Hungary’s Viktor Orbán’s was re-elected last weekend to serve a fourth term as prime minister. The victory by Orbán, the nearest thing to a totalitarian dictator in today’s Europe, is not in any way surprising. The idea of a functioning, secure opposition in Hungary is like the idea of moving statues — you can believe it if you want but...
Since being returned as prime minister in 2010, Orbán has emasculated Hungary’s democratic tradition of checks and balances. Hungarian courts are no longer independent. Orbán long ago recognised that his anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-European Union, and proudly illiberal worldview could not prevail if his country’s media was allowed to exercise what we all take for granted — the freedom to report and criticise without fear of retribution from a reactionary administration.
To that end, Orbán’s government controls, directly or indirectly, around 90% of Hungary’s media. Dissent is unknown because it is not tolerated. Autocracy prevails and it represents a far greater threat to European stability than anything Brexit might provoke.
Obrán silenced media by intimidation but US president Donald Trump played a different card. To achieve office he, in a rare example of consistency, relentlessly excoriated the media. He, or, more specifically, his campaign managers, understood that if the credibility of America’s traditional media withstood his dishonest bile he might never reach the White House. Reaching a full understanding the role Russia and guns-for-hire organisations such as Cambridge Analytica and Facebook played in that election — and in Brexit — is a work in progress but it is hard not to think that they manipulated what we had hoped was a reliable democratic process.
The weekend intervention, just as Hungary’s voters were being led up the garden path, by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin indicating he is ready to take steps to protect the independence of Irish media organisations show that we are not insulated from the threats of a new media landscape.
His welcome remarks come on foot of the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) investigation at Independent News & Media. Mr Martin said his concerns are “of a most profound kind in terms of corporate governance, in terms of our democracy.”
That his remarks follow comments from Minister for Communications Denis Naughten that some form of State support for media might be necessary suggest that there is a realisation that, no matter how troublesome, an independent, secure media is a vital component of a functioning democracy. The alternative is a worldview shaped by a news feed determined at an unknown location to instructions from unknown conductors using an algorithm that serves somebody else’s commercial or political objectives. The alternative is Hungary.
As we prepare to mark a century of independence, maybe we should take a colder look at the threats, private or state, that might make the bicentenary celebrations of that independence less certain than they are now. State support for a secure, free media would be a real guarantee that the 2020 decade of bicentenary celebrations can be as valid as this one is.