The big publicity shake-up

The total overhaul of media regulations has served as a sort of dress rehearsal for the power techniques of the Fidesz-KDNP government. The process has involved the complete removal of checks and balances from the institutional system, along with the cementing of trusted party cadres in place. More importantly, it has also entailed the domestication of non-governmental industry actors and the bolstering of market positions for loyal businesses. At the same time, it has  become obvious today that, in transforming media regulations, the government repeated all the mistakes that had frustrated the effective implementation of its unorthodox solutions in other sectors. The biggest mistake of them all was that the ruling parties simply disregarded the broader context in which their measures were supposed to operate.

The transformation of the media system and media regulations took off directly after the new government assumed power, along two parallel lines that remain concurrent today. The first news concerning the new cabinet’s media policy was the acquisition of IKO Media Holding by Infocenter.hu Zrt., a company with blatantly intimate ties to the Fidesz in which Tamás Fellegi had had a controlling interest before he was appointed minister. Through the acquisition, Infocenter.hu availed itself of a 31% stake in M-RTL Zrt, which operates the commercial television station RTL Klub. Although the transaction fell through for financial reasons — rumor has it that the bank that was supposed to provide a loan withdrew because of the impending bank tax — the government’s efforts to take the market by storm are far from being over.

The transformation of media regulations soon followed, with the first bills submitted to Parliament in June 2010. The overhaul of institutions overseeing commercial and public service media was accomplished before summer’s end, while restrictions on media content and the “media constitution” containing various obligations were approved by lawmakers in the Fall. Drafted in the complete absence of public scrutiny and with the non-transparent involvement of the largest market entities, the new media bill was submitted in November 2010, and passed by ruling-party representatives shortly thereafter, on December 21.

The media policy of the Fidesz-KDNP cabinet relies on informal means just as importantly as on formal instruments. In fact, not a single formal regulatory tool would have been indispensable to accomplish the chief goals of this media policy, which consist in the permanent reworking of market relations and publicity, as well as in achieving total control over stations with the largest audiences. Indeed, the new media laws, which elicited unexpected attention at home and abroad, turned out to be a hindrance that served individual ambitions much more successfully than they did interests of the Fidesz party. At the end of the day, not only did these indefensible new regulations prove instrumental in unmasking media policy motives and in mounting a firm protest against them, but they triggered a Europe-wide movement to rethink the state of freedom of the press and the implementation of fundamental rights.

The media laws — which have come under criticism from many of us in as many ways, in terms of its basic concept as well as its particulars — set forth a media scheme that ushers in unpredictable conditions of operation for editors and journalists, forces media owners and advertising market actors to toe the line, and render the public, particularly audiences with limited access to digital media, more helpless and vulnerable to manipulation. The vaguely worded provisions, in combination with the envisioned severe sanctions, the excessive administrative powers of the Media Council  (albeit these meaningfully curbed by the Constitutional Court), and the considerable jeopardy arising from the political homogeneity of that body would threaten the disappearance of certain information and points of view even if the objectionable measures were never enforced. The Media Council’s oversight of printed and online media products — the measure that causes the gravest injury to the freedom of the press — has been sustained by the Constitutional Court in its essential substance, although the scope of statutory violations subject to administrative intervention has been scaled back significantly.

The most important lesson we at Standards Media Monitor learned during our first year in business is that the new media regulation, adopted in 2010, is a complete failure even if measured against its own stated objectives. The high-minded goals the government continually cited in an effort to justify the need for these laws have not even come within reach. The masterminds must be feeling frustrated about the absence of results they expected from content regulation, market regulation, and a revamped public service.

One of the key motives of content regulation was to sideline hatred-inciting and rights-infringing content, such as emblematically supplied by the extremist news portal kuruc.info. A noble mission, to be sure, but is the altar worth sacrificing the genuine freedom of an entire sector of print and online media? And what has happened to kuruc.info since then? Nothing. Perhaps it is time we learned how to live with it. Our own monitor screens are immune to the flood of grime from kuruc.info and similar conduits — they had been before and have been since the adoption of the new media laws. Needless to say, we do not condone anything that such portals stand for. On the other hand, we firmly believe that, instead of a new prohibition every day, the resources should be concentrated on fostering the emergence, finally, of a spontaneous protest in society, to enable the majority to show it has stronger arguments than these simple-minded loudmouths. Prohibitions and ostensible rigor only weigh heavy on market actors willing to play by the rules, while all we get in return for the ceaseless shrinking of freedom is yet another regulatory failure. The kuruc.info paradox continues to wreak havoc. By revamping the Criminal Code and criminal procedures, by making it mandatory to screen out inflammatory content, the legislature has now gone so far as to sacrifice the Internet in its entirety.

