Margreet Spijker: ‘WNL is the biggest hit of the public broadcaster’

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Broadcaster WNL sees itself internally as ‘the big hit of public broadcasting’: a lot of program for little money. That goal is achieved on the backs of young employees with flexible contracts and little say. This is what Margreet Spijker, ex-presenter of WNL and one of the presenters who recently came out with sharp criticism of internal relations at Bert Huisjes’ broadcaster, says. She received a lot of publicity, but has no regrets. “When it comes to things that can be changed for the better and you keep your mouth shut, you lose yourself too.”

She points out another development she observed at the broadcaster. WNL started as a critical company with an eye for opinions that did not fall within the mainstream, in its view a good addition to what already existed within the public broadcaster. But over time, policy has shifted more and more to the middle by saying goodbye to critical program makers. That is not the result of the broadcaster’s own choices, she says. But it happened under pressure from the NPO, which does not like a sharp course on the left or right. In exchange for this flexibility, the broadcaster of the cheerful right has been rewarded with attractive broadcasting places, says Margreet Spijker. ‘WNL handed in the pirate boat and got a cruise ship in its place’.

The cruise ship took its toll. In the investigation that the Van Rijn Committee conducted into internal relations at the public broadcaster, WNL, together with NOS, scored remarkably poorly. There is great dissatisfaction in the workplace. It is remarkable that an external investigation was needed to make that dissatisfaction manifest, because editor-in-chief Bert Huisjes himself already noted in an interview with Spreekbuis in 2022 that there is an unsafe working situation for journalists in Hilversum. “They are forced to hop from position to position,” he said. ‘It leads to a form of hospitalization. It’s not good, but we’ve gotten used to it.”. There was once a time when editors protested en masse when management made the wrong decisions. Where has the resilience of broadcast journalists gone, I ask Margreet Spijker.

‘I can only speak for WNL. The editorial staff falls under the editor-in-chief. He is also the highest boss. There was nowhere to go; there was no confidential counselor, no editorial board (now there is), no Works Council. You always end up with Bert Huisjes, editor-in-chief and also director. Almost everyone who works there has a fixed-term contract. It means that you can be picked up from that place at any time. If you did something that the editor-in-chief did not approve of, he would say: ‘May I remind you that you have a temporary contract’.

TV: What is the underlying motive?

‘If you say of yourself ‘I am the NPO’s top performer’, then you want to make programs very quickly and cheaply: a lot for little!’

There is a culture of fear at the NPOr
The temporary low point that Margreet Spijker herself experienced was the fact that she had to stop a podcast that she made together with media journalist Mark Koster at the end of 2022. Koster also disappeared from other WNL programs. This happened after he started a journalistic investigation into the money flows within the public broadcaster as a freelancer for the research platform Follow the Money. Editor-in-chief Bert Huisjes felt that this research and performance in WNL programs could not go together. ‘It was seen as nest fouling. It led to surprise among the editors. There was also support for the editor-in-chief and the rest remained silent. But the NPO does not belong to the broadcasting bosses, the NPO belongs to all Dutch people. I believe that, as the largest journalistic organization, we should demonstrate our ability to self-clean. This was a wonderful moment to start. The decision to put Koster aside had a major impact, because it is a major intervention when someone has to leave while simply doing his journalistic duty. I thought: this is a bad sign, why are you so afraid?’

TQ: You found it, other than Bert Houses, gehthat’s a problem someone research do to the organization of which he was a part at that time?

‘Koster did not aim to damage the broadcaster. He had and has the impression that taxpayers’ money was being handled in a certain way and that program makers and journalists from the NPO could benefit from the investigation. I think that is very relevant. Public broadcasting has a great value on reliability. It should not be Follow theMoney that should do that research, but the NPO itself. It was the first time I thought: there is a culture of fear at the NPO. If you decide that the cash flows should not be monitored, it may be because you are afraid that something improper will happen to them. If that is the case, NPO journalists should be the first to report it and not the last.’

The tough pirates had to disembark
Margreet Spijker says she sees a pattern in the way difficult journalists were dealt with. ‘When I joined WNL it was a rebel club with brutal journalists like Jan Dijkgraaf, Marianne Zwagerman, Wierd Duk. We discussed the most polarizing topics in the Netherlands, but always with a counterpoint.

If we had Arnold Karskens, we would put someone from refugee work next to him. All those people – some call them trendsetters, others may call them tasteless, it doesn’t matter to me – but for me they were courageous journalists who dared to go against the current. They all work for other platforms now. Strong pressure was exerted on Bert Huisjes from the NPO to say goodbye to those people. We were a pirate boat. The NPO seemed to have a hand in ensuring that the toughest pirates had to be disembarked. That was the picture. Bert went along with this and was rewarded for it by the NPO. He had to hand in the pirate boat and got a cruise ship in its place: more money, talk shows, more airtime, he brought in bigger names such as Sven Kockelmann. It seemed fantastic but what is the price paid? The platforms are springing up like mushrooms left and right. Topics that are not covered by public broadcasting are discussed there. They are too easily dismissed as disinformation, error, nonsense, worthless journalism. But that is often not right. They serve groups who believe that the public broadcaster is not performing its task properly. On those platforms there are discussions about topics that we ignore.

This lecture by Margreet Spijker is (partly) endorsed by Jan Dijkgraaf and Marianne Zwagerman, although Marianne tones down the image of the pirate boat. ‘WNL was never a pirate ship,’ she says, ‘certainly not under Bert. He was always busy trying to please politicians and the NPO management. It was one of the reasons why she left WNL after an argument. And then there was Jan Dijkgraaf. According to the editor-in-chief, he was given a place in an opinion program, but that promise was revoked before it had started because it was considered too controversial.

Accident in slow motion
Spijker mentions the identity discrepancy at WNL and the public broadcaster’s fear of self-examination ‘an accident in slow motion’. It takes place under the eye of supervisors who fail. In her opinion, there is too much interconnectedness with The Hague due to the many politicians you encounter in supervisory positions, including at WNL. There, former politician Loek Hermans (VVD) sits on the Supervisory Board, a combination of functions and interests that Pieter van Geel, chairman of the National Public Broadcasting Advisory Board, recently called bad for the credibility of the broadcasting system in an interview with Spreekbuis. Margreet Spijker: ‘Politicians who sit on top of journalistic organizations: who came up with it and why is that still the case?’.

She assumes that peace will not return for the time being. At the insistence of the House of Representatives, there will be another investigation into the money flows within the public broadcaster and investigative journalists are sharpening their knives on various fronts.

“I predict an exodus of powerful men.”

TON VERLIND

NOTE:

Bert Huisjes does not want to respond. He has temporarily stepped down as editor-in-chief and director of WNL pending the outcome of an internal investigation. In October 2022, Spreekbuis published an interview with him that reflects his views on some of the topics discussed above. About the combination of functions he said:

‘I believe that journalism should be safeguarded at the highest level. An editor-in-chief who works under a boss is less independent than an editor-in-chief who is the boss himself’. In doing so he countered the criticism NVJ (Dutch Association of Journalists) that his functions as general director and editor-in-chief would be incompatible. ‘At WNL there is no conflict of interest between management and editor-in-chief’he thought, because there is no conflict between commerce and content.

About the dilution of WNL’s identity, he said at the time: ‘this is about blurred identity…. Do you have to conform to participate? I don’t feel that way, I think we are going our own way. Public broadcasting is essentially a mainstream model, in which there is room for both VPRO and WNL. If you were to see it politically, it goes from Groen Links to the VVD, but everything beyond that becomes difficult for a mainstream model’.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Margreet Spijker WNL biggest hit public broadcaster

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