Monday, 11 April 2005

And so to Budapest...

And so to Budapest for an international conference on journalism ethics. We are dropped by the airport bus at the headquarters of the Hungarian Journalists Union and, since we have a few hours spare, walk down the Andrássy út avenue towards the Millennium Monument (built in 1896 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars in Hungary) at the end. Behind is a park and in the distance lots of Hungarian national flags are flying. Could it be a market? We head off.

But as we approach we see not market stalls but line upon line of tractors, up to 1,000 of them. How odd. What is probably the biggest ever exhibition of tractors doing in the centre of Budapest on a freezing cold March day? We see a massive tent and enter. Inside, hundreds of farmers are busy chatting away; tables are piled high with food; hundreds of posters, newspaper cuttings, slogans and maps have been stuck on the walls.

And the farmers are keen to talk. They claim payments of EU subsidies under the Common Agriculture Policy have been subjected to unacceptable delays by the government. Their patience has run out and so they are striking, setting up roads blocks around Budapest and another massive display of tractors in front of the grandiose, neo-Gothic parliament building overlooking the Danube. Residents of Budapest are sending donations, food and offering them places to sleep at night.

Later on that night, I see the lead story in the English-language weekly, the Budapest Sun, focuses on moves to negotiate a settlement between the farmers’ association and the government. Out of nine paragraphs in the story, only one and a half are given over to the farmers’ case; in the rest government spokesmen are quoted. Interestingly, a quick Google search shows owner of the Budapest Sun is Northcliffe Newspapers, chaired by Lord Rothermere. And the Budapest Sun is just one of a string of media outlets in Hungary owned by Northcliffe.

So I’m left pondering that my stroll down Andrássy út through a chilling March wind has brought me face to face not only with the extraordinary courage of the Hungarian farmers – but also with the importance of challenging the distorted news values of an increasingly globalised mainstream media.

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