Political Clientelism in Hungarian Journalism - The Burden of Post-Communism or a Long-lasting Model of Polarized Bi-partisanship?

TitlePolitical Clientelism in Hungarian Journalism - The Burden of Post-Communism or a Long-lasting Model of Polarized Bi-partisanship?
Publication TypeElőadás / Presentation
AuthorsHegedűs, István
Full Text

Political Clientelism in Hungarian Journalism

Political Clientelism in Hungarian Journalism - The Burden of Post-Communism or a Long-lasting Model of Polarized Bi-partisanship?


The concept of political clientelism in journalism was elaborated by Daniel C. Hallin and Stylianos Papathanassopoulous as an explanatory framework for analyzing the media systems in a lot of Southern European and Latin American countries. They argue that the clientelist model can be differentiated from the dominant liberal Anglo-Saxon pattern in the democratic world mainly because of its distinct relationship to the political sphere and the state. According to the authors, there are five common characteristics of political clientelism in journalism: low levels of newspaper circulation, tradition of advocacy reporting, instrumentalization of privately owned media, politicization of public broadcasting and broadcast regulation, and limited development of journalism as an autonomous profession (Hallin and Papathanassopoulous 2002).

This paper is an attempt to consider the applicability of this approach in the case of Hungary, a relatively new democracy since the collapse of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991. In a post-communist country, even if it has created a stable political system and enjoys a peaceful competition amongst political parties now for one and a half decade, shortcomings in the performance of the media compared to normative theories or to the practice of elderly and well-established democracies might be simply contributed to the legacy of the long one-party rule. On the other hand, the development of the Hungarian political sphere has produced a sharp division between public discussants into two antagonizing ideological blocks without any real opportunity for dialogue. The emergence of a polarized two or, perhaps, two and a half party-system has urged and forced many members of the journalistic society to join one of the political camps. Symptoms of hierarchical relations between politicians and “media-workers” as well as the functioning of the media system might be fruitfully evaluated with the help of the model proposed by the political clientelism in journalism school.

The question is whether political clientelism in journalism has now become a deeply rooted mode of functioning in the public sphere in Hungary. Hallin and Papathanassopoulous argue that political clientelism co-exists with other forms of political organization in the societies where it has appeared. Today, there is a more or less independent segment of the media, which has strong positions in the market and exerts significant impact on public debates. It might be the case, although it is not evident that features of bipartisan journalism simply show a transitional stage towards the full evolution of an autonomous and professional media system as it occurred for example in the United States (Schudson 1995). Can we call political clientelism in Hungarian journalism the most important mechanism between politics and media beside various other forms of relationship; moreover, can we declare that this way of conduct is the dominant explanatory framework for the functioning of the public sphere in general?

Before trying to give an answer to the questions, let us summarize the development of the media field in Hungary during the last two decades.

The short story of Hungarian media development

In order to grasp the political nature of the Hungarian media sphere it seems to be necessary to give a broad picture about the genesis of the current system and to discuss some influential perceptions in the public debates about the role of the media in the domestic political arena.

1. In the eighties, communist authorities controlled the press and the state TV. Still, the old bureaucratic as well as informal rules of the monolithic regime worked with more and more errors in the late years of a “soft” dictatorship. The usual sticks and carrots methods used by party functionaries in order to co-opt leading journalists and intellectuals into the logic of the system were more often replaced by clear-cut censorship. Journalists of this epoch could choose and oscillate amongst a firm ideological loyalty to the regime, a cynical accommodation to the needs of the political leadership, and a reform strategy in order to broaden the limits of free speech that unavoidably included permanent self-censorship. Only members of the underground opposition published illegally samizdat literature without taking into account the taboos of the era.

2. During the late eighties, when the one-party regime gradually collapsed, people working in the media started to enjoy the new opportunity of broadening democracy and criticized the government whilst often becoming the mouthpiece of different new political and civil claims. The privatization process of the written press, the lingering regulation of the public media as well as the entry of commercial televisions and radios, later on the appearance of the internet created a newly structured media sphere in Hungary. By the second half of the nineties, in spite of some legal and political problems, the general judgment on media freedom shifted from partly free to free according to the evaluation of international monitoring agencies. Indeed, many competing press organs as well as commercial radio and TV channels do guarantee the freedom of expression and access to the media for all influential public actors.

