What follows the comradely, friendly atmosphere?

Published in Hungarian on 20th January 2015
Author:  Attila Mong

The coming round of changes at the public service media institutions, along with major adjustments in the distribution of state advertising, will result in major transformations in the media market. Official support for a journalistic self-understanding that had prevailed for several decades will now come to an end. By Attila Mong. 

The Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund (MTVA) is conducting public procurement at breakneck speed so that by the planned date, that is 15 March (in other words – beware, a sense of irony is needed here – the day of the free press), the new news channel that is to be launched in place of M1 can commence its operations. While MTVA announced that it was laying off almost 200 staff members, several dozen cub reporters are being trained to deliver news 24 hours a day without a hitch. Moreover, these news need to adopt the right tone, such as the one viewers of the public media already get to “enjoy”, but “only” for a few hours a day (adding up the total airtime of news blocks). In these news, the prime minister is a genuine superhuman hero whose policies (from saving those with foreign currency denominated mortgages, to staving off terrorism and creating jobs) safeguard Hungarians. As a result, thus the news, Hungary is an island of peace in a troubled world, where people are happy, pleased about the new county-level motorway stickers and glad about the fact that they don’t need to shop on Sundays but can spend the day with their families instead. In the meanwhile, the opposition, NGOs and journalists are sinister forces intent on destroying the nation’s happiness. In the public media, government spin doctors have already been defining the messages the only difference is that now they will get to do so 24 hours a day. Manipulation will become a mandatory subject of instruction. At the same time, Viktor Orbán met with the leaders of right-wing private media, hitherto regarded as the government’s allies, and told them in person to no longer count on government money (advertising, subsidies), which could lead to a crisis for several publishing houses, as we recently noted. 

These events, occurring a few months after Fidesz’s victory in the parliamentary and municipal elections (which owes in some part to the loyal private media in question), seem precisely calculated, planned and deliberate; they are worth investigating as distinct phenomena even if we know that they are not at all independent from the conflict which primarily revolves around power, money and the access to business deals that erupted last year between the prime minister and the man who used to be his main behind-the-scenes financial operator, Lajos Simicska. All the more so since the message of the media policy change appears unequivocal: The government, more specifically the advisors who decide the course of the government’s press policies and let there be no doubt the prime minister himself, who personally monitors these issues, all feel that there is no longer a need for a right-wing media traditionally understood. What they need are propagandists and reliable media soldiers. 

So what characterises this traditional right-wing press that is, it would appear, from now on no longer entitled to government support?

Historically speaking, the right-wing media that emerged after regime transition developed an understanding of its own role during the 1990s. At the time, it was above all a response to the attitude of those left-wing media outlets that had their origins in the former single-party regime, mainly the daily newspaper Népszabadság. During the last decades of the single-party regime, political expectations regarding most of the press had changes significantly since the 1950s. In the 1980s, especially in the second half of the decade (in parallel with the softening of the regime’s policies), journalists were increasingly allowed to demonstrate their “independence” by criticising certain decisions, officials or events naturally within the boundaries defined by geopolitics  (to wit, Soviet influence) and while respecting the prevalent taboos. The tone adopted in such media items was one of “constructive criticism”, and the constructive character became the key feature of these items. This was simultaneously a reflection of journalistic self-understanding at the time; these critiques fundamentally strove to improve the regime. During the 1990s, this tradition lived on in the left-wing press, which viewed the right-wing parties and the government with open disdain, applying completely different standards to their activities than the ones it used to evaluate its own side. 

When we researched the mechanisms of self-censorship in the Hungarian press in 2012, it was surprising to see how strong these cultural traditions still are on both the left and the right-wing sides of the media. “I’m not the freedom fighter type, but in my view it is important for a journalist to have instruments at his disposal that he can use to influence political decisions. That is why we proffer constructive criticism to our own side. It may sound trite, but our criticism has their best interests at heart” said a reporter working for a right-wing newspaper, for example. Incidentally, he also added that this is in fact what their readers and audiences expect of them. Audiences find it difficult to wrap their heads around articles that are critical of Fidesz or Viktor Orbán personally. While a criticism of President of the Republic Pál Schmitt (on account of his plagiarism scandal), and effectively calling for his resignation, still meshed with this “we are angry with you because we have your best interests in mind” attitude, airing the right-wing camp’s dirty laundry in public was never deemed acceptable. (These boundaries are different on the left-wing side of the media spectrum). 

It is thus worth pausing for a second to consider that this is the tradition that various governments of both right and left had upheld come hell or high water, backed by a full consensus and incidentally, with the approval of large parts of Hungarian media audiences. Through state advertising or politically motivated private advertising, or else relying on  the largesse of oligarchs who had come by their wealth through public procurement, they financed and kept financially unviable daily and weekly newspapers, radio stations and television channels going. This is the tradition that Viktor Orbán now seeks to abandon when he decides to let go of the hands of journalist and editors who had operated based on this logic. The first statements in reaction to his decision show that for the time being there is vast confusion on how to handle the new situation. 

What was it again that they said during the old single-party regime? Until now we had a “comradely, friendly” atmosphere; is the “friendly” atmosphere coming now?