Civility among Hungarian politicians and the press? What civility?

I decided to write about this topic because yesterday I saw István Mikola, the "doctor of the nation," former minister of health in the second half of the Orbán government, on Olga Kálmán’s program "Egyenes beszéd" (Straight Talk) on ATV. "Miss Manners" would have had apoplexy over his behavior, but it was not unexpected from Dr. Mikola, who is one of the most arrogant, one might even say brutish members of the political elite. (My other favorite in this department is István Tarlós, formerly mayor of Óbuda, now as an "independent" head of the Fidesz caucus in the Budapest city council. He almost became mayor of the entire city. The very idea still sends chills down my spine although I do understand that a lot of people in the city are not satisfied with Gábor Demszky’s performance.)

Well, back to Dr. Mikola and his interview. He was invited to talk about the Fidesz threat that if they return to power the very first thing they will do is eliminate the multiple health insurers and restore the old system. All contracts will become null and void. Ms. Kálmán asked him how a government can cancel a contract between an individual and an insurance company. Mikola was very mysterious and assured her that they know how. Moreover (and presumably more legally), it will be done because the multiple insurance business will be a failure in Hungary just as it was in Slovakia where the Fico government abolished it and has already reverted back to the single state insurance system. Olga Kálmán responded that, as far as she knows, that’s not the case. Well, that infuriated Dr. Mikola who, of course, knows everything. He raised his voice, repeated that he is very well informed, and insisted that there are no longer multiple health insurers in Slovakia. He accused Kálmán of portraying him as ignorant when he was for seven years head of such and such international I don’t know what, and he threatened to leave the TV set because the reporter dared to disagree with him. Eventually he calmed down and the conversation continued. Today Kálmán called the "father" of the multiple insurance business in Slovakia (who, by the way, speaks Hungarian quite well), and it turns out that the great international expert Dr. Mikola was wrong. The Fico government abolished the co-payment but the insurance system was left intact.

I remember an interview with Dr. Mikola when he insisted that in American hospitals 25 percent of patients die because of lethal combinations of prescription medications. This incredible statement was made at the time of the controversy concerning the sale of over-the-counter drugs outside of pharmacies. Nobody questioned him on that until, if I recall correctly, József Nagy had the good sense to ask where Mikola got these figures because he tried to find them to no avail. Dr. Mikola explained to the poor ignorant journalist: "It is a well known medical fact. It has a large literature. I know because I worked in the United States." And he said all this with total self-assurance and complete disdain for his interviewer.

And now to move on from the impolite politicians confronting decent journalists to impolite journalists confronting decent politicians. On Crossfire, a segment of Napkelte, some of the reporters act as if they were prosecutors facing vicious murderers. Not a smile, nothing resembling politeness. Their voices are shrill, accusing glances are flashed, and they are not really interested in the answers. (This may be the norm on Fox TV, but it shouldn’t be acceptable on Hungarian public television.) The latest such scene occurred a couple of days ago when János Kóka, minister of economy and transport in the current government, was the guest. The reporters accused him of enriching his "buddies" (actually "haverok"–originally from Yiddish, now part of the everyday Hebrew vocabulary) through highway construction projects. He answered that these accusations were untrue, but they didn’t really allow him to tell his side of the story. When I inquired where the reporters got their information, the answer was that an article had appeared in Heti Válasz (Weekly Answer), a right-wing weekly. Considering the state of so-called investigative journalism in Hungary, the influence of political agendas, and sometimes the leap into outright fiction, I seriously doubt the accuracy of this particular article. But (speaking theoretically), even if the allegations against a person being interviewed are true and he is a crook, the interviewer should let him try to explain his position. It’s responsible journalism and decent behavior. (Admittedly, most crooks aren’t keen to grant interviews. Think back to the Mike Wallace confrontations on "60 Minutes" where the crooks were singularly camera shy.)

Continuing the thread of journalism in Hungary. Yesterday a video was made public on HírTV on which a two-bit local politician László Weiszenberger from Kiskunhalas can be seen telling the owner of an ordinary motel how to get European Union grants. He tells the businessman, Károly Fodor, that he will definitely receive a grant if he gives him a certain percentage and, additionally, kicks back a percentage of the grant to "the ministry." The motel owner claims that his application for EU money was successful, that he received the grant he applied for. Gordon Bajnai, who is in charge of the European Union grants, instructed his staff to check the 17,000 some grants made since 2002. It turns out that this particular motel received not a cent. Since then Weiszenberger also admitted that he just wanted to look more influential than he is. So he twisted the truth a bit. But before the Weiszenberger retraction, Viktor Orbán announced that the government "in mob-like fashion decided to steal and put into their own pockets European Union grants." And one of the Fidesz vice presidents, Mrs. Pelcz (neé Ildikó Gáll), gave a press conference reinforcing the Fidesz position about government graft. Because of her press conference, Olga Kálmán invited her to appear on "Straight Talk." The problem was that by the time of the interview the news was out that the motel owner had received nothing from EU grant money. I must say that this was the first time that I saw Mrs. Pelcz a bit less sure of herself.

I think it is time for both politicians and members of the media to modify their behavior toward one another. It can only be mutually advantageous.