3. The transformation of the media sphere occurred parallel with its over-politicization. The first media war broke out under the first conservative government in 1990, which intervened into the market relations, personnel, and legal background of the field with an anti-communist rhetoric, whilst its opponents and most of the representatives of the profession defended the autonomy and independence of the media. The second similar fighting started for another four years in 1998 when the new right-wing government proclaimed its objective to create what was called a new balance inside the media sphere (Bajomi-Lázár 2003). Although after long-lasting negotiations the media law was carried at the end of 1995, it was not able to stop partisan manipulations concerning both the licensing of nation-wide commercial broadcasting channels and a direct influence of any political forces in power on the public media.

4. In consequence of being a battle field of continuous political clashes, polarization tendencies in the media sphere have been strengthened following the sharp division of political elites and their electorates into competing ideological camps. Especially in the case of the right side of the political scale, advocacy journalism has emerged always loyal to the major conservative party and its charismatic leader by the turn of the century. On the other hand, some left-wing newspapers also linked together more closely with the socialist party in terms of ownership or moved to an uncritical platform regarding the activities of the left-liberal political block. Today, there are TV and radio channels targeting only one part of the audience with their political programs and messages. Still, another big piece of the media landscape cannot be easily labeled according to partisan affiliations.

5. Changes in the media sphere were driven and accompanied with public debates and new ideological explanations on the role and impact of the media on the affairs of the Hungarian political community. First, liberal views demanding the right of free speech, a pluralistic media system and an open competition amongst media producers dominated the political and intellectual discourse. By the middle of the nineties, however, a version of universal media power theories have become more and more popular in the country. Following the arguments of the concept, which postulated the rule of the media elite, Hungarian proponents of the idea emphasized the decisive role of professional gatekeepers and their opportunity to influence the opinion and political taste of the audience. Conservative theoreticians and columnists have argued that the overwhelming majority of editor-in-chiefs, well-known reporters and other opinion-leaders construct a media reality that simply reflects their own left-liberal world-view and neglect or discredit challenging cultural frameworks and ideological interpretations. This general claim on the right side of the political spectrum seemed to lose its explanatory strength when the coalition of conservative parties won the parliamentarian elections in 1998 and the skillful use of modern political communication methods and language was supposed to be one of the reasons of the victory. Later on, however, the perception of a media power that has been consciously ideologically bias and culturally distorting gained support again from the electoral success of the socialist and liberal parties in 2002 and 2006.

The dominant patterns of journalistic behavior

During and after the collapse of the communist regime in Hungary, the development of the media system in Hungary has always been interconnected with the changes in the political sphere. Today, we face a polarized partisan landscape with one major political force on each side of the political scale, and a similarly deeply divided electorate. The peak of antagonism between the two main blocks was reached during the parliamentarian election campaign in 2002. Although the tension in the political atmosphere was much milder four years later, partisan identifications have become firm and embedded in the citizenry.

Many members of the journalist society have participated in the political confrontations and have helped in creating and maintaining an ideologically strongly divided public sphere. Others have simply accommodated to the realities and have learnt the new rules of the game. After the regime-change, there was no lustration and the elderly generation of Hungarian journalists continued to pursue their profession without drawing any moral lessons. But the attacks of the first government against their critics in the media discredited the need for a sophisticated analysis of the communist past and the activities of journalists in the Kádár-era. Moreover, former loyalties to the ancient regime system did not hinder a lot of journalists to become loud supporters of the political line of the anti-communist right-wing political camp already in the first media war.

Around the turn of the century, the old right-wing project of the new conservative coalition government that aimed to establish a firm media background in order to counter-balance the perceived dominance of left-liberal journalism partly achieved its objective by ensuring the financial framework for a loyal media segment on the market. This intention was even strengthened when Fidesz, the major right wing political force proclaimed the “one flag, one camp” partisan strategy focusing on the occupation of the whole conservative side of the political spectrum after losing the elections in 2002. One of the unintended consequences of the mobilization of supporters has become that both journalists and readers with unconditional loyalty to Viktor Orbán, the former prime minister have “locked” themselves into the subculture of their partisan worldview and language, whilst permanently complaining about a hostile media environment.

Partly as the result of growing partisan influence in hidden ownership structures, or simply as a reaction to the expanding fear of an over-all penetration of the right-wing media, patterns of loyal journalism appeared also on the political left. Although there are differences in style, the level of advocacy and the closeness to the top politicians of their own camp, journalists of Hír TV serve a purely right-wing basis meanwhile an almost exclusively left-liberal audience is watching ATV. Moreover, if we compare the front pages of the weeklies 168 óra and Heti Válasz on the last week before the first round of the elections, it is more than evident that the first journal became an advocate campaigner for the victory of the socialist party, whilst the latter one echoed the official slogan of Fidesz: “Forza Hungary”.

