Today I will report on a interview with Kriszta D. Tóth, a journalist who was “the face” of the news at MTV, the Hungarian public television station, for four years. In March 2011 she tendered her resignation. From the interview we gain a glimpse into the inner workings of the so-called independent Hungarian public media under Viktor Orbán’s premiership.
Kriszta D. Tóth’s husband is an Englishman who, according to her, had difficulties grasping the depth of the problems she had to face day in and day out. He couldn’t fully comprehend the extent of government interference in news reporting. Nor can most people, either inside or outside of Hungary. Tóth’s story provides some anecdotal evidence.
Kriszta D. Tóth is an impressive woman. She has an M.A. in English language and literature and, right after she finished her studies at ELTE, became a journalist at The Budapest Sun, a publication still in existence. During the spring and summer of 1996 she was a journalist trainee with the Instant News Service in Washington, from where she went to The Budapest Business Journal. It was in 1997 that she moved over to television, working for commercial stations in Budapest. In 2002 she was hired by MTV and for a while (2004-2007) served as bureau chief in Brussels, after which she returned to Budapest as MTV’s evening news anchor.
It couldn’t have been easy for her to submit her resignation after spending almost nine years with the MTV news staff. What’s worse, Kriszta D. Tóth felt compelled to resign twice. MTV coaxed her back after her first resignation by agreeing to move her from news to entertainment. But after a year and a half she realized that even the “lighter side” of MTV didn’t offer a refuge for someone like herself. In January 2013 she resigned for the second and most likely final time.
What caused this woman, after a lot of soul searching, to quit? As she says at the beginning of the interview, political interference in the programs of public television and radio has always existed; it was only the self-restraint of the politicians and the professionalism and human decency of the news staff that moderated it. All this changed after 2010. The new regime has no self-restraint, and those members of the staff who upheld the professionalism of the news programs were fired.
Interference with the news was not subtle. Tóth, as anchor, always wrote her own leads, but she often found minutes before the live program that they had been rewritten and that this rewritten appeared on her teleprompter. Initially she tried to recreate her original story, but eventually she just gave in. For example, the word “opposition” was always crossed out from her stories.
There were daily fights with the “news director” over the content of the program. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point that “political messages” were sent from above and the staff was ordered to write the news accordingly. “The question wasn’t what the news of the day was but what the politicians wanted to hear that day.”
Her life started to be sheer hell because her professional standards were being violated daily. Eventually she and her husband came to the conclusion that this couldn’t go on. The next day she submitted her resignation. But then came that infamous evening news broadcast that she anchored for the last time. It covered the European Parliament’s condemnation of Hungary’s media law. To refresh your memory, this was the time when Vikt0r Orbán traveled to Strasbourg to defend his government’s position but failed and the vote went against Hungary. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), delivered a fiery condemnation, which Orbán had to endure. I wrote about the scene on January 19, 2011. It was this event that had to be “explained” somehow to the Hungarian public. Apparently the fight over the content went on for hours and, according to Tóth, although the final product was terribly unprofessional it was still “a hundred times better than it would have been if the original instructions had been followed.” While the camera was focusing on Cohn-Bendit’s role in the 1968 student riots in Paris and his alleged pedophile activities, Tóth was just sitting there with her head down, totally exhausted and most likely disgusted. The camera caught her in that pose. Many of her audience thought that it was an intentional signal to them about the state of affairs at MTV.
Tóth was urged to stay on. She agreed to the request on the condition that she could have a show that has nothing to do with politics. So, after half a year of recuperation, she returned and started an entertainment show entitled, after her initials, the DTK Show. The program had a bumpy start because of her inexperience in the genre, but eventually it attracted a sizable audience, surpassing MTV’s other entertainment program called the Fábry Show. Nonetheless, the management kept firing the people involved with the show, and eventually she was even told whom she could and could not invite as guests. By January 2013 Kriszta D. Tóth had had enough and resigned anew.
She has just published her first adult novel. (Earlier she wrote children’s books.) It is entitled Jöttem, hogy lássalak ( I came to see you again). She thinks that one day she may return to television, but I guess it will not be at MTV while Viktor Orbán is in power.