Viktor Orbán no longer needs the oligarchs’ right-wing media

It was on January 9 that I wrote a post about the reorganization of the state media. I used the word “state” instead of “public” because by now Hungarian public television and radio are no more than government propaganda tools. I also wrote about Viktor Orbán’s vindictiveness, which is manifesting itself in plans for a state TV channel devoted exclusively to news. With this move Orbán is creating an alternative, backed by the state budget, to Lajos Simicska’s HírTV, which until recently faithfully served his and Fidesz’s policies. The two men had differences, however, and in Simicska’s media empire, of which HírTV is only one outlet, a few mildly critical programs and articles have appeared of late. For Orbán such disloyalty cannot go unpunished. Hence the new state news channel.

By an uncanny coincidence, on the very day I posted my article a “secret” meeting took place in the parliament building. Not until a week later, on January 15, did the public learn that Viktor Orbán had called together the editors-in-chief of right-wing, pro-government papers “to discuss and evaluate the work of the last year with them.” That is, to talk about how well the “media lackeys,” as one blogger called them, did their jobs last year. It wasn’t that we were unaware of the close cooperation between the government and the right-wing media, but it was still something of a shock to discover that this meeting was actually an annual affair. Apparently, every January the “lackeys” and the prime minister get together to discuss the successes or failures of the these media outlets’ work in the past year.

So, there was nothing unusual about the gathering itself, but what apparently transpired during the two-hour meeting was something else. Although not all those present told the same story, it seems that Orbán informed the editors-in-chief that from here on he will rely exclusively on state television and radio for government propaganda and therefore the generous subsidies to right-wing media outlets in private hands will be curtailed or may even cease. The subsidies to these government papers and television stations came in the form of advertisements from state companies. Just in the first seven months of last year Magyar Nemzet had ad revenues of 191 million forints from the Hungarian National Bank, 91 million from MVM, and 146 million from the state lottery Szerencsejáték Rt. If state advertisements stop, the right-wing media will be in the same boat as the socialist-liberal papers and the single left-leaning radio station (Klubrádió). This would impose a heavy financial burden on the owners, for example on Lajos Simicska.

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Orbán apparently made it clear that he was not satisfied with their work last year. There was still too much criticism of the government, which makes the electorate uncertain about the wisdom of the government’s decisions. According to the very detailed description of the meeting by Népszabadságthe prime minister was of the opinion that these newspapers and HírTV can manage on their own by now. Talking specifically about Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both belonging to the media empire of Lajos Simicska, Orbán noted that being financially independent will free them from the quandary of identity. They can be both right-wing and government-critical in good conscience.

According to some of those present, the message did not come as a complete surprise. Gábor Borókai of Heti Válasz and spokesman of the first Orbán government (1998-2002) told Népszabadság that any casual reader of the right-wing media can see that since last fall “there have been very few ads from state companies and absolutely nothing on the current campaign of the prime minister’s office.” What surprised the editors, however, was how openly Orbán talked about the government’s goals with respect to the media. He did not hide his intention to use the “public media” for government propaganda. I guess he doesn’t care that soon enough Hungary’s allies, the European Union and the United States, will hear his candid words about the connection between the government and the public media reaffirmed by some of the participants who were present at the meeting. Of course, it is possible that even this revelation will not move the European Union to act, although one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the Orbán government was the law on the media, eventually toned down on EU insistence.

Is Orbán’s move wise? Does it make sense to alienate the right-wing media and to bet the farm on an untried news channel of state TV, which has only 10% of total viewership? I see no compelling rationale for it, even from Orbán’s point of view. Mind you, he has done so many crazy things lately that perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he decided to take on the until now loyal press. For a government there can never be enough good press, and turning on journalists can be lethal. Viktor Orbán knows this better than most. At the end of his first term at the beginning of 2002 he bemoaned the fact that during his four years in office he had not paid enough attention to building up a friendly media. So, what then? Is he that sure of himself? That is also hard to believe given the incredible loss of popular support for his party and for himself.