The tradition of preference to opinion-pieces instead of fact-finding and investigating reporting also contributed to the emergence of attack journalism on both sides. On the other hand, news coverage often means that both the representatives of government and opposition are asked about controversial political issues - and the mission of journalists is supposed to be completed in the name of objectivity. In fact, this behavior shows a conflict avoiding strategy of the media elite with politicians as a consequence of strong partisan influence. This easy solution is often extended to the role of the experts and scholars, who are invited to the studios to explain and comment the news: they are often selected in pair from the two sides of the political scale in order to represent - and to reproduce - the arguments of the main political parties. In 2006, during the television debates of the prime minister candidates, press people had a simplistic public function to keep their eyes on the clock and had no professional task to raise questions, at least.

In general, the media usually follows and does not drive: although the media environment shapes the framework of a mediatized political competition in general, the strongest agenda-setting potential is in the hands of the political parties in Hungary. In the case of the public media, its decay - regarding both the quality of programs and the scale of audience - is mainly the result of a counter selection process on the top manager level controlled by partisan delegates to the supervising bodies. Commercialization and sensationalism systematically come together with depoliticization of public events both in the public and commercial media. On the other hand, commentary and political analysis in the news media often use old-fashioned stereotypes derived from historic experience of the country as a framework for interpretation in the case of current international or European political events and that is why it cannot explain the different nature of democratic institutional decision-making procedures to the public.

After the elections in 2006, top politicians of the major loser, Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Union blamed first of all the media for the defeat of conservative forces. They also claimed that 80-90 percent of the media worked in favor of the rival ideological block. On the other hand, and surprisingly enough, the strongly controlled right-wing press started to publish critical articles about the strategy and the campaign of the party. Some critics even urged Viktor Orbán’s withdrawal as number one politician of the right-wing camp. It is too early to say whether editor-in-chiefs have allowed these unprecedented debates with the approval of the president of Fidesz in order “to let off the stream” compressing some members of the intellectual ring around the party, or, the publication of contesting opinions are the first signs of a coming new era when unconditionally loyal journalism would become marginal in Hungary.

At this point, it might be useful to face this description of current Hungarian media affairs to the general characteristics proposed by the concept of political clientelism in journalism.

The five recommended common characteristics of political clientelism in journalism and the Hungarian media system

1. Low levels of newspaper circulation.

Low levels of newspaper circulation might be an indicator expressing that public discourse is limited to a segment of a society where political clientelism flourishes in the media field. In Hungary, according to a fresh survey conducted by Szonda Ipsos Media, Opinion & Market Research Institute at the end of 2005 and early 2006, fifty-one percent of the whole population over 15 years read one or more daily newspapers. This percentage includes serious Budapest-based political papers as well as lighter nation-wide and local ones - and just 26 percent of the people meant only tabloids when answered the question. Concerning quality journals, the picture is different: the number of readers hardly reaches 7.5 percent of the citizens.

In general, there is a tendency of decrease in readership of quality newspapers in the last years, which cannot be counterbalanced by a gradual spreading of the use of new media in the society. On the website of Matesz, a monitoring agency dealing with the circulation of Hungarian newspapers, detailed data have been regularly published. However, there is no aggregate number in the reports comparable to the circulation rates in those countries where the model of political clientelism in journalism prevails according to the analysis of Hallin and Papathanassopoulous. We have to turn to the general profile of Hungary elaborated by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics to find a similar approach. Here, the total average circulation (or copies printed) per 1000 inhabitants was 162.3 in 2000 (http://www.uis.unesco.org/profiles/EN/GEN/countryProfile_en.aspx?code=3480). In the same year, France, which is not part of the regions where political clientelism can be observed in the functioning of the media system, produced a similar, a little bit even lower rate of circulation of 142.1, whilst in Italy, where newspaper reading has the highest rate amongst the countries listed by the two authors, the data was just 109.0.

2. Tradition of advocacy reporting.

As it was discussed in the last chapter, advocacy reporting has a long tradition in Hungarian journalism. Following the example of Lajos Kossuth from the 1840-ies, the best intellectuals of their era published polemic articles about social and political issues in newspapers. Today, to be the author of opinion-pieces seems to be more prestigious in the eyes of the public than rigorous fact-finding and investigative reporting.

