The Responsibility of Public Service

The new media regulations have transformed the legal framework of public program provision in all important aspects, including organization, financing, and supervision. One of the cardinal flaws of the new law is its omission to expressly provide for a public service mandate. Apart from a handful of declarations, the Code of Public Service, finalized in the summer of 2011, fails to offer tangible guidance as to the operation of public service. One reason this is problematic is because the financing of public service media in conformity with EU expectations is hardly conceivable without a properly enshrined public service mandate.

Neither does the new Media Act formulate a coherent order of responsibilities for compliance with public service requirements. The most characteristic attributes of the new system are the absence of transparency and regulating the field on an “as-it-were” basis. It seems that all necessary actors are present. There is a Board of Public Service Curators, which exercises ownership rights, and there is a Public Service Body destined to exercise social control over operation. In reality, however, they are not the crucial players. The key decisions are made by the Media Support and Asset Management Fund (the MTVA) and the Media Council and its president. In the present scheme of things, neither the Board nor the Body has properly regulated relations with the Fund, despite the fact that the Fund has inherited the relevant public service assets, manufacturing capacities, and the professional staff.

The several cases of counterfeit reporting in 2011, including the Cohn-Bendit affair and the Lomnici Affair, failed to provoke the Media Council, the Board, and the Body to speak out in any meaningful way. In the Lomnici case, the managing directors of the Fund and MTI, the national news agency, took measures in the capacity of employers, although it never came to light precisely along what procedural lines the disciplinary action was taken and based on what official explanation. Certain individuals were named and held accountable, but nothing that happened really taught us anything about what public service should consist of and how it should operate. In other words, these cases did not offer any legally useful lesson as to the nature of public service in the media. On the level of day-to-day operation, the currently effective provisions fail to lay down the prerequisites of public service (an a priori omission) and fail to set forth the procedures of holding violators accountable (an a posteriori oversight).

In late April 2012, the Works Council of the MTI addressed an open letter, signed by the majority of the news agency’s employees, to Annamária Szalai, the president of the Media Council, demanding that the Fund restore the agency’s professional and organizational independence. The letter was motivated by the recognition of the new indisputable fact that the merger of the public service media and the MTI, along with the attendant problems of employment law and financing, hinder the work of the agency.

A few days later, Annamária Szalai sent a letter in reply, explaining that neither the National Media and Infocommunications Authority nor its Media Council possessed any competence regarding the operation of MTI Nonprofit Zrt.

This was answered by the Works Council in another open letter, asking Ms. Szalai to propose a suitable amendment of the bill in the course of the legislative process now under way in order to eliminate the operative obstacles to the work of the agency by restoring its professional and organizational independence.