Beware of the Hand that Feeds

You are not going to bite the hand that feeds you” this is the quotation that, by way of a motto,  introduces a 2008 report by the Open Society Institute on the forms of soft censorship in Latin America. I was reminded of this very instructive report as I was reading an article in the Tuesday issue of Magyar Narancs in which the weekly lays bare its competitor, Heti Válasz. On the evidence of a contract acquired by Magyar Narancs, Heti Válasz — a periodical with unconcealed right-wing leanings — had signed a deal with mostly Fidesz-run municipalities which stipulates that “Client is entitled to cancel the agreement with immediate effect if Heti Válasz publishes any information, advertising, or announcement that can be proven to be detrimental to Client’s interests.” Mancs [the punning abbreviation of Magyar Narancs — The Translator] has every right to indulge and wallow in the discovery, which it does. No wonder. Such a contractual clause goes against the grain of the most basic ethical rules of journalism. It amounts to depriving the editorial board of a chance to comply with its obligation to provide comprehensive, complete, and unbiased information to its readership, whose interests it is liable to observe before those of anybody else. Incidentally — and I am simply stating this for the record — the clause in question also blatantly and unambiguously contravenes the industry’s self-regulating ethical guidelines created by the Forum Of Editors-in-Chief and signed by the executive of Heti Válasz. In its very first few lines, this document makes it clear that

 Journalists shall go about their work

–        without bias, applying equal standards to each case and each actor;

–        […]

–        courageously, without compromise, and undeterred by any conflict or threat arising during their professional engagement;

–        free of any manipulation, always seeking to describe rather than influence events and processes;

–        in fairness, without haggling information or abusing the power of public exposure, and shunning conflict of interest;

–        always acting in the interest of their audiences, without being swayed by any other interest, and always striving for a language that is readily understood.

 The response by Heti Válasz, originally entitled What is Wrong Anyway?, would in itself warrant a separate analysis, in that it shows how the Hungarian press struggles to even comprehend the nature of ethical problems, let alone taking steps toward remedying the situation. In its defense, the journal argues that Budapest’s District VII, of Mr. Hunvald fame, was among the municipalities eager to join, but the editors showed it the door bravely and faithfully to their principles. (To wit: If a paper chooses its advertisers well, there will be nothing wrong with such contractual clauses.) By contrast, Heti Válasz did enter into contract with District II, a municipality that, unlike District VII, had had no nasty scandals. (To wit: If there is no bad news, we can’t make it up, even if someone pays us.) At any rate, the deal was about a mere HUF 275,000 a month. (In other words, the whole affair is being trivialized and relativized by the editors.) I cannot get rid of the nagging question: Would the editorial board of Heti Válasz take the same view of the matter if its competitor Magyar Narancs were caught red-handed in similar dealings?

 All things considered:

 Without acquitting Heti Válasz, and while admitting that the public disclosure of such deals has the potential to aid the purging of the market, it is crucial to point out that the practices of this weekly are far from being the egregious exception in Hungarian media, even if Heti Válasz is rightfully raked over the coals for it by its competitor. As I wrote in my personal blog last time, there are historical reasons why much of the Hungarian media market continues to be run on a model dominated by non-business-based funding — an amalgam of media prostitution (i.e. whoring and catering to the client for advertising money) and political cadre and crony financing. In this odd race among editors, the winners are those who stoop the lowest (or spread their legs the widest), and those who like to bring the others to task are frequently the ones in the most urgent need to put their own house in order. This type of financing, with its flagrant disregard of all journalistic decency, has become so wide-spread that it disfigures the entire market. It has brought about conditions that even detractors cannot afford to ignore, since media outlets insisting on financing their operations on a genuine business basis have no choice but to compete in the same market. Missing out on the slut frenzy means an obvious handicap in the race, and the owners will want an explanation. And unless the owners happen to hold lofty principles and the long-term considerations of brand building and disclosure in higher esteem than they reserve for money (and they seldom do), then the editor must toe the line and play the game, regardless of his or her inherent professional excellence and probity. Inevitably, the end result of these games is the impairment of content and the infringement of  the readers’ interests and thus  of the public interest at large. On the other hand, one must bear in mind that this game tends to be condoned by audiences, who refuse to protest such practices. Instead of punishing offending papers, they resign themselves to the fact that this is how things work in this corner of the world.

 If you read the report on Latin America that I started this write-up by citing, you may rightly feel that the Hungarian media market is more akin to the Columbian model than to the German example. So if you feel like indulging in your sorrow, go ahead and delve into that OSF study. It will be a fun read. As you wise up on the media practices in Bogota and Buenos Aires, you will be forgiven for thinking you are roaming the streets of Budapest. You will soon find that there is hardly any form of intrigue, from bribing journalists to manipulating advertising money to blackmailing organs with broadcasting licenses to pressure via the owners, that would be unknown to the world of Hungarian media.

 Here is a cautious proposition by way of an ending: If we had a good Media Act and a good media authority determined to find ways of regulating the market to prevent such blatant violations of public interest, instead of using the scores of billions of forints in its annual budget to mess with absurd rules of content, editors committed to ethical, uncompromising journalism would gain well-deserved advantage and the cleansing of the sector could finally begin.

 But is this what legislators and the authorities really want?