There can be only one explanation for this seemingly crazy move: he really thinks that the journalists in question are totally devoted to the right-wing ideology of Fidesz and that even without extra subsidies they will not turn against him and his government. Although I don’t think that all journalists working for the right-wing media outlets are so devoted, there is a hardcore of true believers. It is unlikely that they would start writing critical articles about the government. RTL Klub was different. It was neither a right-wing nor a left-wing television station. Its editors just decided to leave out a lot of news that showed the government in a bad light. They did not want to irritate Viktor Orbán. From this neutral position it was easy to shift the newscasts to include items that previously would have been omitted.

Even if the people working for, let’s say, Magyar Nemzet abandoned their right-wing ideology, the editor and owner of a paper must also think of the readership that is accustomed to and demands a certain political stance. These papers cannot suddenly change their content although, according to ATV, Lajos Simicska, who owns HírTV, Magyar Nemzet, and Lánchíd Rádió, wants a shift in political orientation to appeal to the conservative center. The question is whether there is such a thing in Hungary. I don’t believe there is at the moment, unless as a result of Viktor Orbán’s move to the far right a more traditional center will emerge in the coming months.

All in all, Orbán might be correct in not worrying too much about the pro-government orientation of these newspapers in the future. If that turns out to be the case, the new state news channel will be just an added bonus for those folks who don’t have cable and who from force of habit watch nothing but state television. After all, this is what they did in the good old days when there was but a single TV channel. It satisfied them then and it satisfies them now.

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27 comments

  1. My feeling is that there IS a ‘conservative centre’ in Hungarian politics, at least at ground level.

    It isn’t particularly visible these days because it’s been swamped by the success of Fidesz, and many of its potential supporters have been lured over to Jobbik by its ‘not as nasty as we’re painted’ propaganda. But it’s there, and I think it’s now ready to vote that way – if it gets a chance.

    In my experience, the average Hungarian is pretty much centre-right in their outlook, pretty much the same as in most European countries (if you allow for the moderate nationalistic, xenophobic slant, which is pretty much accepted as ‘normal’ in Hungary). You do meet a surprising number of people (given the dominance of Fidesz-Jobbik) with social-democratic views, but the great majority are conservative, but without being radicals like the Fideszniksz.

    I have long felt that the ‘solution’ to Hungary’s woes (if there is one) is the creation of a centre-right opposition to Fidesz-Jobbik, rather than relying on the fragmented and largely spent social-democratic/left-liberal parties. It would take a miracle for people to switch in large enough numbers to the left to unseat Orbán, but I think it’s more than possible for a mass (and quite rapid) switch away from Fidesz-Jobbik towards a centrist party.

    The only problem is that there isn’t one! But the combination of Orbán abandoning his friends in the press and his increasingly erratic decisions, could spark the beginnings of a new right of centre movement. And if he alienates enough of his wealthy supporters, they have the money and organisation to turn that movement into a potentially election-winning party.

  2. re Éva’s comment – from that perspective, this is a bit odd, even by recent Orbán standards.

    He appears to be moving from a situation where most of the population gets his propaganda to one where only those who will watch a state controlled news channel will get it.

    I think even when he’s gone, we’ll still be trying to work out how Orbán works – is he clever, or just lucky, or is he just random? After all, a penny tossed 100 times CAN come down heads every time…

  3. Maybe Orban thinks that these right wing media outlets will not be able to survive without the generous state support they were showered with, and he may very well be right. So the plan is simple… kill the “old” right wing lackey media and create a new one based on the state channels.
    Orban wants to decrease his dependence on Simicska (whom he doesn’t trust anymore) and wants to build his own media empire.

