MTV under international pressure to reduce political dependence


The quality standard for programming is decreasing, political influence is pressing and the viewership is turning away. This could be more or less the image of numerous public broadcasting organizations in Europe, with the difference that some actually try to change the picture. Austria’s public broadcasting television ORF wants to belong to those pioneers and there is hope that Hungary’s public television MTV will ride similar waves if it wants to survive.

ORF encourages MTV to act now

“But policies might never change inside and outside of public broadcasting if civic movements and employees do not act,” said Klaus Unterberger, ORF journalist and member of the Austrian civic movements “Freiraum” (free space) and “SOS-ORF”, which have been initiating debates about the quality of public television in Austria and Europe and its role in society – most recently during a meetings with television journalists and civic activists in Budapest. SOS-ORF’s harsh critique about ORF’s programming has ultimately led to the removal of the former and politically dependent ORF-management this summer. It remains a question how soon the new management will introduce progressive changes but according to “Freiraum” an important step has been made towards politically independent and socially relevant programming in Austria.

EU considers MTV the “worst public television”

It might be of false comfort that MTV is not the only public broadcasting organization in Europe still operating under similar conditions. But according to a recent evaluation by the former director of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Arne Wessberg, the dimension of this issue has become more acute for MTV. It is degraded to the “worst public television” among all members of the European Union, failing to meet basic EU media guidelines, she said. Wessberg has been seeking the attention of the Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in a letter early this month, criticising especially the helpless financial situation of politically infiltrated MTV. It is five to noon and the stake seems high: “MTV needs help” to shift the “shameful situation” of nearly bankrupt MTV under “strong political influence […] to a successful model of public broadcasting”, writes Wessberg.
Wessberg’s evaluation comes in the midst of growing public attention towards MTV in Hungary and in Europe. This is partly a result of an assessment of MTV’s structure made public by Olaf Steenfadt, who serves as the strategic advisor to the President of MTV till the end of this year. The German journalist Steenfadt was temporarily borrowed by the Second German Television (ZDF) to assist building a public service programming and profile of MTV for a year.

Financing remains a question

The activism of “SOS-ORF” however might only serve as an inspiration for MTV “because the conditions of Hungarian public broadcasting are worse than they have been in Austria and anywhere in the European Union”, said ORF’s Unterberger.

Unlike ORF, MTV’s budget predominantly depends on the annual subvention by the government. Since TV license fees were abolished by the Hungarian government in 2002, MTV’s income now entirely depends on the central budget, making it very vulnerable to political influence. The current way of financing MTV through direct government subsidies violates European Commission regulation concerning state aid. “Without changing the source of financing, MTV will not be able to meet its responsibilities as an independent public organisation to serve the people and not certain interest groups,” Steenfadt said. He supports license fees as a tool to get away from political dependence and face the responsibilities of public television.

Supervisory board to inspect “irregular” communication flow

These duties are officially regulated by the Hungarian media law, which also declares that a supervisory board (called Kuratórium) is set up to oversee the independence of MTV.
However, in information obtained by the Hungarian daily Népszava this week, the management of this body is putting pressure on MTV by strongly questioning the legitimacy of Steenfadt to make “strategic and business secrets” about MTV public. The supervisory board will hold an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday to decide whether to inspect the recently “transparent international communication flow” of the MTV management since Steenfadt became advisor to the President of MTV. “I warmly welcome any investigation”, Steenfadt told the paper, adding that “it should however not only focus on the messenger but also on the message.” The senior advisor further disagrees that company secrets were revealed to anyone.

While ORF’s Unterberger recalls his “mission of inside bottom-up modification of ORF,” his Hungarian civic counterparts as well as MTV employees are trying to find a way out of the obstacles ahead of them – not the least of which is to stay on public air.
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