Media’s Role in Promoting Nationalism

The broadcasting from the European football championship this past summer provided Hungary’s President Viktor Orbán with yet another opportunity to reach out with his xenophobic and EU resistant message. Using a mixture of propaganda on a grand scale combined with a milder form of censorship the Hungarian government has succeeded in reaching almost full control of public discourse.
September 17 2016 Text: Eszter Babarczy
Football is a very popular game and a powerful national symbol in Hungary. In the last weeks of June in Budapest and other cities the successes of the new Hungarian team coached by the German trainer Bernd Storck were celebrated all night by mostly peaceful crowds. News outlets of all political hues dedicated their front pages to the team and the celebrated players. A Facebook-initiated movement, to wear to work the famous grey jogging bottoms of the goalkeeper Gábor Király, was enthusiastically embraced everywhere. As commentators kept reminding their audiences, after thirty years of mediocrity Hungary played amongst and against the best teams in Europe.
 
For some liberals this upsurge of Hungarian pride was somewhat disturbing as it proved that Viktor Orbán’s vision of Hungarian football glory had widespread support among young people. But even these liberals came to accept that the displays of national pride had little to do with Orbán’s enemy-based nationalism. Hungarians desperately need something to celebrate and the desire for the ersatz-glory of a successful national team that had been so important for communist Hungary has been passed on to the twentysomethings by the older generations who have had little to celebrate in their lifetimes.
 
Yet this fairly innocent nationalism provided the government with a new tool to promote their resentment-based and far more pernicious nationalism and to reinforce their hegemony over public discourse. The broadcasting rights of UEFA Euro 2016 went to M4, a new sports channel in Hungary, established last year as a new venture of Hungarian Public Television. The government-controlled public media was in need of more viewers. With M4, funded by the taxpayers, public television could indeed boost its previously dwindling share in the Hungarian television audience. Audience viewings of matches with the Hungarian team reached as high as sixty percent—an  unheard of rating not only for public television but for any television programme in Hungary. 
 
On M4 between the game periods a one-minute news spot is broadcast and a simple overview of the topics of these one-minute spots reveals why the UEFA television license, worth hundreds of millions of euros, was so important for the Hungarian government. These news spots announce the latest successes of the Hungarian economy and promise various benefits to the population arising from new government policies. Such propaganda reminds one of socialist era television. But what is even more disturbing is the fact that the news editors (or rather, their governmental controllers) find it important whenever possible to incorporate news about migrants and migration.
 
For the Italian-French match, for instance, the main news item was a fight between groups of refugee minors in a Hungarian refugee camp. It is highly unlikely that a row among teenagers that resulted in no serious injuries and was resolved in a few minutes, well before police arrived on the scene, would have made the news in any national news programme were it not for the fact that these teenagers happened to be refugees. In fact, the news spot did not explain that the participants were minors, nor did it mention that the conflict was peacefully resolved. Its propaganda value was rather the incitement of fear. 
 
According to the national polls Hungarians who were generally suspicious of foreigners were easily mobilized by the fear-mongering tactics of the ruling party Fidesz. With the migration crisis, Viktor Orbán’s government used active propaganda to represent migrants as dangerous and malicious strangers who are not refugees but economic migrants (the Hungarian expression megélhetési bevándorló is far more denigrating than the English equivalent, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hungarians migrate to other EU countries in search of better job opportunities). Hungarians are now convinced that refugees are after their jobs, threaten to undermine their way of life, have criminal tendencies, and constitute a terrorist threat. T
 
he government combines such fear- mongering with anti-EU pronouncements often but not exclusively related to the migration crisis. All over the country hundreds of billboards advertise warnings such as “More respect for Hungarians!” “The people spoke—We must defend the country!” or “Let’s send a message to the European Union!” thus re-enforcing the xenophobic and anti-EU messages of government-controlled news. The 2nd of October is the date set for the Hungarian referendum on the EU quota system for distributing refugees and the slogan is “Let’s send a message to the EU!” The European Union is depicted not only as a threat to Hungarian sovereignty but also as a source of ’disorder’ or even ’chaos’ against which the government is ready to defend its people. In a rare television interview Viktor Orbán has told the Hungarian people that Hungary is an island of stability and order; Hungary is safe while Europe has become a ‘no-go zone’.
 
In the first days of July, as if to test the waters, two people, one of the country’s most powerful ministers and a spokesperson of the government, both announced their ’private’ opinions to the press saying that it was a reasonable choice to leave the European Union. Other Fidesz strongmen meanwhile emphasize that the government will fight to change the EU for the better and that Hungary should not leave the Union. As Orbán himself is mostly silent on the issue of a potential Huxit, those initiated speculate that the main idea behind this double talk is to dominate all sides of the argument and thereby prevent a pro-Huxit extreme right from entering the scene and stealing votes. 
 
Setting and dominating the news agenda through daily references to the migration crisis and the crisis of the EU might well serve yet another purpose. In the last two years Orbán fell out with two important Hungarian oligarchs who control significant chunks of the Hungarian media landscape. Firstly, Lajos Simicska, a founding member of Fidesz, amassed his billions through his close contacts and friendship with Orbán and as the financial brain of Fidesz. When Fidesz, after the 2002 election defeat, decided they needed their own media empire, it was Simicska who took on the task. In a few years he established or acquired control over a television news channel, a major broadsheet daily and its Internet edition, an important centre-right weekly, a free tabloid, two commercial radio stations, and much of the Hungarian outdoor display assets.
 
Following the very public break between Orbán and Simicska, new advisors and other trusted sidekicks started to build an alternative empire, establishing and taking over other papers and internet outlets and eventually acquiring TV2, the second most important (albeit non-profitable) commercial television group, and origo.hu, the most visited news site. Meanwhile, Simicska’s media, with many of the journalists remaining in place, took a U-turn and a far more critical approach to government policies. Following the breakup, however, public advertising funding disappeared from Simicska’s empire—to no one’s surprise.  
 
Secondly, in June 2016 the banker Zoltán Spéder, another oligarch, also fell out of favour. Although the media portfolio of Spéder—including index.hu (the most prestigious news site), important financial media outlets, plus a news radio channel—has always been independent and liberal-leaning; under intense pressure from the National Tax Authority and other government agencies there is no telling what might happen to its owner.
 
During the media war the control over public television and radio—and thereby the European 2016 contest—became all the more important. For the third time since 2010 public television that still serves as the major source of news for the elderly was cleansed throughout the landslide victory of Fidesz by rehiring journalists from the Simicska empire and getting rid of anyone not completely ‘reliable.’ The popular music radio channel of Hungarian Public Radio is also currently being reorganized and despite protests from the elite of the Hungarian music industry it is being refashioned as a pop channel, perhaps with the hope of winning over the less educated audience of Class FM, the Simicska commercial radio.
 
It is through the large-scale propaganda efforts and the soft censorship exercised through economic control over advertisement revenues and broadcasting licenses that the government exercises near-hegemony over public discourse. Direct censorship is rarely necessary in this atmosphere of fear; liberal and left-wing Hungarians are allowed to read and write their Internet news, blogs, and commentary that all exist as media islands for the better educated young and urban middle class. At the most these media outlets reach a few hundred thousand readers. It is not necessary to stifle the voice of this small cosmopolitan elite.
 
On the contrary, more active and aggressive investigative journalists or activists are simply described as anti-Hungarian internal enemies who receive subsidies from George Soros and who are out to undermine the stability of the Hungarian nation state, which is seen as a fortress under siege.
 
The propaganda of fear combined with the lacklustre performance of the fragmented and bickering opposition seems sufficient to guarantee that the hegemonic position of the governmental