subject have started to realize that the best way to get readers is to confirm their prejudices. Which is a big disappointment to me. Seriously, I do not understand how the editor-in-chief of the most widely read Czech paper, Blesk, Pavel Šafr, can sign off on pieces and commentary that appear in his paper that are just plain racist. In the past, Czech tabloids did not have this anti-Roma policy, and something has changed.
“The incident you mentioned in Břeclav is not the only example of false reporting on this issue. Just remember the story about the Romany party that some guy was said to have started. Allegedly, he stole all the money from the members. The whole story was a complete fake, and even serious Czech media ran the story, and did not even bother to check the facts. And why? What was the story about? A party with an estimated membership of 15? But the story was that they were Roma and confirmed all prejudices in Czech society against Roma. I think that is very dangerous. It is the responsibility of Czech media to not add fuel to the fire, to not contribute to the worsening of relations between white mainstream Czechs and Romanies.”