The corruption of news reporting on ‘corruption’

There’s no such thing as a presumption of innocence when it comes to charges of corruption and allegations of misuse of EU funds in Hungary – at least for much of the media. Their negative bias compromises their journalistic integrity, and when news and information counters their narrative, they simply ignore it.

Late last month, Hungary received a delegation from the Budgetary Control Committee, also known as CONT, of the European Parliament. The timing was a little unusual in that the delegation arrived a half a year before the Hungarian elections but even more conspicuous was the volume of media attention devoted to the news of their planned visit. A Hungarian opposition MEP, who is also a member of the committee, took the lead in orchestrating the spectacle.

Hungary’s Metro 4 project and the restoration of the Felcsút train line received the most media attention. According to the media narrative (see here, here, here and here), the CONT Committee would set out on a mission to expose the small railroad project as an example of Hungary’s inappropriate use of EU funds.

Metro 4 in fact serves as an example of a project shown to be overpriced and irresponsible. Reports on the inappropriate use of funds, though, carefully avoided mention of the fact that the period under scrutiny occurred during the previous, Socialist-Liberal government. Last February, after the EU’s own anti-corruption agency, OLAF, published its findings, the former, liberal mayor of Budapest, Gábor Demszky appeared publicly to charge, rather pathetically, that the whole thing was some sort of conspiracy between OLAF and the Orbán Government. Those who would like to read more on the story in English will have to turn to Google translate because the mainstream, English-language media, otherwise eager to cover assumed misuse of EU money, didn’t find it worth covering. (Here’s the story in Hungarian from an outlet usually very critical of the government, 444.hu)

Back to the Felcsút railroad. The media coverage suggested that the prime minister was born in the small town and that the refurbishment of the railroad was a vanity project, ignoring the fact that the rail line had been established in the 1800s and demolished under the communist regime. The European Parliamentary delegation waited patiently for revelations of gross irregularities, while the press was on hand to speak to “demonstrators,” a handful of party activists from a minor opposition party.

The stage was set, it seemed. Except the catharsis didn’t come.

The delegation, in a reasonably polite statement, emphasized the good cooperation that they received from Hungary, promised help from the chief persecutor, and emphasized that they didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.

Response from the media? Crickets. FT, POLITICO and Euractiv could no longer be bothered with the story. The AP report entitled “EU lawmakers visit train linked to Hungary’s prime minister” was even taken down from the Washington Post as if it never happened (the AP copy is still available at less prominent outlets).

Now, consider for a moment what the media reaction would have been if the EP delegation had issued a statement casting a more negative, critical light? That’s right: feeding frenzy.

Accusing a government of corruption is an overused political smear tactic. Occasionally, it gets traction because it’s hard to counter. As Hungary heads into an intensified election campaign, reports like these will be plentiful.

The presumption of innocence does not apply to the Orbán Government when it comes to these accusations, and they’re not interested in any of the other stories. The infrastructure development, the dramatic economic recovery, the protection of the Schengen border and reduction to near-zero of illegal immigration into Europe through Hungary – none of that is of any interest. If it doesn’t fit within the Hungary-bashing narrative, it won’t be reported.