Advocacy journalism is strongly connected to partisanship. According to the Hungarian common wisdom, independent and autonomous professionalism in the media is impossible, or, if someone claims to be sovereign or “civil”, this rhetoric simply serves to mask his or her political affiliations - and this is often the case.

Nevertheless, adjustment to the political polarization and a parallel identification with one of the partisan platforms do not mean that this pattern of behavior and mentality exclude other tendencies and strategies in Hungarian journalism. There are plenty of journals, which have a strong character, but do not support any of the political parties and form their own positions on public issues refusing any sort of partisan influence. The fragmentation of the media landscape both in ideological sense and concerning the target audience, expressed mostly in different genres, gives the right and chance to citizens to choose from a broad supply offered by the Hungarian media.

3. Instrumentalization of privately owned media.

Since 1989, a couple of waves of privatization spread over in the media market, whilst many new magazines as well as TV and radio channels emerged and others disappeared in Hungary. The story of privatization started during the transition period to democracy when political interests of former reform-communists seemed to be saved and converted. Later on, especially right-wing governments intervened into the privatization process or supported newspapers with hidden or open state financial transfers.

By the middle of the nineties, Gábor Princz, head of Postabank, still a mostly state owned financial institution in that period, created a media empire and supported both left-liberal and right wing newspapers and journals with significant contributions. The media-mogul lost his position when Fidesz won at the elections in 1998. It occurred half a year after the assassination of János Fenyő, a private media entrepreneur. 

Today, the majority of the Hungarian language media is owned by multinational companies. Most of the proprietors do not have any political agenda and handle their smaller or bigger media realm as a - short run or strategic - financial investment. Meanwhile, in the case of some newspapers the unknown background of ownership makes people speculate about their political loyalties. On the other hand, undisputable political affiliation of other domestic business groups active on the media market also raises questions. Just to give two examples: the daily Népszava was rescued from bankruptcy by entrepreneurs who were supposed to be close to the socialist party at the end of the century. Another daily, the conservative Magyar Nemzet was re-privatized and became part of an investment group led by a close political friend of the prime minister of the Fidesz-government. The latest development of Magyar Hírlap shows a different outcome: the newspaper now belongs to Gábor Széles, perhaps the wealthiest man of the country, who also owns a new TV channel called Echo TV. His intention, to create a centrist and reliable media in a polarized public environment might be in conflict with his unclear ambitions to exert influence on public affairs.

4. Politicization of public broadcasting and broadcast regulation.

Public broadcasting has always been the main battlefield of the media wars from 1989 onwards. Continuous partisan fighting for influence on the political line of the public TV and radio, including the content of their programs, although with different intensity, characterized all government cycles since the regime-change. The long history of the birth of the media law at the end of 1995 as well as its over-regulating dimension shows the distrust amongst the main political players (Molnár 1999). Whilst struggle for partisan domination in the public media occurred mostly in the parliament at the beginning, the media law created new supervising bodies, which maintained partisan bargaining behind the scenes. During the rule of the Orbán-government an incomplete board was elected for the Hungarian Television by the parliament in consequence of lack of political compromise and a conscious misuse of the law (Hegedűs 1999). Moreover, even delegates of civil organizations often simply behave as supporters of one of the political camps.

Political calculations can be easily detected even in the case of nation-wide commercial TV-s: the postponement of licenses for RTL Klub and TV2 much before their expiration, but just in time before the parliamentarian elections in 2006, was the result of the hurry of socialist delegates to ORTT, the national radio and television body. This major media institution behaves as an authority and the decision-making process has been controlled by the political parties since its foundation.

The media law needs a two-third majority to be reformed in order to loosen its over-politicized character. Because of the current hot partisan contest, there is little chance to receive the support of the opposition for urgent and necessary changes.

5. Limited development of journalism as an autonomous profession.

In the eyes of the optimists, a new paradigm of the profession that breaks the dominance of loyal and partisan journalism on the one hand, and cautious conflict-avoiding patterns of behavior on the other, might emerge as a consequence of the appearance of a new generation. Popular on-line news providers are already perceived as independent and sovereign sources of information for those media consumers who have access to internet in Hungary. Moreover, many people working in the field of the media protest against any external ideological classification concerning their own professional activities and prefer an environment where interpretation of domestic news is not limited by a simple “us and them” framework. Indeed, there are many Hungarian newspapers and journals, which do not accept any political patronage. In case someone believes that “objectively” all of them simply belong to the left-liberal media world, then, certainly, the picture is much darker.

