What about the BBC?

Mátyás Sárközi
Last updated:
04:01 16-04-2014
13:47 11-03-2011

I have not given the Hungarian press law a thorough reading and, since my mind is not exactly wired for legal codification, many of its passages are too complicated. At the same time, I do understand the essence of it. And it is obvious that a new, across-the-board press law was necessary.

I compared the Hungarian media regulation with the British one. Much of it is identical but there are differences; for example, the British make a distinction between regulations for the printed press, and the radio and television sector.

In Britain the supervision of newspapers is carried out by a complaints committee consisting of seven editors and ten individuals not affiliated with the press. Ofcom, the media authority that has been supervising television and radio since 2004, took over its role from five similar institutions. Ofcom is a body which operates with a huge apparatus and its scope of authority has been clearly defined. It is independent from parliament. It monitors programme quality, sponsorship and at the same time protects personal rights while demanding balanced reporting. At the time when its regulations were drawn up its founders strove to make sure that they would regard the European Convention on Human Rights as a definitive source. Free speech was therefore written into their title but, as the text says, it is necessary to consider restrictions necessarily imposed upon it by democratic society as defined by the majority.      

Ofcom prescribes an obligation to register and the acceptance of its regulations that determine standards of quality and appropriateness. Should anyone observe an infringement of these, they can complain to the media authority, which, in cases it deems to be justified, will launch an inquiry, after which it may impose fines of up to 250 thousand pounds (over 75 million forints). An important part of Ofcom's regulations is that it seeks to ensure the accuracy of the news and it prohibits anti-social behaviour and hate speech.   

To a limited degree the BBC accepts the authority of Ofcom since it regards its own code of ethics as being in harmony with Ofcom's regulations. I worked for the BBC for forty years and in my experience their code is effective and every BBC programme maker knows where the line is drawn. The practise has developed whereby any critical statement is followed by the counter argument of the opposing party. However, this classic BBC principle is lacking in the overwhelming majority of criticism that has been levelled at Hungary by the world's press. 

What does not suit my conservative approach in the British press and television is a lack of consideration, often accompanied by indecent commentary, for personal rights. Figures in public life have almost no personal rights and every detail of their private lives can be hung out to dry. I do not understand why the media law does not protect the rights of those suspected of a crime. Recently a girl was killed and sexual motives were suspected. The police arrested her landlord on suspicion, a retired and somewhat eccentric literature teacher of a prestigious school.  The press immediately published his name and his photograph, and described his past adding insinuating comment to it. Three days later it transpired that he was not the perpetrator. The press did not even say sorry. 

The tabloid press has recently made attempts to pry into the private lives of public figures by illegally listening in to their mobile phone conversations and then turning these into sensationalist stories. At the forefront of this game is the Sunday tabloid, The News of the World. Injured parties tend to turn to the courts rather than the media authority since the former impose harsher punishments and award higher damages. But with huge amounts of capital at their disposal it is still often worthwhile for press organisations to acquire their information in this way. There is fierce competition to attract tabloid readers.     

It is anticipated that in the wake of the European Union's comments, amendments will be made to the new Hungarian media law. I do believe even the original form of the media law gave no reason to fear for the freedom of the press, but perhaps it will be fairer after some amendments. For me the big question is: will the new media law be able to put a brake on the outrageous practice of hatred and backbiting that up to now has prevailed in Hungary?

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