  4. The pro-Orbán media’s owner’s are diversified investor-groups. The owner’s, such as Simicska – did not become rich on their media holdings, but through the skimming off of huge surplus profits from EU sourced funds, directed towards them by the State. That practice will not come to an end, and the media moguls know that fine well. The pro-government, privately operated media empire was set up by governmental seed money. What Orbán has done now is to simply tell the owners, that the seed financing is over, it is now time for the investments to generate profit on their own, as valid businesses, rather than look for further seed investment, which is not onle embarrassing, but costly to the State. He has not lost his mind. He didn’t invite the right wing journalists to Parliament, but the journalist’s bosses. There is no strategic error here but tough, Putin-like logic.

  5. Eva: I am only speculating.
    If the right wing media wants to remain in business, they have to sell ads, they will need income. So far most of it came from the Government and related companies or foreign companies which want to do business with the Government and pay corruption moneys, like the Anglo/Italian Helicopter maker AgustaWestland or Arab Airlines.
    If Simicska Lajos start loosing money on his media holdings, he can change his editors and writers, plenty of left oriented writers are out of jobs or sell the paper and the TV station.
    There is no rationality in loosing money for a stupid, ideology. Magyar Nemzet served all of the Governments in the past, that paid the bills. They are like a good gypsy band, they play the tune the paying guests order, and to their best ability.
    Old right wing readers will go, new left wing readers will come. We will see, how will it play out.

    However I am sure EchoTV and the greatest of the most idiotic clowns, Szaniszló Ferenc will remain loyal. Only Fidesz fans watch Világ-Panorama, it is so un-believably primitive, that it’s a waste of money to broadcast it in color.

    I also know, that It doesn’t pay for politicians to turn against the media, they became the fourth pillar of democracy and/or the power and authority of a Government. Those, who are NOT media lackeys and/or pro-Orbán, are the most dangerous, they are liberal, they will ferret out any nasty business and they are Internationally organized. The viktor should know about it, since he is not getting positive coverage from foreign media, since he turned against them with his media censorship law.

  6. Tryker, interesting article although I would not deduct from it Orban is a genius unlike some might say, he clearly got lucky. What I still don’t get clearly is who is paying the bill because someone still has to pay the difference. It looks like everybody is: the banks, the state and every citizen with the huge fees on bank transactions. I’m curious who will be hurt in the end.

    Can someone bring some light?

  7. Let’s not forget that most viewers will have no choice. That’s because in the cheapest cable package there will be no more RTL or even TV2 (a private station owned by pro-government strohmen) as per a new law. Only five state channels.

    Most poor TV viewers who don’t want to pay more and in Hungary people don’t like to pay more and who watch an inordinate amount of TV will henceforth watch the state TV channels which will hire the most popular media celebrities.

    The state media has more than 80bn in budgets and can use at least about another 50bn as advertisement from state owned companies (not that MVM would need TV advertisements of course, but they will transfer that amount of money to the state media). This is several times bigger than the budget of RTL Klub, whose critical news show reaches not more than 15% of the voters.

    Also, one should not forget state radio stations. Kossuth is still the default station in rural households and has been for decades. It is a pure propaganda station and it works. But there are several other stations, all spreading propaganda.

    It’s also worth remembering that when Simicska in mid-2014 ran some mildly critical stories about Orban dozens and dozens of readers immediately demanded that Magyar Nemzet stop those articles and get back to fighting the cause, so MN did. The readers will remain the most committed hard-core fideszniks whatever Simicska’s or his journalists’ intentions may be. Print media by now is for the most committed readers, and not for curious people wanting to be up to date about the world’s events.

    This TV and radio strategy worked for Berlusconi and Putin, Orban reckons this will work for him too. These stations will work hand in hand with the glossy women oriented magazines (now – coincidentally – under a new, Hungarian ownership), Arpad Habony will ensure that.

    Orban knows that you don’t have to be friendly with your own voters or with the opposite voters, one should only spend money on the battle ground voters (in Hungary that means rural, uneducated, poor voters). And he does.

