You must be kidding: A tale of an “independent country ranking”

A good, independent country ranking should paint an objective picture of countries. These rankings can be interesting and useful, except when they’re politically driven and biased like the 2020 report issued recently by the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

If you have any doubts about its bias, simply have a look at the report’s list of Hungarian country experts. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

In this 2020 edition of the report, the Bertelsmann Stiftung claims Hungary is not a truly functioning democracy, maintaining “only the spectacle of pluralist competition.” This sad state of affairs is due to “the erosion of the system of checks and balances, the restriction of horizontal accountability, clientelism and crony capitalism, the constant narrowing of civil space and the implementation of an anti-Western orientation and rhetoric under Viktor Orbán’s leadership.” It also accuses the government of spreading Russian propaganda and perpetrating attacks against Central European University (CEU) and the Hungarian Academy of Science (MTA).

The Bertelsmann Stiftung has the audacity to claim that its report is based on the opinions of “country experts.” 

If you check this “independent network of country experts,” you will see that out of 10 Hungarians on the regional list, nine are from Political Capital, a leftist, liberal think tank based in Budapest. Political Capital was founded by a former member of the Free Democrats, a party that governed in coalition with the Socialists until it fell out of parliament in 2010. Political Capital was awarded contracts worth hundreds of millions of forints to provide communications advisory to the Socialist governments headed by Ferenc Gyurcsany and Gordon Bajnai.

Nine out of 10 of Bertelsmann’s “country experts” come from that single organization firmly planted in the opposition camp. Which foundation would publish a study like this and expect it to be taken seriously? On what planet?

Some of the report’s findings are downright comical. Like this one:

“The expansion and centralization of government influence over the media also increased,“ This is amusing because Bertelsmann Stiftung holds the majority of shares in Bertelsmann Group, owner of RTL Klub, Hungary’s biggest television channel and hardly a pro-government news outlet.

RTL Klub is not the only Bertelsmann affiliated news outlet that has churned out coverage staunchly critical of the Orbán Governments over the last decade. These outlets include Financial Times Deutschland (when it was still operating) and EURACTIV, as well as Der Spiegel and Stern, the latter two published by Gruner + Jahr, Bertelsmann’s publishing division. It’s also interesting that people at these groups seem to swim from one pond to the other. For example, a senior fellow at the Fondation EURACTIV was formerly in the Bertelsmann leadership.

We’ve grown used to this kind of reporting on Hungary over the last ten years, a constant drumbeat of warnings about dictatorship, breaches in the rule of law, lack of pluralism and threats to media freedom. Much of this comes from the same small universe of Hungarian sources who play fast and loose with the facts and who are all affiliated in some way with the liberal left in Hungary. We’ve grown to expect it, but none of us -- including Bertelsmann Stiftung -- should present or accept it as serious analysis.