Investigative journalism is fairly new in Hungary. I remember the first pitiful efforts, one in particular. It was about alleged corruption cases in the Hungarian police force. The article was so bad that my professorial instincts couldn't be suppressed. I spent at least an hour copying out the most unsubstantiated claims (that was before Hungarian papers were available on the internet) and wrote a long letter to the journalist. The tone was definitely that of a teacher going through a first-year student's essay. After I sent it off I said to myself: "Well, this person will never talk to me in her life." Great was my surprise when she wrote expressing her gratitude. In fact, we corresponded for awhile as she honed her skills, and she made great strides.
The genre of investigative journalism is akin to the work of a historian who is, after all, a detective of sorts. In fact, a former colleague of mine, Robin Winks, wrote a book entitled The Historian as Detective. I remember a very successful exercise assigned to students taking European history. There was a short description of a battle by a French knight who took part in it. The battle occurred sometime during the Crusades. The French knight, of course, had a limited vantage point, and it was virtually impossible to extrapolate from his account of the battle the truth of what happened. But that was the challenge offered up to the students: what actually happened? We argued for the better part of an hour about the details and the outcome.
All this occurred to me when I read about the latest scandal at Hír TV. I'm pretty sure that almost everybody who reads this blog knows by now that Hír TV is a Fidesz channel. It doesn't even try to be even-handed or hide its biases. Hír TV has a program called Célpont (Target), the aim of which is to unearth political wrongdoings. So far so good, but their methods are, how shall I say, somewhat unusual. One could use a stronger word: sometimes they are outright illegal.
For over a year Célpont has had János Veres in its crosshairs. The minister of finance is an obvious target. After Ferenc Gyurcsány he is the most important member of the cabinet, and he is responsible for the spectacular results in reducing the budget deficit. They tried to get to Veres through his sons' alleged impropriety, but Veres won in court against Hír TV. Then they tried to implicate him in an alleged electoral fraud case through a bizarre scheme involving impersonation and lies; I wrote about this earlier.
Their latest adventure into "investigative journalism" challenges the imagination, and like the students with the battle experience of the French knight I can't come up with a true narrative. I'm not sure whether we will ever find out exactly what happened. Hír TV claims that Veres's former campaign manager, Viktor Tóth, hired a "drug dealer," Miklós Baráth, who was supposed to discredit the journalists of Célpont by placing drugs in their cars. Hír TV's proof was a recording of a conversation between Baráth and a Debrecen lawyer, László Helmeczy, a former Fidesz member of parliament. Listening to the recording made public by Hír TV it sounded as if the accusation was well founded. However, Helmeczy also came up with a fifteen-minute recording that told a different story. According to this conversation it wasn't Helmeczy who approached Baráth but the other way around. That was yesterday. Today we have a third version: Baráth's account. According to him he had a conversation with Tóth about the annoyance Hír TV had caused for some time to both Tóth and Veres and "in a general way" they talked about how these two brash journalists' careers could be made impossible. However, it seems that Baráth was basically a double agent. He suddenly discovered his pro-Fidesz sympathies and that he very much liked "these good boys," and off he went to Hír TV where most likely he was greatly appreciated. The "good boys" came up with the idea of planting drugs in the cars and convincing Tóth to approve such a plan. Baráth apparently went back to Tóth with this idea and Tóth said no. Baráth was wired up of course, and he thought that by giving the recording to Hír TV the whole scheme had come to an end. However, he was instructed by the "good boys" to go back to Tóth and ask whether "he knows anyone in the circle of friends who would be interested." Tóth apparently sent Baráth to Helmeczy. Eventually the "drug dealer" dropped a couple of packets of baking powder in the cars that were conveniently left unlocked and the police were called. By whom it is not quite clear.
Yes, I know all this sounds at best incoherent. But if nobody is telling the whole truth, if people reveal only bits and pieces of doctored recordings, it is pretty hard to learn the real story. Hír TV claims that they were in constant touch with the police because after all this whole plan cooked up by Tóth, Helmeczy, and Baráth was a criminal act. Helmeczy on the other hand claims that Hír TV informed the police about the impending criminal act by Tóth-Helmeczy-Baráth before he had the conversation with Baráth. So who is lying? Most likely all three.