  8. OT: but so characteristic. In Hungarian: the called Strategic Agreement between the government and Tesco. In short the parties love each other and count with each other as cooperative partners in the long-term.

    Foreigners could kill for the opportunity to sign these papers. They could wave to their bosses at HQ proving that they here much-liked and influential. I guess that’s what Mr. Grey did too.

    I hope Tesco and others could learn, but my guess is that the entire management in the UK and in Hungary will be replaced soon, so nobody will remember.

    The good thing for a dictatoric government like Orban’s or Putin’s is that its partners, whether in business or in politics keep changing, so these partners always have to re-learn who they are dealing with. Which means Orban, Putin etc. can fool ignorant foreigners for ever. Stability and memory are underrated by democracies.

    http://2010-2014.kormany.hu/download/1/d1/c0000/Tesco%20_121217_HUN.pdf

  9. @Jain and others

    All this talk of “fooling ignorant foreigners” who are trying to do business in Hungary (EU politicians are a different matter) is rather ugly and chauvinistic, and another variation of this too-common mindset of “we Hungarians are so much cleverer that foreigners, even if in a devious way”.

    I don’t think the owners of Tesco, Auchan etc. are ignorant – they just can’t do much about it if they want to operate in this market. What other choice do they have short of pulling out of the market altogether?

    None of you smug geniuses who comment here ever say what these companies should have done differently to avoid being put in this situation.

    It doesn’t really matter what a company like Tesco does. If the government wants foreign companies out of a market, it will find a way to do it by hook or by crook. We’ve seen that (and continue to see it) in many other markets in the past few years – banking, media, energy, food vouchers are a few that come to mind – and I’m sure it will spread to other markets in upcoming years where foreign companies have a strong presence.

    And they’re not being pushed out because the foreigners who run/own these companies are “ignorant”!

  10. I was and I am puzzled why Mr. Dávid Vitézy of the BKV was fired.

    As I understood his family has very strong (media) connections to VO, but Tarlos fired him anyhow.

  11. Orban says that “hordes of economic immigrants (for Hungarian people translated as: negros, arabs, bangladeshis and other assorted brown looking people) are waiting to enter Hungary and they are being prepared by lawyers, attorneys”.

    And if a prime minister says something it must be true, after all he is a prime minister of an EU and NATO country. We have to respect him.

    Expect more crazy shit in the electronic media once Orban has his state media empire directly ruled by Habony. We have to wait two more months.

    The opposition won’t stand a chance in this war.

  12. @buddy

    I think they should do their job and not be signing (non-binding) agreements, giving Orban photo opportunities, entering into understandings and in general being actors in Orban’s well-coreographed drama/comedy to rule Hungary.

    Do you remember when the IMF was called in and there was a debate whether there were negotiations or just meetings. The IMF was traveling back and forth to the tune of Orban who gave them the coup de gras — but only after the IMF played its part as the blood-sucking US/jewish financed enemy intent on destroying Hungary. But Orban “defeated” them. Without the IMF willing to play, Orban couldn’t have scored such a victory. Same Viviane Reading.

    Orban couldn’t have tamed the dreaded multis if their local management didn’t want to keep their jobs and line up to sign meaningless “agreements”. But Orban knew that the Tesco and the rest would do just about anything (as it did mandating Fidesznik media companies and even Századvég and Tesco wasn’t alone in that) to look important and wanted and sign these papers and ensure that Orban looked like a victor forcing these foreigners like the the Allied forced the Nazis to sign the peace agreement.

    Orban and Putin play these people like a harp and the best thing is that they don’t even get it what they are participating in.

    Anyway the point meant to be the agreement whose text is more than ridiculous, and in light of the developments since signing it looks like signing was more than a crime, it was a mistake.

