The violent unrest last week in front of Hungarian Television (MTV) to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány has caused serious damage inside and outside of the building – in a period when nearly bankrupt MTV is trying to find a way out of its own political crisis.
The quality standard for programming is decreasing, the political influence is pressing and the viewership turns 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 that 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 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.
European Union 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. Because 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. Wessberg has been seeking the attention of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Gyurcsány Ferenc, in a letter early this month criticising especially the financially defenceless 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 of MTV 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 the license fee was abolished by the Hungarian government in 2002, MTV’s income entirely depends on the state budget making it very vulnerable to political influence. The current way of financing MTV through subsidies by the government directly violates the EU commission’s 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”, said Steenfadt. He endorses the license fee to drastically get away from political dependence and face the responsibilities of Hungarian public television.
MTV’s supervisory body to inspect “irregular” communication flow
These duties are officially regulated by the Hungarian media law which also includes that a television supervisory body (“Kuratorium”) is set up to oversee the independence of MTV.
However in information obtained by the Hungarian daily Népszava two weeks ago the management of the television supervisory body is putting pressure on MTV by strongly questioning the legitimacy of Steenfadt to make “strategic and business secrets” about MTV public. The supervisory body wants to hold a meeting 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”, said Steenfadt, but “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.
There is hope that an extraordinary meeting with representatives of the EBU and MTV in November in Budapest might initiate a path to change the state owned television from an institution of political dependence to an organization meeting public responsibility.
While ORF’s Unterberger recalls his “mission of inside bottom up modification of ORF” the Hungarian civic counterparts as well MTV employees are trying to find a way out of their obstacles ahead of them – not least to stay on public air.