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.
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 Népszabadság, the 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.