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January 26, 2022

Media war

The European Commission denounces the media lynching of Romanian magistrates by the local media. The indirect target of Brussels’ criticism have allowed themselves the irony of asking if a press law similar to Hungary’s was not perhaps a better idea. A law that has been very harshly denounced by European officials.  There is a major distance between an unleashed and impertinent press and a restriction of the freedom of information and/or opinion. Major enough, however, to accommodate politicians who fight their battles with the help of the media trusts. ‘The forth power’ in the state – the press – is inherent to the system of modern democracy, which is not to say that, throughout the modernity, it has not caused often complicated problems and genuine political crises.

In fact, almost any current crisis is proportional with its media impact. Consequences may go as far as resignations, dismissals and government falls. More than that, the old forms of electoral activism have been greatly replaced by forms of media persuasion. In other words, electoral rallies, posters or flyers are no longer as important as TV shows, which are crucial. Consequently, politicians have begun investing massively in the mass-media, from national to local. If in the past politicians were seeking media owners’ assistance, generously offering them preferential advertising contracts with state-owned companies, for example, now media owners are themselves political leaders. The most glamorous case is Dan Voiculescu, a man capable of turning his media trust into a redoubtable weapon in political campaigns. The Silvio Berlusconi actually pays off in Romania as well. It is no longer just about controlling the news and containing criticism (as ex-PM Nastase tried), now it is about skillfully ‘exposing’ people and channeling people’s rage against selected opponents. Like in the old times, when executions were public, staging a ‘savoury’ show, certain political TV programmes (covering a broader range, from interviews ad talk-shows to satire and investigative reports), offer ‘blood’ and ‘groans’. The ‘convict’ is humiliated, exposed to public opprobrium, stripped of any chance of defending himself. There are two elements that have contributed to the success of this slightly unusual type of press. The first one is the ability to frame ‘exposures’ in a larger performance culture. Political fight has turned into show and, like in a show, success is gained through the benevolence of an ad-hoc jury, with extras whose fixed reactions can be heard in the background. Political honourability is therefore played less with the results of administration or legislative work and more on TV ‘contests’ requiring not only a certain type of posture, but mostly the benevolence of organisers. It is a general phenomenon in a TV-dominated world and what really makes the difference is the degree of public influence. Electoral absenteeism is very high and the voters who still go to the polls are almost totally enthralled by impressions left by certain TV shows (even the print media is in regression). The risk for a society such as the Romanian one, where the civic spirit is generally in chronic crisis, is that we may end up like in a Chinese anecdote: two armies line up one on front of the other in view of confrontation; the soldiers of both sides are counted and the less numerous army steps back, assuming its defeat without a fight. Romanian politicians will soon end up only fighting each other on the TV, appreciating the result based on viewing rates and sympathy of an astute studio crew. Do not forget that it took a station like OTV just a few years to send a brand new party to Parliament. TV-politicians ride the wave and only highly exceptional situations can launch an outsider that is not backed by some important TV station. Even Traian Basescu, who became Mayor of Bucharest and then President through a smart street campaign, in the second case he probably scored the decisive points during the final TV confrontation with Adrian Nastase. However, there is one more factor determined by the more recent success of media influence: people’s frustration. The long-standing austerity and lack of vision of PM/politician Emil Boc exasperated a population who no longer expects anything good of the extended Basescu epoch. In more balanced times, Dan Voiculescu’s (political) market share – and other media owners, for that matter – would have probably been smaller. For now, the only acceptable response can come from the competition, who should keep clear of the temptation of borrowing the Antena or OTV spirit.

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