Censorship without censors: captured media

Mertek Media Monitor has noted repeatedly that Hungary’s media market can be aptly characterised with the concept of state capture, which was coined by Transparency International. The Hungarian press – and primarily the online magazine Kreatív Online – has repeatedly dealt with the issue of state advertising, and we at Mertek have also pointed out how partial state advertising spending has become in the context of a specific PR campaign  (digital switchover) or print magazine segment.

The issue also played a pre-eminent role in our research conducted in the framework of the Soft Censorship Global Review, since it was instructive to see how tendentiously state institutions spend their advertising budgets in media that are politically beholden to the government. Naturally, it needs to be pointed out that ­in each instance it is theoretically conceivable that the target group of a given campaign can be most effectively reached through a particular media outlet, which would justify its selection for such purposes. Nevertheless, it is somewhat surprising that state advertisers always and without fail believe that right-wing media happen to be the most suitable for reaching the intended target audience.

We used Kantar Media’s database to ascertain which media brands received the largest share of state advertising spending based on list prices, and how high that share actually was in individual sectors in 2008 and 2012. We performed this comparative analysis because we are not only interested in the prevailing situation but also wish to find out what the earlier situation was in terms of the public sector’s advertising activities – specifically the matching year of the previous election cycle.

Table 1: The media brands with the largest share of state advertising spending, and their share in % by sector (2008 and 2012)

 

2008

2012

media brand

share %

media brand

share %

Newspapers

Metropol

12.8

Metropol

49.0

Magazines

HVG

8.5

Heti Válasz

20.8

Radio

Sláger

31.3

Class FM

57.7

Television

RTL Klub

41.6

TV2

50.6

Internet

Origo

34.6

CEMP

58.2

Outdoor

Európlakát

31.1

Publimont

57.1

Average

 

26.6

 

48.9

Note: The table above does not include the Kantar database’s numbers on indoor and cinema advertising, due to their marginal role. Furthermore, television data have been consolidated into a single row (Kantar separately lists television and cable television categories).

The data in the table is interesting in terms of both, the media brands that made it onto the list as well the share each received. Thus for example Metropol was the most favoured market player in both years reviewed. But even as the leading recipient of state advertising spending in the daily newspaper market, it received only 12.8% of the public funds allocated to this area in 2008. Four years later its share had risen to 49% (in 2008 Metropol was owned by the Swedish Metro International SA corporation, in 2012 it was already owned by a Hungarian investor who is close to the governmental party).

Two trends emerge from the data. For one, in 2008 the main beneficiaries of state advertising spending were foreign-owned media outlets with genuinely wide reach. By 2012, a marked changed had occurred, since Metropol, Heti Válasz, Class FM and Publimont are all parts of media groups within the sphere of interest controlled by the group of oligarchs whose most prominent members are Lajos Simicska, Zsolt Nyerges and Károly Fonyó. Though TV2 is foreign-owned [that is it was at the time of this writing – the ed.], its chief executive is known for nurturing good relations with Fidesz, while CEMP, which publishes Hungary’s leading news portal index.hu among others, is affiliated with another prominent businessperson, Zoltán Spéder, who is also associated with the political right. But in fairness one must also add that these media outlets – with the exception of Heti Válasz – are really major players in the market, and hence commercial advertisers would buy advertising space in these outlets anyway if they want to reach a wide enough audience. So the issue is not merely that all advertising spending is directed at right-wing media, but rather that through acquisitions (e.g. Metropol) or official assistance (Class FM) a right-wing media empire was built that genuinely boasts a wide audience reach and thereby simultaneously legitimises state advertisers’ decisions to privilege outlets affiliated with the political right.

The percentage values indicating the share of individual media brands are revealing. In 2008 the state advertising spending was widely dispersed, and the brands that benefitted most from public funds allocated to advertising obtained between 9-42% of the total state advertising budget for the given sector. The average of the most favoured brands was 26.6%. Four years later, the leading brands’ share ranged between 21-58%, and they averaged 48.9%.

In and of itself, state spending is only a small slice in the total advertising market (it made up 2.4-4.3% of all advertising revenues in the period between 2006-2012). Thus while the numbers lend themselves to a comparative analysis and are illustrative, their immediate impact on the advertising market is rather limited. What is considerably more relevant, but unfortunately difficult to measure, is in how far the advertising decisions of market players are influenced by political considerations, that is whether there is an expectation that they spend their advertising funds in media that are beholden to the government, and whether they heed this expectation.

To unravel this phenomenon, we have conducted in-depth interviews with market players and advertising agency experts who confirmed what the press has often written about: state-sponsored advertising campaigns are generally won by three agencies, namely IMG, Bell and Partners and Vivaki. These agencies then make sure that their commercial partners – thus for example major retail chains and their advertising budgets – generally end up in right-wing media. It is not hard to convince business enterprises of the utility of such an approach, especially in sectors where market players already had the opportunity to experience the impact of sectoral windfall taxes or specialised legislation.

In the context of Hungary’s only left-wing talk radio, Klubrádió, our interviewees repeatedly mentioned that market players dare not advertise there since that would be tantamount to public support for the opposition. But Neo FM’s former managers have also indicated that business advertisers follow the lead of state advertisers, which was a contributing factor in the failure of their station. Business enterprises tend to be careful. Even if they have a foreign parent company, the Hungarian subsidiary must succeed in Hungary, under the conditions prevailing here. A manager is unlikely to act in ways that would upset political expectations. That is why even though state advertising spending makes up only a small portion of total advertising revenue, the desire to comply with political expectations and the undeniable surge in the reach of right-wing media combine to steer a significant segment of business advertisers towards media that is loyal to the government.

For the moment, what really matters is not even how much of the advertising money ends up in the pockets of media oligarchs, or how these funds find their way into party financing, though these are certainly interesting and relevant issues. The more intriguing – and more difficult – question is how this system of shady wheelings and dealings in the media could be eradicated; what public policy instruments might be used to ensure that the advertising market functions as a genuine market and that, correspondingly, advertising decisions are not rendered under political influence. The quasi-religious debates about whether the left or the right has the upper hand in the media lead nowhere. Instead, deliberations ought to focus on how one might design a media system in which media enterprises earn their income based on their market performance, and wherein citizens receive diverse media content as a matter of course, which would also serve to promote the democratic public sphere.