Sajtószabadság, médiapolitika, médiapiac, médiaoktatás – a Mérték Médiaelemző Műhely szakmai blogja.


Putin, the man who wasn’t even there

In the following, we will summarise how the popular Krónika news show, which airs at noon every day on the public service station Kossuth Rádió, reports about Russia’s war on Ukraine. Krónika is primarily popular among elderly listeners. Since this age group is less likely to use the internet, it is especially vital to keep track of the narratives they encounter in the media about the events surrounding us.

By Ágnes Urbán

The noon news show on Kossuth Rádió, the Krónika (chronicle in English; formerly the show was called Noon Chronicle) is a prestigious news show with a long history. To this day, many elderly listeners continue to see it as a key source of information. A survey of radio consumption patterns in Hungary ordered by the National Media and Info-Communications Authority found that at 12 o’clock there is a surge in the number of radio listeners, especially among the elderly. As emerged from the survey, the number of radio listeners in the 70+ age group rises to over half a million at noon, and the public service radio’s emblematic news show plays a pre-eminent role in this. The high listener figures in this age group are also important because there is a lot of talk these days about media bubbles and how easily the elderly fall prey to the government’s propaganda machine. Because of the lower-than-average internet use and the high share of radio listeners in this demographic, we can assume that the Krónika plays a pivotal role in the political information of the elderly.

The structure of the Krónika shows between 11 and 13 March (that is the 16th, 17th, and 18th day of the war) were roughly similar. The first five minutes were entirely devoted to the war, the course of the military events. These were followed by news items about the concomitants of the war, such as for example the refugee issue; this news segment was generally 20-25 minutes in length and it featured a strong focus on Hungary. Roughly 30 minutes into the show, other issues were also covered.

The summary of the immediate war activities was rather brief, but ultimately it provided a decent overview of the main events of the day. It was fairly obvious that the news show did not aim to provide a sensitive portrayal of the suffering endured by the Ukrainian people. Nevertheless, the Krónika shows reviewed did mention, for example, that Russian troops also attacked hospitals and schools. Thus, this is not the part which necessarily leaves the listener with a sense that something’s remiss.

What is most striking instead is what the Krónika shows failed to mention. Not once did the Krónika news raise geopolitical issues. They treated the war as if it had broken out by itself, like a natural disaster of sorts. Not once did the producers include a mention of Putin’s name. Nor did the Krónika discuss the economic crisis unfolding in Russia, and the censorship sweeping Russian public discourse also appears to have eluded the attention of the editors. An important military event from a Hungarian perspective, namely the fact that a surveillance drone passed over Hungary before crashing in Zagreb, is also not something that Krónika listeners would know about if the public service news show is their sole source of political information.

It is worthwhile to highlight a few specific aspects of the Krónika shows that aired during the period in question.

On Friday 11 March the EU summit and rising fuel prices were focal news. Krónika listeners were told that prime minister Viktor Orbán had stopped the EU from imposing sanctions on gas and oil shipments from Russia, creating an impression that the Hungarian leader had persuaded Europe to follow his policy line. Naturally, the issue of fuel prices was also presented as a Hungarian success, with the report summarising the main messages of the previous day’s governmental press briefing. The humanitarian assistance extended to refugees was also one of the central issues in the news show, and the head of an institution in the western Hungarian town of Zalaegerszeg commented on how they are assisting their Ukrainian sister city Berehove (Beregszász in Hungarian), which is located in the formerly Hungarian region of Ukraine. What the report failed to mention is that opposition-led Budapest, too, is a sister city of Berehove, and that the Hungarian capital is also highly active in assisting refugees – not least because far more refugees arrive in Budapest than in Zalaegerszeg, which is near the Austrian border.

An especially interesting news segment was the one introduced by the anchor with the comment that a “controversial left-wing statement had surfaced” – it referred to a statement by the former minister of defence, Ferenc Juhász. The report noted three times that the former minister – who is no longer active in politics – had previously served as “[former PM Ferenc] Gyurcsány’s minister of defence,” and the point that the radio was trying to drive home was that Juhász would help Ukraine by supplying arms. Juhász is also heard talking about “Putin’s soldier” – correspondingly, it is only thanks to his comment that the name of the Russian president is ultimately uttered in the news show. Peculiarly, the editors note critically that Juhász “was talking about armed conflict already two days before the war actually broke out, thereby inciting public opinion.” The report fails to clarify how the prediction that a war was about to be launched qualifies as incitement. Be that as it may, ironically the report inadvertently highlights how much more competent the former minister of defence was than the current Hungarian government – the latter appeared to have been caught completely off guard by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After a brief summary of the military movements, the show aired on Saturday, 12 March, featured an extensive report on the management of the refugee issue, arguing that everything on the Hungarian end was well-organised and that everyone was engaged and ready to help the refugees. Another noteworthy news segment focused on energy issues and it emphasised that “the left does not care how the Hungarian people can make ends meet.” The report failed to reflect on the issues of energy security or to provide a summary of the key energy policy dilemmas. Instead, it presented brief quotes from statements made by various opposition politicians, placing their comments in a context that made it appear as if they wanted to harm the Hungarian population. Since these were short comments presented outside their context, it was impossible to ascertain what the speakers had actually meant to convey.

The news show on Sunday, 13 March, was almost boring in repeating the issues covered during the foregoing days. After a summary of the military movements, the news show discussed the EU sanctions and the government’s position; in the words of foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, “we cannot allow a situation to emerge in which the Hungarian people are asked to pay the price of the war.” The report touched on this issue once again later in the show, in a lengthy item highlighting that fuel prices are surging across Europe except for Hungary. Naturally, the report failed to mention the fact that the difference between the wholesale and retail price of petrol is borne by the filling stations or the economic problems that this arrangement gives rise to. As one would expect, the report did once again focus on what it presented as the successful Hungarian management of the refugee situation and the willingness of the Hungarian public to help.

On the whole, the Krónika shows examined did not feature any outrageous comments, nor were there any instances in which the shows tried to uncritically disseminate Kremlin propaganda, as we found in our analysis of some earlier television shows. Nevertheless, it is readily apparent that the Krónika avoids any coverage of issues that could prove embarrassing to the government. Thus, there was no discussion of how Putin has started a senseless and cruel war, thereby jeopardising decades of stability in Europe. Nor did the reports mention that Russia was becoming completely isolated, which casts severe doubts about the geopolitical rationality of maintaining strong ties to the Russian regime. The energy policy context is presented in a highly simplified manner, focusing exclusively on low utility prices, just as the government-imposed freeze on fuel prices is also presented exclusively in a positive light. The serious military incident in Hungary, i.e. the surveillance drone passing over Hungary, was not even mentioned – obviously, there was no way to embed it in a narrative that would have made it look favourable for the government. Thus, persons who draw all their political information from the Krónika will not fully appreciate what’s at stake as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, and they will come away with the impression that thanks to the wisdom of the Hungarian government the negative consequences of the war will completely pass us by.

In addition to the heavily biased coverage that glossed over several major issues associated with the war, another stunning editorial decision was that the news site Origo was quoted on three distinct occasions. This was all the more remarkable since one would expect that an institution which operates with a budget of 130bn forints and boasts its own news agency would be able to draw on its own materials and would only resort to quoting outside news sources when absolutely necessary. Origo is widely known as a news outlet which disseminates uncritical government propaganda, and hence there is no obvious explanation for the decision to give its views such a distinguished treatment in a public media news show – unless what made Origo seem relevant to the Krónika editors was precisely its unscrupulous pro-government coverage.