It’s not often coups get planned in broad daylight, much less with coverage by the media, but that seems to be what’s unfolding in Hungary right now. In a special meeting of the U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, America’s aspiring autocrats are taking lessons from Europe’s most successful one: Viktor Orbán.
Hungary’s prime minister, who has spent his 12 years in power transforming the country from a functioning democracy to a de facto fascist state, laid out a 12-point blueprint for how other Christian conservatives can follow in his footsteps. Chief among those points was the role the media, and Orbán’s control over it, has played in his Fidesz party’s consolidation of power.
“Have your own media. It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left,” he told the CPAC audience. “The problem is that the western media is adjusted to the leftist viewpoint. Those who taught reporters in universities already had progressive leftist principles.”
Orbán clearly practices what he preaches. In Hungary’s most recent election, state-controlled media outlets made it almost impossible for opposition candidates to have their message heard, much less supported. As the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in a report, “The campaign itself was characterized by a pervasive overlap between the ruling coalition’s campaign messages and the government’s information campaigns, amplifying the advantage of the ruling coalition and blurring the line between state and party.”
As American scholar and former assistant secretary of state J. Brian Atwood wrote in a recent op-ed, Orbán’s populist message in the recent Hungarian election blamed immigrants, universities, Muslims and the LGBT community, along with “faceless bureaucrats in Brussels,” for the country’s problems. “Orbán’s drift over time toward corrupt autocratic power and xenophobic populism is a case study of how democracies can be perverted,” he wrote.
To other European nations, Hungary’s retreat from democracy is hard to watch. But for the Trumpist right, it’s a how-to guide for the 2024 election and beyond. Orbán told the Trumpist Republicans in attendance at CPAC that they should run shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight “24-7” in order to bend the broader narrative in their favour.
That’s a lesson Canadian conservatives who are watching at a distance could also take to heart. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Stephen Harper was tweeting his delight at Orbán’s 2018 election victory. “Congratulations to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Hungary's Fidesz for winning a decisive fourth term! The IDU [International Democratic Union, an international alliance of conservative parties] and I are looking forward to working with you.”
Canada isn’t in any danger of embracing Hungarian-style fascism, but Orbán’s manipulation of the media could easily serve as an inspiration for our conservatives — and specifically the one poised to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Already, we’ve seen Alberta Premier Jason Kenney use tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to fund a “War Room” in order to shift the narrative around Alberta’s oil and gas industry and get his own call-in radio show from one of the province’s biggest radio stations. Doug Ford’s government beat him to the punch here by creating Ontario News Now, a blatant attempt to do an end-run around actual journalists and their pesky questions. And, of course, the ultra-cozy relationship between his director of media relations, Ivana Yelich, and Postmedia columnist Brian Lilley speaks for itself.
But the big prize is at the federal level, and that’s where this campaign to sideline the media will almost certainly move next. In a recent interview with Jordan Peterson, Conservative leadership hopeful Pierre Poilievre hinted he had plans to rejig the Canadian media landscape. “(Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policies) make the entire media apparatus dependent on the goodwill of the state,” he said. “I haven’t made an announcement on exactly how I’m going to fix that problem yet, but … stay tuned.”
Opinion: It’s not often coups get planned in broad daylight, much less with coverage by the media, but that seems to be what’s unfolding in Hungary right now, writes columnist @maxfawcett.
Defunding the CBC, as Poilievre has promised to do numerous times, might not be the hill he really wants to die on. But reviving Sun TV, the failed attempt from a decade ago to create a Canadian version of Fox News, could theoretically be on the table.
If Poilievre wanted to do that, ensuring the mandatory carriage status it was denied in 2013 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) would go a long way towards meeting Orbán’s prescription. It would fill Canada’s airways with openly partisan — and unapologetically conservative — content and force millions of Canadians to pay for it. Poilievre has never said he would fund a right-wing media operation like this, but it’s not hard to see why he would try.
If it did ever happen, the Trudeau Liberals would have to be credited with an unintentional assist. By opening the door to government funding of media organizations and outlets, they have invited conservatives to test the limits of what does and doesn’t qualify as journalism. And while the first iteration of Sun TV was a clunky attempt at cloning Fox News, it’s hard to imagine the people behind it didn’t learn from their mistakes.
There will be no Ezra Levant in the next version, as just one example. The production values will be better, if only because they probably couldn’t be any worse. And conservative pundits and politicians have years of gaslighting practice on issues like free speech and diversity of opinion that they could easily bring to bear on the government regulators at the CRTC.
So brace yourself, Canada. We’re not at risk of backsliding away from democracy the way Hungary has and America’s Republicans clearly want to, but Harper and the IDU are almost certainly still working with Orbán in one way or another.
If they get their way, our media ecosystem may soon get even more conservative than it already is.