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Hungarian Media: nothing to report!

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Yann P. Caspar.

Hungary – It’s done. The turnaround that has been anticipated for weeks in the Hungarian media market has just occurred. After the burlesque burst of 2015 between Viktor Orbán and his historical financial arm, Lajos Simicska, the news channel Hír TV returns tothe majority through Zsolt Nyerges, businessman close to power. This umpteenth flip-flop definitely seems to sound the death knell for the political influence of Mr Simicska, who from January 2015 to the April 2018 election had made his channel the main tool of his anti-Orbán action orchestrating an incomprehensible and pathetic chamber duetto composed of stubborn liberals and the very cunning Jobbik – a cacophonous work made possible by a single obsession: the head of the Hungarian Prime Minister. Thus the takeover of Hír TV appears as the media and politico-financial concretisation of the smashing failure of Simicsika’s transversal strategy, and the ideal opportunity to check on the specifics of the media situation in Hungary.

Szabad sajtót“. They want a free press. “They” are the Brussels authorities and their relays of all kinds. The eternal proponents of freedom and democracy, the indefatigable fighters against the dictatorship in place, these courageous freedom fighters against brutality, having not a single second hesitated to sit at the table of Dr. Simicska to spawn with the Hungarian far-right, some of whose elements undoubtedly display a dubious political aesthetic with regard to the freedom of the European peoples. Needless to say, this active fringe of the Hungarian opposition, as a whole curiously silent on the occasion of televised flirt between the former leaders of, in one hand, the LMP, Széll Bernadett, and in the other hand, of the Hungarian Guard and Jobbik Vona Gábor, commenting the last change of direction at Hír TV, cries for the crime against freedom of the press and calls for the restoration of democracy in Hungary. One would become a censor by morally condemning such a tightrope feat on the thin democratic wire – a VIP place reserved for the high-minded, this low people which voted three times in a row, and en masse, for Viktor Orbán.

In this hateful and vociferating climate, it is a priori tricky to calm people’s minds to firmly hold the debate on the situation of the press in Hungary. It is however this virulence which should awaken the appetites for analysis. To this end, the Western-European and Western-minded understandings – stemming from a history of the media in many ways different from that of post-communist societies – are unfortunately of very little help. The constant turmoil and power struggles in the Hungarian press are, in fact, only one of the direct consequences of the establishment of a real capitalistic jungle in Central Europe after nearly half a century in the Soviet bloc and the change of 1990. Remember in this respect that the setting up of this economic trap is precisely the work of those who rise today as a single man against the Hungarian media situation: the German ruling class, then still completely in the shadow of Washington, and its French equivalent, whose economic and political influence in this region was always negligible, but whose elegance and the presence of its Parisian diplomats, all beautifully put, perfectly cut and groomed, has always been the quasi-poetic bond of the Berlin-NATO economical mass destruction weapon.

The history of the media in Hungary during the 90’s – until the defeat of Fidesz in 2002 – is summed up by an intense ballet of voracious German and American financial holdings, compulsively lashing the contracts to bomb the Hungarian population with liberal mantras. The whole epic of Viktor Orbán and his followers towards the reconquest of power between 2002 and 2010, and his very rapid blacklisting by the European Union from 2012, are explained by the failure of this ideological and media bombardment. Bound to the role of opponents, the leaders of Fidesz had then understood that the former communist political elites, freshly remarried in second wedding with social-liberalism, were fairly settled in key media positions. Even worse, the privately-owned ATV channel was wreaking havoc on the liberalization of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), prefiguring the rout of all socializing and populist tendencies within the new government coalition by the growing influence of the very liberal and affairist Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). Viktor Orbán and his financier Simicska – dormitory comrade of the young Prime Minister, now fallen from grace, and truculent mixture of Hungarian lord imbued with his privileges, brilliantly rogue homo sovieticus and lawless neo-capitalist: an anthropological firework by himself! – decide then to arm accordingly in this crossing of the desert which would last eight years. The Hír TV channel is launched and acted as a conservative corollary to the liberal ATV. During these years, the conservative stars of Hír TV did hammer the same message: the liberal left (“balliberálisok“) are the most recent communist creature, they are the same, all corrupted to the bone, they sell Hungary to more offering and the trianonise [neologism of the author in reference to the Treaty of Trianon, ed] a second time. Anyone wishing to seriously understand the current media-political situation must make the effort to delve into a study of these eight years and, above all, understand its decisive highlight at the time of the events of 2006. It is during this interval long enough that everything that makes the Hungarian media system unique is forged. From 2003-2004, almost all the bridges between Fidesz and the Hungarian liberal forces have been cut at the national level. It’s all since a succession of reciprocal accusations – accusations essentially on the ground of corruption – virulent ad hominem attacks, each camp with its media war machine; the dialogues and the exchanges being in this configuration of an immense rarity, since the mutual hatreds are of an incredible sincerity and do not involve in any way a theatrical aspect as in France, where the bar of the Bourbon Palace and the club of the old ones of the National School of Administration allow sacred union.