But kuruc.info aside, let us take a look at television content. There is no shortage of hatred on the television screen, from the vulgar and lowly variety to content in the guise of intellectualism. We are all aware that public discourse has taken a nasty turn, with hateful and segregationist utterances now routinely claiming a place in public affairs. The Media Council can respond to this as it has, by judging the complaints brought before it the best it knows how. (It may be worth pointing out that the holy cow of public service has not been faulted once by the Media Council.) But there is something else the Media Council could do: It could put the not inconsiderable funds at its disposal to good use by monitoring public affairs at least as it is mediated on television, with a view to compiling a comprehensive report that goes beyond addressing specific violations to say something generally significant about the state of public affairs in the media today. In the long term, identifying issues and submitting them to public debate would be more conducive than threatening sanctions to a return to decent and normal social dialogue.

Even though the new Media Act imposes a ceiling on the ratio of crime coverage in the total news time — and it is the only media regulation in the world to do so — public affairs content has all but disappeared from the newscasts of commercial television stations. Evidently, it takes more than this to outsmart commercial television. No crime? Let’s do more accidents. Nothing can interfere with the supply of daily blood. Concurrently, and notwithstanding the noble proclamations urging diversity in reporting, the stations received by the largest audiences virtually withhold the most rudimentary information that would be needed to maintain the proper operation of democracy. To make things worse, public service does not even make an attempt to offset this deficiency; it is content with its mission of political loyalty and manipulation. In our analysis, we have found that two out of three complaints about noncompliance with the requirement of balanced coverage are against public television, and none has been found by the authority to be well-founded to date. This is one circumstance that lends support to my contention that the requirement of balanced coverage — which the Media Act had originally extended to media services on demand, until it changed its mind under pressure from the European Commission — is a superfluous and harmful legal instrument. The other corroborating circumstance is that its biggest beneficiary so far has been the extreme right-wing party Jobbik. The lesson to be learned from this is that there is nothing amiss with public television, and who thinks otherwise is wrong — and that poor Jobbik suffers under oppression.

The petering out of public affairs news must be seen as a major failure given that the fight against tabloid coverage was one of the readily identifiable ambitions of the new regulation. The plans not only failed to deliver results in news programs, but they simply turned out to be unable to influence the content palette in any meaningful way. Of course, when the Media Council waits for months after the end of a reality show run before determining a set of violations in that show, the commercial stations cannot be expected to take this as a serious threat. Simply put, the Media Council is not doing its job, and when it does, one often wishes that it did not.

The most spectacular fiasco in the area of market regulation is the Media Council’s shattering of the radio market. If all we had to go by were the letter of the law, press releases by the Media Council, and various articles and statements by its members, we would have no doubt that the oversight of content diversity and the pluralistic media system is in the best of hands. It is not. The Media Council has been rather consistent in purging the market of Class FM’s competition, and the vast majority of talk radios are ideologically biased toward the right. The triumvirate of Lánchíd Radio/Class FM/Music FM has brought the entire listener base in Budapest into the fold of the Nyerges Empire. As for the all-out war declared on Klub Radio, there is no adjective we have left unused. In the country outside Budapest, the media selection on offer is “diversified” by music radio stations incapable of really having a say in the market, while the government propaganda aired by Kossuth Radio is augmented by right-wing and religious talk radio shows.

Ironically, even the process of distorting the market is not quite smooth-sailing. In two thirds of the frequency tenders, the Media Council has been unable to declare a winner by the legal deadline. The bureaucratic chimera later dubbed the “Klub Rule” after its first being enforced against Klub Radio — basically, the requirement for even the blank pages of a bid to bear the bidder’s authorized signature — not only crippled Klub Radio’s own bid but also disqualified bids that should have been evaluated prior to the court verdict that threw out Auto Radio — that is, before the alleged Klub Rule even came into being. And yes, the Media Council can write a hundred blog entries about this, it will all be in vain, because it was not the courts but the authority itself that invented the Klub Rule. To add woe to injury, the Media Council’s tendering and contracting practices lack even a semblance of transparency. Information withheld from disclosure include such essential data as the price and programming structure offered by the winning bidder in consideration for using the frequency. This is not only unacceptable in the context of reducing the media service fees of nationwide radio and television stations, but it positively thwarts the normal operation of the market.

