The new Hungarian finance minister: Péter Oszkó and the media

Even before he was named minister of finance in the Bajnai government Péter Oszkó appeared frequently in the Hungarian media because he was one of the bipartisan "experts" who crafted the recommendations of the Reform Alliance. Since he headed one of the workshops dealing with tax reforms he was often asked to explain the Alliance's ideas to television viewers. I always found him to be clear and measured, and therefore I didn't think that Oszkó would have any communication problem once he became finance minister. However, it seems that the communication skills necessary for a politician belong to a genre different from those required of a simple expert. Compared to his predecessor, he hasn't yet learned to hold his own with representatives of the media.

Journalists try to trip up politicians, and therefore anyone who accepts a political position has to be on his toes. For instance, if there is a misstatement on the part of the reporter it should be immediately corrected. Words should be chosen carefully and must be such that they are not open to misinterpretation. Below I will focus on a brief satellite interview between Szilvia Krizsó, the new anchor woman of A Szólás Szabadsága (Freedom of Speech, MTV on Sunday nights), and Péter Oszkó in Washington. Oszkó was one of the finance ministers who went to Washington for the spring meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund this past weekend. The IMF and the World Bank have two meetings a year, one in the spring and the other in November. Oszkó attended this meeting as a matter of course. If there hadn't been a change of government his predecessor János Veres would have travelled to Washington. A routine affair.

Well, let's see what Szilvia Krizsó did with this interview. She began by saying that surely Oszkó went to Washington "not only to pay an introductory visit to the IMF" but obviously he must have had something more important in mind. Did he talk with the IMF about restructuring the IMF loan? Was he asking perhaps for further financial assistance for Hungary from the IMF? These presuppositions are the bread and butter of Hungarian journalists. Instead of simply asking the politician what he is doing in Washington, Krizsó tells him what she thinks he is doing in Washington. Oszkó at this point should have told her that she was totally mistaken. He should have explained the twice-yearly IMF meetings and said that his visit was routine.

Krizsó pressed on, using ammunition from an earlier Oszkó interview with Bloomberg. In this interview, widely reported in the Hungarian press, Oszkó didn't confirm that Hungary will adhere to the schedule arrived at between the IMF and Hungary. Instead, he said that "Hungary will endeavor to fulfill its obligations." That, in my opinion incorrectly, was understood as "Hungary will try but is not at all sure that it will be able to fulfill the demands of the IMF." The Hungarian verb used was "igyekszik" which, according to Magyar Értelmező Kéziszótár, means that "one does his utmost to achieve something." But Hungarian journalists were quick to consider this back pedaling on the part of the government.

Oszkó again didn't have the political savvy to give a Hungarian lesson to the journalist. Perhaps he could have started by saying: "The word 'igyekszik' doesn't mean what you think it means." And then explain what it means. That might not have been polite but it would have been clear-cut and understandable by all. But he didn't, so Krizsó went on. This time she wanted to know whether Oszkó was asking for some "flexibility" from the IMF. In plain language: did Hungary ask for more favorable terms? Perhaps they could spend a little more here and a little more there and Dominick Strauss-Kahn would smile benignly and even pat Oszkó and Bajnai on the back.

Krizsó, by the way, is not alone in badgering politicians. The standard line is that the government won't be able to carry out the necessary spending cuts. Surely, the government will be frightened by demonstrations or strikes. Or MSZP politicians, signed promissory notes or not, won't support the government because they are worried about their sinking popularity. If one heard this only three times a day it would perhaps be merely tiresome, but hearing it twenty times from the mouth of virtually every reporter is infuriating. I try to imagine an American journalist getting up at a press conference and saying to President Obama: "Isn't it obvious that you will fail to solve the problems of this country? Isn't it possible that all the Democrats will leave you in the lurch?" Surely, this is hard to imagine. But in Hungary it is everyday fare. Somehow Hungarians journalists think that this is good journalism.

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Er… Bajnai is not Obama. The MSZP are certainly not Democrats in any sense of the word. Obama managed to inspire people. the leadership of the MSZP have set themselves and the country ablaze. The media smell blood. It’s not pretty, but it’s kindof normal behaviour for a press pack, given the circumstances.

I would say that the approach of the press ids not completely lacking any kind of justification. Oszkó, still as an expert, prophesied in his public interviews and articles Hungary’s inevitable collapse without the Raform Alliance proposals would be implemented at once. And he never contradicted the opinion of his fellow “experts” describing Hungary as being technicaly in sovereign default, only existing due to the lifecare unit of the IMF etc. He is arguing even today that the situatioon is very, very dire in order to support the necessity of the spending cuts. To sum up, he was and is part of a broader discourse and according to the main thesis of this discourse there is no such possibility as an ordinary visit to the IMF. That’s what the interview reflected, I suppose. Not the lack of expertise of the journalist (although there is) rather her confidence in the expertise of Oszkó. Otherwise Oszkó is in a very delcate position, because eager as he was in supporting the Reform alliance plans, now he simply abandoned them and helps in realizing the much criticized earlier government plans. (Even though they were again portrayed as failed attamepts, ineavitably leading to disaster.)The cover… Read more »
I can’t see that Oszkó has much grounds for complaint. I’ve watched Krizsó for a number of years, and she is a good interviewer. Perhaps her agressive style is not used in the United States, but her approach is derived from that used by BBC interviewers in the United Kingdom to considerable effect. That is – ask a provocative question agreesively, if a clear answer is forthcoming then tone the interview down; but if the answer is not forthcoming or it is ambiguous then hammer away until an answer is forthcoming. Why on earth didn’t Oszkó say “Hungary will fulfill its obligations” if that is his intention. Try to visualize someone “trying their hardest” (what I think “igyeszik” means) to say drive a car, and them actually driving a car. What is the difference between the two actions? And why would one say one and not the other? The answer to the first question is that in the former the action doesn’t actually involve them driving the car successfully. And the answer to the second is that you would only say it if it was your intention to do something, but you weren’t sure if you could do it. It… Read more »