Still, strengthening of the autonomous and independent media needs much more effort because of the polarized political situation. The above mentioned examples showed how powerfully the logic of alignment to partisan cleavages effected not only media ownership but also the accommodation of leading journalists to political realities that came along with a deliberate or reluctant choice of one side of the political scale. Black and white reporting often comes along with attack journalism driven by partisan calculations, whilst the combating style of newspapers makes sophisticated readers suffer from the low intellectual level of public debates.

Now it is time to summarize the findings of our description about the characteristics of journalism in Hungary.

Political clientelism in journalism or something else?

The concept of political clientelism in journalism might be rightly used, at least partially, in order to analyze the current situation of the Hungarian media - independently from the different genesis of democratic regimes in some Southern European countries where the original model comes from. The tradition of advocacy journalism, the over-politicization of the public broadcasting system, the lack of courage and the conflict-avoiding behavior of media workers, as well as the interpenetration between top politicians and media entrepreneurs in the Hungarian case show a lot of similarities to the structural characteristics of the media field in the Mediterranean region.

But some of the important signs of political clientelism in journalism do not fit well into the Hungarian reality. The level of newspaper circulation is relatively high, private media often rejects partisan affiliations and a new generation of sovereign-minded journalists mock all political actors without hesitation. That is why competing frameworks for explaining significant phenomena in the Hungarian media system seem work well in grasping the state of the profession. For right-wing scholars, politicians and activists, the media elite of the country is deeply interconnected with former communist plus liberal political forces and they resist historic changes. According to this interpretation Hungary is still fighting with its communist legacy. Another and less advocate analysis might point out that the polarized political culture and the antagonism between the major ideological camps render a reason for the symptoms of bipartisan journalism in itself. Here the distorted development of the political system is responsible for the malaise of the media - still, there is a successful barrier against the penetration of clientele relations into social and political fields because of the stability of the democratic institutions, the functioning of constitutional checks and balances and the rule of law. Moreover, other observers might detect a new trend of a progress towards the development of an autonomous and independent journalism. In this approach, the turbulent epoch of the last almost twenty years seems to be a transition period on the way to the final crystallization of a free Anglo-American model in media affairs.

Time and research will help us to learn more about the future relevance of competing tendencies in the development of the Hungarian media system.

Selected bibliography in English

- Bajomi-Lázár, Péter: Press Freedom in Hungary 1998-2001. In: Sükösd, Miklós - Péter Bajomi-Lázár (eds., 2003): Reinventing Media. Media Policy Reform in East-Central Europe. CPS Books, Central European University Press, Budapest, pp. 85-114

- Bajomi-Lázár, Péter - István Hegedűs (eds., 2001): Media and Politics. New Mandate Publishing House, Budapest

- Gurevitch, Michael - Jay G. Blumler (1990): Political Communication Systems and Democratic Values. In: Judith Lichtenberg (ed.): Democracy and the Mass Media. Cambridge University Press, pp. 269-289

- Hallin, Daniel C. - Stylianos Papathanassopoulous (2002): Political Clientelism and the Media: Southern Europe and Latin America in Comparative Perspective. Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 24, March, pp. 175-195, www.blues.uab.es/olympic.studies/portal/122641/catala/observa/polis/clie...

- Hegedűs, István (2003): After the Accession Talks, Facing the Referendum: Hungary and Its Media Joining the European Union. Central European Political Science Review, spring, pp. 44-53, http://europa.kontextus.hu/tagok/heg_after.html

- Hegedűs, István (1999): Orbán Strikes Back (Fidesz and the Media), Transitions Online, Prague, December, www.kontextus.hu/europa/tagok/heg_orban.html

- Jakubowicz, Karol (1996): Media Legislation as a Mirror of Democracy, Transition, 18 October, pp. 17-21

- Mazzoleni, Gianpietro (2000): The Impact of the Media on Contemporary Political Communication. In: Nóra Schleicher (ed.): Communication Culture in Transition, Akadémia, Budapest, pp. 29-40

- McQuail, Denis (2000): Mass Communication Theory. 4th edition, Sage Publications, London

- Molnár, Péter (1999): Transforming Hungarian Broadcasting, Media Studies Journal, fall 1999, pp. 90-97

- Negrine, Ralph (1994): Politics and the Mass Media in Britain. Routledge, London and New York, 1994

- Norris, Pippa (2000): A Virtuous Circle. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

- Schudson, Michael (1995): The Power of News. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

- Television across Europe: regulation, policy and independence. Summary, monitoring reports. (2005) Open Society Institute, EU Monitoring and Advocacy Program, Network Media Program, Budapest, pp. 247-253,