In some countries, new communication technologies often seem to reach the point of becoming a mass phenomenon. However, in Hungary they do not yet play a role in the communication field comparable with traditional broadcasting – with the exception of cable distribution and multi-channel programming. The following article focuses on the tension between traditional broadcasting models and the democratisation of communications, especially certain problems emerging in the political arena.
For Hungary as a East European country, the challenges of the ‘new’ Europe and the dilemmas of democratisation are inseparable. First of all for the Hungarian, aspirations ‘to join Europe’, ‘to join West’ are synonyms of political democratisation, market economy, and the secret wish to join the circle of wealthy societies. At the same time, this means that all the contradictions and problems of the market economy and political democracy experienced in the West are part of these aspirations, although they are mostly not recognised. However it became clear for Hungary that the two aspirations - joining the West and joining Europe - are different and, in some aspects, conflicting.
The West - led by the USA - and Europe have some divergent aims, interests, and consequently contradictory requirements of those wishing to join them. In Hungary’s case, for example, the OECD’s and the European Union’s conflicting requirements resulted in problems in the media sphere too. Some times it seems that Hungary, as a new applicant in these clubs of developed countries, is required to meet criteria that many member countries did not fulfil. On the one hand, the OECD - more precisely its leading member state, the USA - demands that Hungary adhere without exception to the principle and practice of the free flow of information and audio-visual services, on the other hand the European Union demands positive discrimination for the audio-visual services of its member states and associated members. Of course there are others who do not meet these requirements, but they were already members.
However, there are also contradictions of other types too, for example Hungary's joining NATO and its immediate involvement in the Yugoslavian war. One should not forget that there is a large Hungarian minority in Yugoslavia forming a national cultural community with the Hungarians living in the Hungarian Republic which is also being sacrificed to the noble aims of NATO today and might become a hostage or scapegoat for the Serb majority tomorrow.
The globalisation of the communication processes, the growing emphasis on nations as cultural communities, the transnationalization of civil society, minority questions and territorial states seeking new functions, all these are closely connected to the question of the genuine democratisation of the communications. The relevance of old models of social communication - and of its democratic form - connected to nation-states, which for a long time made up the main frames of social communications, became very limited, partial. This was especially the case with the EU members that Hungary wishes to join.
The processes of globalisation have contradictory effects for the EU too, but in the case of Hungary there are some additional, special problems. If Hungary joins the European Union, a considerable part of the Hungarian cultural community, the Hungarian language community - the minorities living in neighbouring countries - remain outside. So the question of the borders of the Union - and thus the borders of Europe – creates particular, sensitive problems for Hungary.
But even if one tries to adhere to the traditional framework of democratic communications that is limited to the nation-state, one has to face problems of a conceptual nature. Seven years ago the author of this article was invited to take part in an international project. The question that the research was intended to answer was why East European media did not support the newly emerged democracies. At that time, I could not offer an answer. Now I know that the question was wrong. A series of questions has to be asked and answered before we could arrive at a more or less appropriate answer.
The genuine democratisation of the whole of society and the genuine democratisation of communication are inseparable. The real dilemmas are attached to questions about what we mean by democracy, society, and how we interpret the proper relationship of communication and the democratisation of society. And especially important is what those in decision making positions in the mass communications sphere - politicians and journalists themselves - think about these issues. The mass media play a very big part in the social communication processes of modern societies.
Genuine democratic communications
Following the change of system in 1990 there were and still are least two (and a half) competing ideas of democratic society and related democratic communications in Hungary: the neo liberal one (from time to time with added social liberal elements) and the idea of a (national) organic society. (The ‘half’ was a vague model of a social, self-governing character, something in between.) For the first idea (Alliance of Free Democrats) the genuine democratisation of communication meant that the media should be separated from the state, the government and their total independence guaranteed. Independent media were considered one of the most important conditions for the democratisation of society. The second idea emphasised the social responsibility of the government in the democratic functioning of the media, the need for their social control. For them the media were considered tools for realising certain political and national cultural aims. They paid much more attention to other forms of social communication - first of all to interpersonal and intergroup communications. Divergences of opinion about society and social communication resulted in a long media war flaring up between the proponents of the two views - politicians and journalists on both sides, who questioned the democratic character of the media according to different sets of criteria. Of course each side claimed to be the genuine democratic one, and as soon as they got into government, in turn they tried to realise their aims and annihilate the measures of the previous government.
One of the criteria for genuine democratic communication is civil society's active participation in communication and its control. Well, civil society - understood here as groups of people, communities, outside and separated from state power means, united and organised to achieve different aims or enforcement of interests - is relatively weak in Hungary. Before the change of system they played an important political role but during the social change the emerging political parties attracted their leaders to themselves. After the system change the new political elite tried to colonise and exclude them, or to include them only formally in the processes of social control. However, social control of the media became concentrated in the hands of the parliamentary parties.