Fee cut or no fee cut, the most egregious failure of the market regulation is that it caused the nationwide television stations to start operating their new channels out of a foreign jurisdiction. Personally, I could not have agreed more with the legislative intent to keep the two big stations within the country by allowing them more maneuvering space by means of a new Media Act. However, I strongly object to the fact that these enterprises had no qualms about entering into business talks with Infocenter, and would not have thought twice about selling out themselves, if only Infocenter had shored up the requisite funds. In the event, even in the absence of that money, the two stations made some very friendly gestures, from the consultant rescued from Hír TV to bleached-out newscasts. Under normal circumstances, the stations themselves would have refused a fee cut unless it was offered and conducted in a completely transparent manner. Under normal circumstances, they would do everything in their power to avoid even the suspicion of having made a pact with the ruling parties. On the other hand, pact or nor pact, their move of shifting the broadcasting center of the new channels to outside Hungary speaks volumes about the respect commanded by the Media Council and the trust placed in Hungarian media regulations. The emigration of TV stations continues; choosing the Hungarian jurisdiction is not a realistic alternative any more than it has been. Presumably, this is not only because the media service fee remains high in comparison, and certainly not because industry laws in Hungary would be more stringent than elsewhere in delimiting the economic elbow room for stations. The only feasible explanation for the emigration is that business enterprises no longer trust Hungarian lawmakers or Hungarian authorities, no matter how rosy the picture they paint about them.

A further arena of regulatory disaster has been the transformation of public service. This degree of shaking up the system of public service institutions could not have been legitimized by anything except fair reporting practices and improved ratings. What it came to instead is total organizational chaos in which the important decisions, the management of funds, and the fate of employees were all taken away from public companies in charge of public service radio and television, and delegated to the Media Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA), which is not subject to any external checks or control but headed by an easily controlled political emissary. The exorbitant amounts being spent on programming changes have failed to materially influence the ratings, not to mention that one must sue in order to find out just how much the public service soap opera Martians cost Hungarian citizens. The board of public service curators has refrained from any meaningful intervention as a supervisory authority; even the members delegated by the opposition have failed to speak out on any issue of import. Between various instances of scandalously tweaked or even doctored reporting (Cohn- Bendit, Lomnici, Ángyán affairs) and the Obersovszky interview, the intimidation of lost demonstrators, and leaders led away by security guards — public service media has been more like a meme factory than anything else. 

Let us simply call all of this anti-pluralism — a scheme aided and abetted by the radio frequency tender practices, the reshuffling of the print daily market  from the Népszabadság affair to the Metropol buyout, the domestication of commercial television stations from hostile takeover attempts to undisclosed fee cuts, and the devastation of public service media. We cannot be grateful enough for the advancements in technology. Ten years, ago, structural interventions of this magnitude would surely have strangled democracy to death; now it is still allowed to gasp for air.

Where the media policy of the Fidesz-KDNP alliance has failed to produce any surprise is its unique talent to demonize and patronize media at the same time. In the collective Weltanschauung of the ruling parties, the media needs to be kept under iron-fisted control as both a precondition and inevitable accessory of power, while it is regarded as a source of worthless and destructive content dumped on the public. The debunking of control over channels reaching the broadest but politically less aware masses as the main objective of media policy is the consequence, more than anything else, of the inertia of the impetus with which the media system was overhauled in the name of the “poll-booth revolution.” Former governments were not immune to the allure of this goal, but the methods of the restructuring this time have a an unprecedented brutality that is without a trace of elegance. The monolithic, single-party composition of the Media Council, the hands-on yet completely chaotic public service management system, the stabilizing of the market positions of government-friendly media ventures concurrently with the frustration of opposition-freidnly media within the purview of the regulations, the conscious perpetuation of journalists and editors in a state of suspense, and even the procrastination of the digital switchover that would benefit approximately one million voting citizens now limited to M1 and the two nationwide commercial stations via analog reception — all of these ploys work toward building a model of publicity, in which the right to information and the freedom of choice are severely impaired.