Far-right governments’ erosion of media pluralism: a route map for our own domestic right?

The uneasy parallels between British media and the media in countries led by far-right nationalists, confirms the desperate need for media reform in the UK.

Right-Wing Watch

What do Benjamin Netanyahu, Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki all have in common, apart from being illiberal nationalist leaders who share hostility toward human rights, equality, immigration, and the European Union?

They have all crushed press freedom in their countries. 

As in so much of right-wing politics, Hungary’s Orbán provides the role model. In Hungary, the far-right has deployed a war on the media. Many attribute Viktor Orbán’s sweeping landslide victory in April 2022, which marked his third consecutive term in office, to his tight grip on the media.

Since Orbán became prime minister in 2010, Hungary has fallen from 23rd to 92nd in the World Press Freedom Index.  Reporters Without Borders warn that over the last decade, Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party have ‘increasingly attacked media pluralism and independence.’

The far-right government has directed advertising budgets toward oligarchs and wealthy associates while selectively imposing taxes on media organisations it deems oppositional.  The station Klubradio, where news and talk content was often critical of the Hungarian government, lost its license to broadcast, with the country’s media regulator saying it had “repeatedly infringed” the rules. Its frequency was awarded to Spirit FM, whose owner is supportive of Orbán.

With media organisations in Hungary being rapidly shut down, 85 percent of the media market is controlled by the government and its cronies, with nearly all print journalism and broadcast channels aligned with the ruling party.

As independent media become systemically excluded from information, journalists speak of personal attacks and say they are afraid to talk because of intimidation. In July 2021, the far-right government was suspected of hacking phones and using some of the world’s most invasive spyware against investigative journalists and one of the country’s last remaining independent media owners.

In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Mateusz Morawiecki, has been accused of adopting selected elements of Hungary’s dismantling of media pluralism for its own media landscape. A report by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) entitled Democracy Declining: Erosion of Media Freedom in Poland, notes how during the Covid-19 pandemic, the PiS party continued to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media in an effort to muzzle critical reporting and undermine watchdog journalism. Five years of policies aimed at destabilising and weakening independent media has ‘taken a deliberating toll on media freedom and pluralism,’ the report continues. Efforts include the Polish government having established a regulatory body under its control to curtail press freedom.

Such authoritarianism does not stop at Europe’s borders. Israel for many years was a beacon of liberal pluralism in a region dominated by dictatorships.  Today, in an ultra-nationalist, occupying and colonialist right-wing Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s attacks on press freedom has not only included efforts to influence public broadcasting and threats to close down the Public Broadcasting Corporation, but have also led him to carry out extreme, potentially illegal actions. These have included bribery charges and allegations that he granted regulatory benefits worth more than a billion shekels in exchange for sympathetic coverage on the popular news site Walla. As Haaretz reports, investigations have shed light on the extensive efforts made by Netanyahu and his inner circle to gain control over the media by attempting to manipulate and influence publishers.

The steady erosion of press pluralism in Europe is worrying enough but is even more so when we consider the media landscape in Britain, where alarming parallels can be made. So far, we are a long way media-wise from all the politically and morally corrupt regimes cited above, but there are those at work who would be entirely happy for the British media landscape to resemble Hungary.

New TV channels

The emergence of new right-wing TV channels, seeking to emulate those in the US, has been the most significant new feature on the landscape in the last couple of years.  In keeping with a commitment to pluralism, we should not take issue with the right of different political voices to be heard, but the fact that that these channels seem to conveniently skip around impartiality rules they presumably signed up to in order to obtain broadcasting licenses, is concerning. As is the imbalance of Britain’s news media. More right-wing populist news websites are also being launched, which, often propped up by millionaire donors, are determined to pull readers rightwards.

The right-wing infiltration of Britain’s media shares alarming similarities to Orbán’s deliberate influence on the media in Hungary. But then is this so surprising, given that instead of steering clear of one of Europe’s most divisive leaders, some political figures in the UK regard Orbán as a hero?  

Rather than criticising a leader who has presided over a deterioration of press freedom in his country, Tory figures have been unashamedly cosying up to him.

In June this year, three Conservative MPs were criticised for attending a conference hosted by Viktor Orbán, along with representatives from other far-right European countries.

Veteran backbenchers, Sir Christopher Chope, Sir Edward Leigh, and Ian Liddell-Grainger were photographed in Budapest with Orbán and members of other populist or far-right parties including Spain’s Vox Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, and the Sweden Democrats. All three of the Tory veterans are ERG members who drove the Brexit agenda.

Leigh even went as far as to post the image on Twitter, accompanied with the text: “With Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, learning about his country’s effective ways of combating illegal migration.”

The meeting, and image, evoked criticism. Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats’ Cabinet Office spokesperson, said: “This is a shameful image for the Conservative party. Conservative MPs should not be cosying up to a far-right leader who has enforced homophobic and anti-democratic policies.

But UK Conservatives nuzzling up to the far-right in Hungary and vice-versa, is nothing new.

