Public Diplomacy Fall Speaker Series: Hungary 1956: Radio, Film, and History

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy and Professor Nicholas Cull welcomed A. Ross Johnson, Michael Nelson, Christine Whitaker, and Bob Filep, for a discussion on Hungary, 1956: Radio, Film, History and Revolution.

Listen to Part One of this event (feat. A. Ross Johnson) (45:21) | download">

Listen to Part Two of this event (Nelson, Freedom Fighters, Christine Whitaker, Bob Filep) (30:41) | download">

Listen to Part Three of this event (films, discussion) (56:26) | download">

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The Hungarian Revolution of 50 years ago and its brutal repression at Soviet hands remains a troubling moment in the history of Western Cold War public diplomacy. Immediately, allegations surfaced that U.S. international broadcasters and especially Radio Free Europe had irresponsibly encouraged the uprising, promising military support that would never come. In the aftermath, the powers east and west -- strove to establish their image of what had happened, and rival images clashed. This event considered the history of the 1956 revolution in light of newly available archive materials. Johnson, former acting president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and former director of the RFE Research Institute, presented the findings of his recent work in the archives of RFE. Nelson, former general manager of Reuters, has written on the history of RFE. Whitaker, former senior archives producer at the BBC, showed rare archive news film of the events, including film from Soviet sources. Filep is a former USC faculty member and a leading member of the Los Angeles Hungarian-American community.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

12:00 - 2:00 pm

Annenberg, Room 207

Event Report

Radio Free Europe's Role During 56 Revolution Examined
By Amanda Price

LOS ANGELES--Historians and freedom-fighters alike appearing at a forum here marked the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution with spirited debate over whether Radio Free Europe broadcasts helped inflame the anti-Communist uprising that was ultimately crushed in a matter of days by Soviet forces.

"Responsible journalism can end up serving as inadvertent incitement," said A. Ross Johnson, former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty acting president. "I think that's the real dilemma that we have to think about."

Johnson presented the results of his work in RFE's archives on Wednesday to a roomful of students and faculty attending "Hungary 1956: Radio, Film, and History" at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy.

The 50-year mark provided an opportunity to reflect on the lessons of crisis broadcasting learned during and after the Hungarian Revolution, said Johnson. "Looking ahead, U.S. government or any external broadcasters could find themselves broadcasting into civil unrest or violent upheaval, such as Radio Free Europe faced half a century ago in Hungary."

Christine Whitaker, former senior archives producer for the BBC, showed a trio of British newsreels that documented the uprising, including Soviet Russia's successful bid to quell the revolution during its final days in November of 1956.

Whitaker also presented a Soviet propaganda film that accused RFE and the United States of providing arms and funding to the Hungarian revolutionaries.

Addressing common criticism that RFE broadcasts had inflamed the uprising by promising Western aid that never came, Johnson said the stations reports were "gradualist," encouraging in-system reform over external rebellion.

"There can be no dispute about what was on the air," said Johnson, whose examination of RFE source materials led him to conclude that none of the stationҒs broadcasts promised U.S. help to Hungarian freedom-fighters.

Citing his recent review of 308 RFE broadcasts to Hungary during the revolution, Johnson said 171 programs received 'A' or 'B' grades, denoting factual and professional coverage. Still, excessive emotion and poor sourcing in some of the other 137 reports meant that the station's track record was "far, far from perfect."

"You've got good programs, but you've got far too many bad programs," said Johnson. The worst reports gave tactical advice to Hungarian freedom-fighters, said Johnson, referencing RFEs famous Molotov cocktail broadcast of Oct. 30, 1956, which told listeners how to make the homemade explosive device. But such programming was "atypical" of RFE's reports during the Hungarian Revolution, said Johnson.

Michael Nelson, an RFE historian and former Reuters general manager, said RFE's worst broadcasts were "much more serious than Dr. Johnson has let us believe." While the broadcasts of the BBC and Voice of America were "impeccable," said Nelson, "Radio Free Europe got it very badly wrong during the revolution."

Both Johnson and Nelson praised the programming that had been broadcast by RFE's Polish service during that countryҒs revolution, a precursor of sorts to the anti-Communist uprising in Hungary.

Johnson said the "babble of voices" being broadcast to Hungary during the revolution may have fueled the country's expectations of Western aid. "It might not be so easy to know which station was which," said Johnson, citing the negative role played by stations like Radio Madrid, which reported that Western help was on its way.

Rudolf Jeszenszky, a freedom-fighter in the Hungarian Revolution, was not deflected in his 50-year anger at RFE. He said the West never cared about his country's struggle. "Why do I feel like you want to clean the dirty laundry of the West?" he asked, accusing RFE of manipulating the news.

Journalists have a responsibility to get it right, said Johnson, who maintained that there was no disagreement between Nelson and himself on the need for quality crisis broadcasting.

External broadcasters must "draw a red line" between reporting and advocating violence in an effort to maintain editorial discipline, said Johnson. "This experience does show the need for caution," he said, "[and] for full responsibility on the part of broadcasters, who should never forget that they do not share any risk of action that their listeners face."


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