Another element of the change of system affected the development of democratic processes too. Economic changes connected to the emerging market economy resulted in such inequalities in income and growing unemployment in the country, that the development of democratic processes was badly affected. Not only is a liberal minimum needed for democracy, but also a certain minimum level of trust and solidarity. If the differences are too great or growing, if the ethos of competition is over emphasised, the minimal level of solidarity needed to for the democratic processes disappears.
The development of communication technology and the commercialisation of the communication processes created new conditions for the democratisation of communication and for Hungarian communication policy too. This means that in the new situation some of the old aspirations became obsolete or should be radically transformed and the new contradictions incorporated into decision making - especially concerning regulating the communication media.
Public service and commercial media: democratic deficit?
Following the change of system Hungary adopted a mixed system in the printed and electronic press: the printed press almost without exception went into the hand of private - mainly foreign owners. All this happened in the very first period of change and in the face of feverish political fighting it was hoped that the foreign West European owners would directly support the democratisation of the media. The separation of the printed press and the state was as wide as possible. It was hoped that through the development of the publishing infrastructure and market know-how, they could form the basis for the financial independence of the papers and that they could transplant the democratic professional routines of Western newspaper editing and writing. However these hopes were only partly fulfilled: fierce competition between the newspapers for readers and for survival, stressed growth and profitability, not the democratic ethos. The democratisation of the Hungarian media received special support from American journalists, missionaries of liberal journalism, who came to teach what genuine democratic and professional journalism meant.
Alongside the independent printed press, the transformation of state owned broadcasting into genuine public service broadcasting was considered to be the other main source of genuine democratic communication. For a long time the BBC-style public service of the past twenty years was the model for Hungarian decision makers. There was an illusion that it could be carbon copied, without taking into consideration its changes, crisis, and adaptation to the changing environment, especially the loss of the monopoly situation, the growing competition from commercial programmes and the increasing internationalisation of communication. The Hungarian Media Law of 1996 imagined something similar to the classical BBC, overlooking certain important questions. These questions however returned in the form of how to interpret different items of the law. One of the most discussed items is the definition of the public service programme, and the minimal public service obligation of the commercial stations.
Editing a programme making choices, for which special value systems are needed: those preferred by the editor-mediator. These special value systems belong to communities. But which communities should be preferred in a pluralistic society, where there is no consensus about the most important communities and value sets? The nation-state no longer seems to be at the top of the hierarchy of communities. And what does ‘programmes for minorities’ mean? (One commercial radio station claimed to make minority programmes for anglers: they are a minority in comparison with the majority of non-anglers, and ‘accidentally’ form a good target audience for the advertisement of anglers’ outfits.)
How to interpret public services and the public service criteria in the context of a changing, pluralistic society? Democracy and democratic communication have meaning for individuals only in reference to communities. As new types of communities develop, inseparable from this new types of communication, participation and identities form and the development of new types of democracy are needed, new social spaces are created. When we speak about democracy, for the most part we think about political democracy, participation of individuals and social groups in public life, political decision-making, self-government, etc. A more open and borderless public space emerges where the conditions of democracy (and representation, identity and public interest) depend upon the changing make up of the participants and their bargaining capacities.
What do public service programme obligations mean for commercial broadcasting? Can any small, fragmented information byte on the commercial stations be a public service programme? Or according to the classical model, is it only a structured, hierarchical programme with a special information and cultural value set, and a characteristic approach to problems that can be a public service programme? Which reflects a more or less coherent picture, or world view?
If commercial broadcasting is considered an agent of consumer society, what kind of public service programmes, what kind of information would be needed to develop a ‘consumers’ democracy’ that could reduce the defencelessness of consumers, based on valid information about his/her decisions? Economic life and the market economy adapt more and more terminology from political life. We hear about ‘freedom of business speech’, ‘corporate citizens’ and so on.
Non-profit broadcasting: the future or back door?
Beyond the dilemmas of public service and commercial broadcasting there is a third type of media and audience relations in Hungary: non-profit broadcasting. Originally these stations could broadcast or distribute real community programmes made by and for local civil society and could fill a democratic gap in social communications. However, the majority belong in one way or another to local self-governments and are more or less controlled and financed by them. Where local government is not capable or does not want to support the non-profit stations, they are near to failure because of market logic. When thinking about survival, it seems to point to the end of the non-profit character: join one of the many commercial channels nowadays being formed in Hungary.
Kováts, Ildikó (PhD) is is a research fellow ta the Research Group for Communication Studies, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest. She is also Professor inthe Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of International Relations, Budapest University of Economic Sciences.