Since Viktor Orbán’s return to power in 2010, the extension of the conservative media camp is obvious. For example, we will only mention the remodeling of the public television channels, the killing of the newspaper Népszabadsag, the control of the Origo site, the creation of the daily Magyar Idők (in order to fill the role that had until then held Magyar Nemzet) to counter the Simicska offensive, ousted in favor of oligarchs and businessmen close to the top, so much criticized by the opposition, Mészáros, Széles, Vajna and Nyerges, which now share with gluttony the provincial newspapers and media of the capital. The opposition, electorally and politically in tatters, has little more than RTL Klub and ATV to religiously chant the same slogan: “Less stadiums and more hospitals!”; and unfold its ambitious political program: “Down with corruption and dictatorship, long live to democracy!”. Those who seriously and conscientiously understand the current Hungary in depth have no choice but to turn away from this television circus. Indeed, how could one not laugh at the regular use of reductio ad hitlerum by the opposition channels as the only political argument? Is it terribly arrogant when one quickly quit watching a program of the too often limited pro-Orbán Echo TV? Is one, finally, too sensitive soul when the anti-migrant slogan of the public channel copiously get annoyed? The Hungarian audio-visual landscape is the playground of Hungarian journalistic dinosaurs, staked in their respective positions for fifteen years for some. They are mocking, avenging themselves and insulting each other. Two media spaces. Two political camps. Two countries. One is the apostle of transparency, righteousness and ethics in politics, perhaps as a defense mechanism to survive its former spoliator’s condition. The other, shaded with its victory, sometimes seriously thinking that the Hungarians are an elite and avant-garde people whose vocation is to save Europe, or even humanity as a whole, from its liberal perdition. A cockfight, sometimes stylistically quite talented though, where the avid viewer counts the points and where the average consumer simply recognizes the logo of the chain to quickly know what will or won’t be said. Hungarian audio-visual media are free from any complex. And yet they are not free. Brussels is right. We dare to say that the Western style freedom of the press is a creation of the mind, a fairy-tale, if we stick to what is happening in this West willingly magyarophobic. Let’s go very briefly to the essential by taking only one isolated example. What difference between the above-mentioned Hungarian quartet and the nine French oligarchs, proudly reigning over the French media market, without whom Emmanuel Macron would forever have remained a talented investment banker?

This is in no way to lay the stone to the various Hungarian television channels. Everywhere and without exception, the television format has the unfortunate characteristic of inducing passivity, even cerebral anesthesia, of the viewer – the consumer. The importance taken by this format is nothing more than an expression of the triumph – triumph that began in the 1920s – of the image over the written word, in other words of the North American civilization over the European one. Although it is very difficult to identify the civilizational elements common to all Europeans, the tradition of the written word is certainly one, still present today in a residual state. In this respect, although we reject the above quoted quasi-Messianic character of Hungary, it must be admitted that the Hungarian written tradition is one of the most flamboyant in Europe – this cultural wealth may be due to a pathological fear of national disappearance and the imperative need to immortalize one’s existence by writing. Although it was diminished at the time of the digital era, this wealth still exists, as evidenced by the abundant Hungarian press, much more developed than in other countries of comparable size. Falling also in some weaknesses mentioned above, the Hungarian digital and written press is nonetheless, in all its tendencies, of honorable quality. Like its audiovisual sister, the Hungarian print media can no longer be described as free, because it also has its influence networks, its faithful readership to fulfill and its personal wars. Put together, the organs of the Hungarian written press nevertheless constitute a plural whole, where everyone is likely to find what he’s looking for. If we ignore the cover-ups – once again due to the victory of the image over the writing, which leads us to say that the image is related to money and that the writing is not – the whole of the Hungarian print media represents a small daily and weekly pad that has nothing to envy to those proposed in so-called more advanced countries. The audience of this press and its real influence on the opinion nevertheless remain to be relativized, for a series of reasons.

