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Fox TV host Fatih Portakal

Disney’s hold over the future of Turkish journalism

The fate of Turkey’s only independent-minded broadcaster rests with the company that brought us Mickey Mouse

It’s a curious thing that the slogans “fair and balanced” and “most watched, most trusted” — often used by the Fox News Channel in the US — are far better suited to Fox’s Turkish counterpart.

The channel’s nightly bulletin is produced by the single television news team left in the country whose editorial policy is not influenced by the Turkish government. By no coincidence, it is Turkey’s top-rated news broadcast.

That’s why when its host announces he is stepping down, it’s big news.

Following a flurry of speculation overnight, Fox TV confirmed on Monday that Fatih Portakal had asked to retire. In his own message, Mr Portakal said he was leaving of his own accord but made repeated references to a search for peace, health and quiet.

Little wonder.

His bulletin might enjoy the least restricted editorial oversight in the country, but he and the team are under constant government pressure. Moments of strife include:

  • Fox’s correspondent was ejected from a press briefing in 2018 by Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli after it reported hundreds of trailers carrying unlicensed meat had entered the country in breach of government rules.
  • In February, the Interior Ministry angrily rejected a Fox report that victims of an earthquake in Elazig had not received aid.
  • Mr Portakal himself has been subjected to personal attacks from the pro-government media: only in May Aksam’s Ahmet Kekec said he was a PKK supporter and called for Fox’s broadcasting licence to be revoked.

Plainly, Fox faces the fate that has fallen on many independent-minded media outlets in Turkey in recent years: either it must adopt a more compliant editorial tone, or it will disappear.

The nation’s favourite

Yet Turkey’s awful record on media plurality is nothing new, so it is curious that Fox survives and thrives today. As a television channel with a broadcast licence that often shows material the government does not want viewers to see, it should have disappeared years ago.

How can it exist?

There are two broad reasons why it hasn’t.

First, Fox is a strange beast by the journalism standards of 2020. It doesn’t do clickbait stories to drive audiences to its news website, because it doesn’t have one.

Its principal offering comes in two news bulletins on linear broadcast television – one is Mr Portakal’s; the other is İsmail Küçükkaya’s breakfast show, which regularly attracts high-profile political guests, mostly from the opposition. It is active on social media, but mostly to share clips of its television stories.

That makes for an efficient, focused news operation.

İsmail Küçükkaya, the other prominent Fox TV host, chaired last year’s televised mayoral debate

The second reason is money. Turkish television channels cannot be majority-owned by foreigners but Fox has a powerful minority shareholder: the Walt Disney Company, which acquired it when it bought up Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox last year.

Whereas Turkish authorities could sink uncompliant conglomerates like Doğan by targeting their non-media businesses, Fox TV is harder to pin down. It isn’t clear from publicly-available documents whether Fox Turkey is profitable, or how much cash Disney provides through its subsidiaries to keep it afloat.

But there’s limited scope to seize Disney’s assets or serve it with a hefty tax bill. Unlike Netflix, the Disney+ streaming service isn’t available in Turkey, so there’s little to be gained by blocking it.

Short of declaring Mickey Mouse a member of a terrorist organisation, there isn’t a huge amount the Turkish government can do.

Part of the family

Part of the appeal of Fatih Portakal’s bulletins is his sincere, conversational style, introducing news packages as if telling the story over a glass of tea or a game of okey. That’s why viewers pick him over the more wooden delivery on the other compliant channels.

His replacement could be Mr Küçükkaya, who achieved national recognition when he moderated last year’s televised debate between the Istanbul mayoral candidates. Some mutter he is happy with the morning slot.

It could also be Nevşin Mengü, whose off-the-cuff style bears similarities to Mr Portakal. She was fired as a CNN Turk newsreader following intense government pressure.

She could be the perfect fit — so long as Disney is prepared to back her.