Media manipulation in Hungary

I have to admit that the inspiration for this blog comes from Sándor Friderikusz's program (ATV) where Júlia Lángh, writer and journalist, had a conversation with Paul Lendvai, an Austrian-Hungarian political commentator. Friderikusz, who has a decidedly low opinion of Hungarian journalists and the Hungarian media, repeatedly complains about the shoddy reporting of Hungarian newspapers, radio, and television. Not long ago he devoted a whole hour to the topic of the widely circulated pseudo-news that three and a half million people live in poverty in a country of ten million. As it turned out, a brand new, never-heard-of-before, so-called civic organization came out with this figure. The president of the organization gave a press conference, and it seems that none of the reporters present asked the man where he got his figures. Moreover, once they sat down to write their report, none of them took the trouble to check the data. Only last week I heard the same figure from the mouth of a very influential "political scientist," just a day before Friderikusz focused on the topic. He invited representatives of the Hungarian Statistical Office, who reported that the official figure is 16%. Exactly the same as the average within the European Union.

Perhaps one can blame this kind of reporting on laziness. But what I want to talk about here is media distortion. The background is the following. Last Monday, May 26th, Georg Maier wrote an opinion piece about Viktor Orbán in the liberal Austrian newspaper, Der Standard. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate the German original, but the Hungarian translation of the title was: "Orbán Changes Strategy, Still Everything Remains the Same." MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda) duly summarized the article and several newspapers (off-line, on-line) also summarized its contents. Most of the written and electronic media published an almost identical summary. Briefly it went something like this. "It is most probable that there will be early elections sometime at the end of the year or the beginning of the next because the relationship between MSZP and SZDSZ has cooled considerably. In this situation, Viktor Orbán, the right-wing populist opposition politician, sees an opportunity and therefore shows renewed activity. However, his strategy is now different. He no longer tries to move his followers at street demonstrations, but rather he is turning to the political and financial elite. He wants to break out from the right-wing corner into which he pushed himself in his disappointment that his people denied him its love. His goal now is the political middle where surely he can achieve the most. He gives encouraging words to the business world, words no one has heard from him for years. He talks about tax reform, decreasing bureaucracy, stimulation of the economy while he is outlining a plan very similar to the one that was torpedoed by his own party and the referendum." However, the opinion piece of Der Standard asks: "Can Orbán really change? Like other populists he disdains democracy in action as well as democratic institutions. One has to add to that his desire for revenge, and his wish to pay back many times over his alleged humiliations."

These harsh words show that Georg Maier's attitude to Orbán and his party is rather negative. Most media included these crucial words in their reporting, but there were exceptions. There were those who acted as if Der Standard didn't write a thing about Viktor Orbán–Magyar Hírlap, for example. Then there were the ones who transformed an op-ed piece into an alleged news item. The most surprising in this category is Magyar Rádió, the official public radio of the country. Let me quote their summary verbatim: "The Austrian liberal paper states that the president of Fidesz in the last few weeks is more and more active, but, as opposed to earlier activities, he no longer wants to put pressure on the government by organizing street demonstrations. According to the newspaper, Orbán wants to break out from his right-wing pigeonhole and is taking aim at the middle where he most likely can achieve more." The listeners of Magyar Rádió had a truncated, distorted version of what Georg Maier said about Viktor Orbán. And unfortunately Magyar Rádió is the only station the whole country can listen to, and most people tune in out of habit regardless of the content.

And then there is Magyar Nemzet which really distorts. The paper summarized Der Standard's article thus: "In the left-liberal Austrian daily Gregor Mayer (sic) writes that Orbán is changing his strategy. Viktor Orbán in the last few weeks showed significant but discreet activism. He is conducting confidential conversations with businessmen, leaders of the media, and students of theater and film. According to the author it is obvious that the politician who is capable of change is working on a new image. According to the polls, Fidesz of Viktor Orbán at the present can count on the support of two-thirds of the electorate." This is real never-never land reporting.

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Odin's lost eye
From the early 1940s until the 1990s the Hungarian media was under strict central control. ‘Reporters’ were little more than messengers for the political elite who carried the ‘official stories’ without questioning or attempting to check the truth. If you did not do this you could find your self as an assistant toilet attendant in a small one-horse town (or worse). In the 1990s it all changed. Reporters were now under the control of their paper’s owners or the party it holds allegiance to. The owners wanted ‘profits’, the parties, votes. The Hungarian reporters have had NO TRADITION of checking the facts. They also lack the self-discipline imposed by stringent libel laws and the cannibalistic tendencies of the media to devour its own kind. The Anglo-Saxon press (and other media) loves to attack its own kind. If the ‘Daily Gabble’ prints something, which is incorrect, the ‘Daily Moan’ and all the others will expose the errors with great gusto. Where a juicy libel case comes to court you can see the vultures circling over the courthouse and evidence is published in all its lurid detail irrespective of party support. Distortion of others work can also lead to fire and fury… Read more »

Plain bad reporting is a significant issue. The local paper this week carried a front page article on a Holocaust exhibition that is moving around the country. Two of my colleagues – Hungarian – were very interested in the exhibition, but for the life of them could not find out from the report where and when the exhibition would be held.

Matt L.

Sorry to hear about this, but I agree with Adrian. Its a case of plain bad reporting rather than a legacy of history. Before WWI Hungary had a vibrant press culture which present day journalists can draw on. I suspect the problem is similar to that in the US&UK where commercial pressures and insider status have led to a deterioration of journalistic craft.


Matt L.: “Sorry to hear about this, but I agree with Adrian. Its a case of plain bad reporting rather than a legacy of history.”
There is a false opposition here. The bad reporting is part of the legacy of history, the legacy of 40 years of not checking facts. There is also a general failure to present decent analysis or context, I suspect because of shortcomings in communist-era education.
However much standards in the US & the UK may have declined, journalism in post-1990 Hungary has never been as professional or informative as in those countries.