  13. Since Eva’s post is about the Hungarian media it seems on topic to discuss how the USA was portrayed this weekend by Népszabadság .There seems to be an ongoing effort to gain a deeper understanding of the United States and our cultural attributes in Hungary by both the right and left media. Today Népszabadság gave us a popular psychological analysis of the crisis of American males, mass murder with the use of firearms, and the marketing of the US gun industry to male images. To read this article go to http://nol.hu/kultura/a-ferfi-es-a-fegyver-15 The author is an American sociology professor at the University of Iowa who writes periodically for Népszabadság, and is within the American context very left wing.

    There is only one very major problem with this cultural analysis of American weapons culture, that is the fastest growing segment of gun owners, and active sport shooters are women. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 23 percent of women in the USA owned guns. That’s up 10 percent since 2005. See http://raycomgroup.worldnow.com/story/21313076/women-are-fastest-growing-demographic-of-new-gun-owners

    Moreover, all states now allow gun owners to carry concealed hand guns on their persons with certain restrictions and training. These individuals are issued permits or licenses. Today there are 8 times more women with concealed carry permits than there were just a few years ago; that’s not an increase, it’s a serious spike.

    The article plays down the fact that there have been mass murders committed by women using guns in the USA, Laurie Dann shot up a school here in Illinois, and in the book Flash Point: The American Mass Murderer, a sociology text, author Michael Kelleher mentions a couple of female mass murderers and notes a lack of attention to them. Most recently the killing of 20 children in Sandy Hook was in good part attributable to the mother of 20-year-old mentally ill Adam Lanza who owned all of the weapons used by her son. In fact the photo used in Népszabadság is of a memorial to the Sandy Hook victims.

    While the author of the Népszabadság article does note there have been killing by women here, he argues in the USA version of the article “Female suicide behaviors are more likely to be a cry for help. Male suicide behaviors, informed by social norms of masculinity, often result in a different outcome – aggrieved entitlement.”

    Even Népszabadság which one of the best daily newspapers in Hungary presents a confused and to a degree stereotyped picture of violence in the USA. Hungarians seem fascinated by American culture, and Professor Martin’s Népszabadság essay simply feeds into the myth making about our culture.

    Gun violence here is part of the cost of the 2nd amendment freedom in our Constitution and the majority of Americans by significant numbers are totally unwilling to adopt European like gun ownership restrictions in order to reduce our murder rate. Until that is grasped this issue will not be comprehended by either the right or left media in Hungary.

  14. @István: “Gun violence here is part of the cost of the 2nd amendment freedom in our Constitution” This is a very controversial clause that, in my opinion, applied only the circumstances existing at the time. Just a quick look at Wikipedia will explain why:

    “During the first two decades following the ratification of the Second Amendment, public opposition to standing armies, among Anti-Federalists and Federalists alike, persisted and manifested itself locally as a general reluctance to create a professional armed police force, instead relying on county sheriffs, constables and night watchmen to enforce local ordinances.[61] Though sometimes compensated, often these positions were unpaid—held as a matter of civic duty. In these early decades, law enforcement officers were rarely armed with firearms, using billy clubs as their sole defensive weapons.”

    Surely, the situation is different today. We have armies and police.

  15. @Jain

    “I think they should do their job and not be signing (non-binding) agreements, giving Orban photo opportunities, entering into understandings and in general being actors in Orban’s well-coreographed drama/comedy to rule Hungary.”

    But you see, these companies don’t have much choice. If they don’t play this little game of the government’s and get strategic agreements and so on, then they know they are definitely going to be on Orbán’s sh*t list, and won’t be making any money in this country. (And that’s what they’re concerned with, of course, not local power struggles in whatever country they’re operating in.)

    If you need an example of this, just look at Bunge, which refused to play along with corrupt practices and was punished as a result. Even going to their embassy to complain didn’t help, but rather resulted in a near-diplomatic crisis.

    If you want to call anyone an ignorant or naive foreigner, I suppose we could start with Bunge for believing that their country’s diplomats could make things work fairly in this country.

