Although for months all kinds of hypotheses have been floated about the Simicska-Orbán feud, I have judiciously avoided joining the rumor mill. Conjectures about the apparent rift between Lajos Simicska and his old friend, Viktor Orbán, were vague and occasionally far-fetched. I believe that it is better to be cautious, especially in a case like this one where details are extremely hard to come by. Simicska, the foremost oligarch in Hungary, is a very secretive man. The media has not been able to get close to him, and those pictures of him that were, until recently, available on the Internet all dated from the late 1990s when he headed the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. It was just a few weeks ago that someone managed to get a new photo of him. He has put on some weight and naturally he is about fifteen years older. Here and there a journalist manages to get some information about Simicska and his relationship to Orbán, but a few days later it is usually denied by someone else. So, under these circumstances, the most prudent course is to wait until we have more reliable information about what is going on.
We do have a few confirmed pieces of the puzzle, however. The newly introduced advertisement tax hurt not only RTL Klub but also the Simicska media empire. About a month ago I noticed that suddenly articles critical of the government began appearing in Magyar Nemzet, something that earlier was unimaginable. I devoted a post to that topic at the beginning of August. Since then there have been several more instances when government officials were scrutinized and their behavior condemned by the newspaper’s editors.
In the middle of the August Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned from a source close to both Simicska and Orbán that the two men had reached a temporary truce. Simicska agreed to sell Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Class FM to two close associates of Orbán–Árpád Habony, the brain behind Orbán’s political maneuverings, and Andy Vajna, the producer of the blockbusters Rambo and The Terminator. On the same day, however, another “reliable source” close to Magyar Nemzet denied the rumors to a journalist of Népszava. According to the latter source, the feud between Simicska and Orbán was greatly exaggerated but was still on. There are, he said, no plans for a complete or partial sale of Simicska’s media empire. This source admitted that because of the advertising tax, the ever decreasing readership of all print media, and smaller advertising revenues Magyar Nemzet will have to “rationalize” its business practices. The decision was already made at the beginning of August that the price of the paper will have to increase. It had remained constant for the last twelve years, so the hike was clearly overdue.
It seems that Népszava‘s information was the more accurate because today came the news that about thirty journalists have been fired at Magyar Nemzet. As it stands now, the paper employs about a hundred people. Seventy of them work on the print edition and thirty on the online publication. The “rationalization” involves merging these two groups and downsizing the staff.
Was this move necessary for financial reasons? Népszabadság came to the conclusion that although the advertising tax will cut sharply into the profits of Magyar Nemzet, the paper is getting just as much government advertising support as before. Pesti scrácok, a right-wing blog, claimed that Magyar Nemzet receives four or five times as much advertising as other newspapers and that its financial health is robust.
But then why this large-scale firing? And why ax famous journalists who have been zealous supporters of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz for decades? I will stick my neck out and suggest a couple of possibilities.
Let’s start with the advertising revenue. It is a well-known fact that no Hungarian newspaper can survive without indirect government support in the form of advertising and subscriptions. Each ministry and each Fidesz municipal administration has subscriptions for several dozen copies of Magyar Nemzet. The state-owned companies also greatly favor the right-wing publications, Magyar Nemzet and Válasz. But what if the relationship between the paper and the government sours in the future? Let’s assume that critical voices appear increasingly often in the paper, similar to what has happened at RTL Klub. In this case, it is very possible that the generous advertising orders will slow or come to an end. Is it possible that Magyar Nemzet is preparing for this eventuality? Is it possible that Simicska has not given up the fight but has instead decided to use the weapons available to the press?
There is another clue that might indicate a change in the political orientation of the paper. It is enough to look at the list of those who were dismissed: Miklós Ugró, a regular writer of editorials; Emil Ludwig, earlier editor-in-chief of the paper; Matild Torkos, an investigative journalist; Anna Kulcsár and Gabriella Lőcsei, both senior editors; and István Lovas, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels. These have been core people at Magyar Nemzet over the last ten or fifteen years. As Pesti Srácok points out, “these victims of the Simicska-Orbán feud are the people who steadfastly stood by Magyar Nemzet in its leanest years, at the time of the efforts to destroy the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments.” Indeed, Magyar Nemzet actively participated in that demolition job, and these people were perhaps the most zealous propagandists of Fidesz and its leader within the offices of Magyar Nemzet. What does their removal signify, if anything? Is it possible that their total devotion to Viktor Orbán has made them unfit for more balanced reporting in the future by Magyar Nemzet? Perhaps, but only time will tell. Until then this is only a hypothesis.