In a recent column for the Daily Mail, Peter McKay maintained that the success of Big Brother proved that, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, the values of communism had triumphed after all. He could not have been more wrong. Big Brother and the dumbing-down process it so typifies owe very little to the ideology of Marx and Engels, but plenty to a monopoly capitalist system.
Had McKay been brought up under communism as I was in Hungary, he would have known better. In common with other eastern-bloc countries, the Hungarian government had as one of its stated aims the raising of the cultural life of the people. “There can be no socialism without culture – without the culture of the masses,” proclaimed the Hungarian Communist Party’s chief intellectual Gyorgy Aczel in 1973. “Culture has an indispensable role in the fact that man, who establishes the conditions of material well-being, should not only live well, but should feel well in society.” In practical terms, this meant lavish subsidies for orchestras, opera houses, theatres and cinemas in order to make them accessible to everyone.
Hungarian state television, Magyar TelevIzio, followed a classic Reithian policy to inform, educate and entertain: as Aczel put it, its mission was “to satisfy the viewers’ demands for entertainment in a way that we do not give way to the demands of inferior tastes”. Saturday night when I was growing up meant a Jules Verne adventure, a variety show and a Chekhov drama. Foreign imports included The Forsyte Saga and David Attenborough documentaries. One of the most popular and talked-about programmes of the entire period was Poetry for Everyone, in which, each night, a famous actor or actress would recite a different poem.
The programmes now could not be more different. Since 1996, Hungary has allowed the creation of privately owned commercial channels and the entry of foreign-owned media conglomerates. The two terrestrial commercial channels, RTL Klub (owned by the German media giant Bertelsmann) and the Scandinavian-owned TV2, pander to the lowest possible taste, packing their schedules with soap operas, sensationalist news programmes and “reality” TV. The prime-time choice is between TV2’s Big Brother or RTL’s equally vapid Hungarian copy, Real World. To make way for RTL Klub and TV2, Magyar TelevIzio’s second channel, the equivalent of BBC2, was shunted off terrestrial and became available only on subscription. By 1998, Magyar TelevIzio, funded by a mixture of a licence fee and advertising, had lost one-third of its revenue.
The government has forced the cash-starved state broadcaster to follow a more “commercial strategy” – in other words, to meet trash with trash. While the narcissistic inmates of the commercial channel’s reality shows discuss who is going to bed with whom, Magyar TelevIzio counters with American films, Venezuelan soap operas and “real-life” crime.
As Labour’s communications bill heads for the statute book, the lesson from Hungary (and elsewhere in eastern Europe) could not be more clear. The German-born sociologist Erich Fromm said that the danger of the past was that men became slaves, whereas the danger of the future might be that they would become robots. Media liberalisation and the demise of public service broadcasting make that prospect more likely.