    As for the IMF, you can hardly blame them for responding when the Hungarian government says it wants to talk to them. Whatever subsequent political capital Orbán chooses to make from that is outside of their control (and probably outside of their concern).

    The EU is a different matter that in theory should have greater scope to act, but of course they’re not really doing anything, even though they all know full well what’s going on.

  16. Well, I just don’t think that on that basis you can call them ignorant. They’re just doing what they can to make money in this market.

  17. Integrity would demand from Tesco, Auchan, IMF not to negotiate with Orban.

    Integrity in each Hungarian would save Hungary.

    What is the translation of integrity?

    teljesség
    completeness, integrity, wholeness, fulness, fullness, totality
    sértetlenség
    integrity
    becsületesség
    honesty, integrity, probity, rectitude, four-square
    integrálás
    integrity

  18. MY-REGIME-REVIEW: Szerintem érdemesebb volna a realizmussal számolni és aszerint cselekedni és általában a versenyszférában, az üzleti világban erre vannak kényszerítve a vezetők. Ahol a kormány, az állam integritással igazgatja az üzletvilágot, elfogadható és következetes, megbízható adórendszerrel, ott az üzlet is integritással és következetesen működhet.

    Ahol az állam, a kormány egy maffial rablóbanda, megsarcol minden üzletet, vagy elkerget, tönkretesz, kisajátítja azokat, ott az üzletek igazgatóságának drasztikus védelmi akciókkal kell menteni minden fillért, mielőtt a rablóbanda rátenné a kezét. Ez a kötelességük a részvényesekkel és befektetőkkel, az üzletek tulajdonosaival szemben.

    Magyarországon az üzletek nem működhetnek integritással, becsületesen, a korrupció és a rablás miatt garantáltan veszteséget szenvednek el. Ráadásul aki tudja, hogy ki akarják rabolni, tudja ki az, tudja mikor, az egy eszeveszett hülye, ha a vagyonát védtelenül otthagyja a rablónak elvinni.

    Magyarországról minden külföldi üzletnek lassan ki kellene vonulni, kivinni minden fillért és bezárni felszámolni mindent. A magyarok amúgy is mindent jobban tudnak és mindenben jobban teljesítenek.

    Az MNB ellenőrizetlen és teljhalmú, integritástól duzzadó vezére, a matolcs, aki Budapesten, a TV-n bejelentette, hogy egymaga elhatározta és kényszerítette a Svájci Nemzeti Bankot az árfolyam megvédésének megszüntetésére és ezzel, mint mondta, U$600.0 milliót nyert egy nap alatt, (bár érdekes, hogy dollárba mondta és nem Svájci Frankban) az az egész kereskedelmet, ipart, szolgáltatásokat integritással, nyereségesen tudja futtatni Fidesztánban, nem kell oda senki más.

  19. Eva the US Supreme Court has ruled the 2nd amendment protects the individual right to own and use weapons regardless of the militia status of the individual. The majority of our population supports the position of our Supreme Court, which does not mean there can’t be limits on gun ownership particularly fully automatic weapons. Among these cases are District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Court ruled that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution confers an individual right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes such as self-defense. In McDonald v. City of Chicago the Supreme Court applied the Heller decision to the states and found that it held. All of Chicago’s laws banning private ownership of handguns were wiped out. The well regulated militia argument as a basis for gun ownership in the USA has been legally decimated, for better or worse depending on your perspective. That understanding clearly has not been communicated to the Hungarian population by the media, be they right or left wing.

  20. István, I believe that Supreme Court approved it but I still can think that it is an amendment that does not apply to our times. The decisions of the Supreme Court are not infallible. Often it depends on the composition. Right now there is a conservative majority.

  21. When Putler’s money are going thinner, Orbán has no other options left, but to cut some funds used to push Kremlin’s point of view (better tell propaganda) on non-state TV/newspaper. But when Putler’s money are no longer present what is he going to do 🙂

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