First of all, because the print media must, to survive, be present on the web – a contemporary obligation that only fuels the evil flame of binge-facebooking, of sensual and inconsistent sliding, of compulsive and unhealthy clicking. The “readership” is not real. It’s a bunch of consumers stopping at the title – short text itself becoming an image – an army neutralized without the slightest shot. This is the repressive and totalitarian genius of our time! Let’s state the obvious: Mr Zuckerberg deserves his brown shirt much more than Mr Orbán. Then, on this point Hungary is no exception, no offense to the good brainy right wing people above-mentioned, quiet and studious reading, and a priori for no other purpose than that of satisfying a naive and genuine pleasure is rather the fact of people labelled “on the left” – we can only insist on the term “labelled on” in opposition to “of the left”. The passion for the concept, the attraction for the infinite nuance, the taste for endless discussions: the natural element of the man “on the left”. The field of writing is the playground of the sinistrogyre forces. The setting in motion, the collective organization, the translation into reality of a contemplative and intellectual life into action are an art that men “on the left” master to perfection. The right has always been ridiculous in the matter. Long before it started, it has already lost the cultural and intellectual struggle. The man “on the right” who is interested by the intellectual thing slips easily to a seductive whimper idealizing the past or a touching attraction for the future hereafter if he lets himself go to a pathetic bigotry. In the present, the man “on the right” speaks only of money, while the man “on the left” often has more than him (especially in Hungary, although the steam is being inverted) and does not speak about it, preferring to evoke serenely and proudly his latest literary findings.

The Hungarian right has won the political fight and is financially assertive. Its speech on the flaws of liberalism is clear, its criticism of the European Union well built and its early denunciation of the scandal of the migration tragedy recognized today by any coherent and honest spirit. This massive political victory could be threatened in the medium term by the inconsistency of its so-called intellectual personalities. These last ones are highly motivated by revenge. They are prisoners of their hatred against the Hungarian left. Instead of working on modeling a solid corpus to perpetuate their ideological victory, they dream only of one thing: the television broadcast of the hanging of Ferenc Gyurcsány (who is still running) – or Béla Biszku after resurrection, which is basically the same. This dreamed image is their favourite onanism. The Hungarian left is today a band of losers, to put it mildly. Almost the same can be said of the Hungarian “intellectual” right. It mobilizes troops on Facebook, no more. Let it be careful: if the Hungarian political left is almost dead, its intellectual substratum of a few thousand people is highly literate and knows tirelessly to read and organize itself. This substrate is the main and the only true reader of the Hungarian press; it peels the articles from the beginning to the end, cogit them and will regurgitate them with talent. The outer layer of this substrate is also composed of a mass of shameless Budapest zombies, taking their anti-orbanism shoot in ten slides on before taking off for London or Berlin. The deep layer of this substrate – which has time and money, tools to facilitate the liberated reading – reads the Hungarian press with pleasure and annoyance, but it masters the slightest nuances. It also knows what is written elsewhere because it is mostly multilingual. If the print media did not exist, it would be able to find the answers to the current questions in its impressive private libraries located in apartments of the beautiful central districts of the capital, because it is paradoxically and immensely conservative, having seized one thing that the Facebook-active intellectuals of right are only pretending to have understood: the newspapers pass and the books remain. The actual readers of the Hungarian print media can for the most part be located “on the left”. This press is therefore very much alive, and in a way radically different from that described by Brussels’ voices. But, once again, Brussels is nevertheless right. This press is not free. It is actually read by a handful of free people. Liberated, with more or less intensity, of financial constraints, and enjoying free time. Its profound influence on the short term is therefore minimal. As far as consumption is concerned – it must be remembered, we do oppose consumption and reading – it only accentuates what already exists: the asymmetrical fracture of Hungary, each side advancing in its tunnel, versus Of course without reading the content of its two portals, which both contain regularly searched and serious articles.

The Western scribblers working to the radiance of the CNN or BFM TV, all telegraphers of the fantastic impartiality, had better watch out. The Hungarian audiovisual landscape is highly questionable – as everywhere else, for its very nature: the degrading character of the image. In the Hungarian case, it has this regrettable tendency to pour salt on the recent and old scars of this small country of Central Europe. The printed press, wherever it exists on earth, is only malicious propaganda if it is only consumed. If it is methodically read and underweight, it is almost exclusively by a financially well-off intellectual class, especially composed of people anthropologically “on the left”. Hungary does not derogate from this rule on this point. Then, the Western media hammer will still be able to continue its fury against Budapest and cry about a “fascist dictatorship” like late John McCain. Here is what the Western media want us to believe: in the face of opposition journalists, the Hungarian authorities would be using the same violence as that implemented by fascist dictatorships in the last century or that perpetrated, more recently, by the American army, of which John McCain was an illustrious hero.

Translated from French by the Visegrád Post.

Yann P. Caspar is French and Hungarian, jurist, and is based in Budapest.