According to the Budapest-based journalist Dan Nolan, since 2010 Fidesz has “spent considerable time and energy – not to mention tens of millions of euros – on strengthening ties with the Conservative party.”

As so often in Right-Wing Watch, the discussion inevitably falls on the influence of right-wing think-tanks. In this instance, the Danube Institute is part of the wider picture. The conservative think-tank was founded in 2013, is based in Budapest and receives funding from the Hungarian state. Its president and founder is John O’Sullivan, a UK conservative political commentator and journalist, and one-time speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher.

In December 2019, at a Danube Institute event, Boris Johnson’s aide Tim Montgomerie opined that Hungary showed “interesting early thinking” on “the limits of liberalism” and that Johnson’s administration would be looking to make “very significant investment” in relationships with governments such as Orbán’s. The comments sparked fury, with Labour calling on Johnson to have Montgomerie ‘removed immediately.’

The apparent influence of Orbán and his Fidesz government on politics in Britain is showing signs of seeping into the British media landscape, where our own press freedom is being eroded. For example, ministers seem to think nothing of making provocative and baseless claims about journalists – think Kemi Badenoch’s unfounded assault on a HuffPost journalist for merely asking questions.

Further press freedom fears were raised when a journalist was arrested in 2021 after photographing activists protesting outside a controversial military camp housing hundreds of asylum seekers in Kent.

More recently, the Home Secretary faced criticism after appearing to exclude non-right-wing media from a taxpayer-funded trip to Rwanda. The top Tory had invited journalists from outlets including GB News, the Daily Mail, the Express, and the Telegraph, but media which does not align with her politics, such as the Guardian, the Mirror, and the BBC, were excluded.  

Then there is the UK right-wing commentariat’s love of inflaming culture war topics, which could also be seen to be directly pinched from the Orbán playbook. The Hungarian leader has long ostracised the LGBTQ+ community and has faced cries of anti-Semitism. He is also well-known for demonising immigrants. In 2018, as he campaigned for a third term in office, Orbán said Europe is now ‘under invasion’ by migrants. Where did we hear the same words spoken? Oh yes, it was by our own Home Secretary. Suella Braverman prompted outcry last November when she told MPs that the south coast was facing an ‘invasion’ of illegal immigrants.

As in Hungary, where 85 percent of the media market is controlled by the government and its cronies, in Britain, a handful of ultra-rich Tory-supporting billionaires control three-quarters of Britain’s national newspapers.  

Paul Marshall

And there is a lesser-known media baron entering the scene, who, as ConHome reported this week, appears to be in the process of becoming a significant figure in the Conservative media landscape. Sir Paul Marshall, founder of the right-wing website Unherd, has reportedly enlisted merchant bankers to advise him on a bid for the Daily Telegraph – which is up for sale – and maybe the Spectator. The hedge fund tycoon is an investor in GB News, alongside Legatum. ConHome has heard that Marshall ‘wants to make GB News the centre of the next Tory leadership race.’ But, as ConHome contributing editor Andrew Gimson notes, such a prospect is likely to alarm a certain kind of Conservative, and spark fears that it would mean a ‘lurch to the populist Right, a Trumpian nightmare inflicted on the party by some latter-day press baron.’

Then there is the right-wing assault on the BBC. Historically, Britain’s claims to be a liberal democracy, have been vested, in media terms, in the BBC as a unique and widely respected public broadcaster independent of government. Such independence is no longer a matter of celebration for large parts of the press and the Tory Party.

As in Israel, where efforts have been made by the ultra-right government to influence public broadcasting, in Britain, the BBC is increasingly in the firing line of the Tory Right. Driven by the right-wing Tory newspapers, who love to shake their fists at the BBC (just this week they were sent into meltdown after EU flags were aired on the broadcaster’s Last Night at the Proms), politicised campaigns have been stepped up against the broadcaster, designed to influence control and direction. As the BBC comes under greater criticism and scrutiny from Conservative ministers and their press, its governance is being progressively swamped by Tories. In June 2020, Tim Davie, who was deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative Party in the 1990s, replaced Tony Hall as director general. The same year, Richard Sharp was appointed as the new chairman of the BBC. Since 2021, the former Goldman Sachs banker has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party, Electoral Commission records show.

Culture war deflections?

As Viktor Orbán is said to use culture wars and broadcasts against immigration to deflect from economic woes at home, British arguments over EU flags and gender identity divert attention from the cost of living crisis, crumbling public services, or the latest government scandal.

The uneasy parallels between British media and the media in countries led by far-right nationalists, confirms the desperate need for media reform in the UK. Without ending party political influence over the BBC, investing in more regional and local news, and reforming news media ownership, the media won’t just remain a symptom of Britain’s problems, but a fundamental cause of them.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Brexiteers rage at BBC, backed up by right-wing press

It doesn’t take much to send the right-wing baying mob into anti-BBC uproar. Throw a bit of Europe into the mix, and what we saw this week was an unmitigated round of Beeb-bashing.

The angst was caused by a section of the audience seen on air waving European Union flags at last weekend’s Last Night of the Proms. Needless to say, Brexiteers were up in arms, backed up, of course, by the anti-EU press.

Spearheading the chorus of contempt was Nigel Farage, who used his slot on GB News to blast the BBC for showing EU flags from ‘people who hate this country.’

The Brexit-loving Express didn’t hold back either, citing the laboriously predictable words of the Reform UK leader.

‘Richard Tice demands that ‘insulting’ EU flag is banned from the Last Night of the Proms,’ it splashed.
“This is a patriotic event celebrating Britain and we are allowing people to insult this country with the flag of a political organisation,” Tice told the Express.

The report continued that Tice had turned his ‘ire on the BBC which organises and broadcasts the event.

“I am afraid I think the BBC is complicit in this,” he said.

Not content with one article berating the presence of EU flags at the Royal Albert Hall, the same day the Express published another report, claiming to name and shame the ‘Remoaner group who handed out EU flags at BBC Proms.’

The campaign was led by Thank EU for the Music, a group that pushes for music without borders. The campaigners make no secret of their actions and say that ‘tens of thousands of music lovers have taken our free European flags into the Royal Albert Hall for each Last Night of the Proms in solidarity with musicians who feel (like countless others) the destructive impact of Britain’s recent isolation from Europe.”

But for the EU-hating Express, the event was the perfect opportunity to stir up trouble towards Remainers, as well as the BBC. The same article spoke of how ‘Tory MPs have also waded in to criticise the BBC over its handling of the event.’ The report claims the BBC ‘has denied being complicit in the hijacking of a patriotic event by Rejoiners who attacked Brexit and the Last Night of the Proms for being ‘jingoistic.’

The right-wing newspaper was also quick to publish a letter by former Tory MP Harvey Proctor, who says the BBC ‘must investigate how so many EU flags were waved on display at the Last Night of the Proms.’

The Telegraph also gushed all over Proctor’s comments, gloating: ‘Former Tory MP Harvey Proctor calls for inquiry but broadcaster says the Royal Albert Hall decides which flags can be brought into the venue.’

In a tweet that accompanied the letter, Proctor wrote: “I have no issue with freedom of expression. However, what should be a celebration of music was turned into an opportunity to make a political statement.”

The ‘however’ says it all really, confirming how the right-wing claim to love free speech and freedom of expression, but clearly only when it’s their type of free speech, and anything pro-EU certainly isn’t, especially when concerning the BBC.

Woke-bashing of the week – ‘100% woke free’ beer launches limited edition Donald Trump cans, yes really!

Ultra Right Beer. It’s a genuine product, I kid you not. And yes, it’s American. It was launched by former Donald Trump campaign manager, Seth Weathers, known online as ‘Conservative Dad.’

Visit the Ultra Right Beer company’s website – if you dare – and you are greeted by the words:

‘Conservatives will no longer complain about big corporations who use our money to indoctrinate our children with their woke garbage.

‘We’ll dump them.’

Weathers founded the ‘100% woke free’ beer brand earlier this year in protest of Bud Light recruiting trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney to promote their beer on Instagram. Conservatives went into a freefall meltdown at the young influencer’s involvement and called for a boycott of Bud Light. 

Not content with the brewer’s sales plummeting and the poor influencer caught up in the fracas having suffered a deluge of death threats, harassment, hate and bigotry, Ultra Right Beer have now released limited edition cans featuring Donald Trump’s mugshot, in what looks like a desperate marketing ploy to gain publicity.

Now, I probably would have been none the wiser to a crazy, woke-hating American brand and their peddling of beer cans featuring Donald Trump’s face in monochrome alongside the words ‘100% American beer,’ if it wasn’t for the Daily Mail delightedly publishing the story.

Instead of providing some critical commentary about a brand promoting a former US president who has had four criminal cases brought against him this year, and is now facing charges of trying to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, the right-wing newspaper used the story to exaggerate Bud Light’s ‘disastrous partnership’ with Mulvaney.

The Mail’s report informs how the six packs of beer are sold alongside the caption: ‘Each sale defends Conservatives against the unconstitutional prosecution by the Communist Fulton County District Attorney!’

The report continues how Weathers – who ran Trump’s 2016 campaign in Georgia – said the brand had gained more than 12,000 customers and sold 20,000 six packs just weeks after launching.

The Mail proceeds to have a predictable stab at Bud Light’s brewer Anheuser-Busch, claiming it has ‘been accused of meddling in one of the most hot-button culture war issues currently facing the country.’

That’s a bit rich isn’t it, coming from a newspaper which makes ‘woke’ jibing and culture wars a regular feature of its editorial calendar. I mean, just last week, it ran with a headline:

‘Yes, it sounds belligerent – but the culture war is one we MUST fight!’

As for drinking beer from a can with Trump’s mugshot… the saying ‘rather stick pins in my eyes’ springs to mind.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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