Hungary’s independent media: History of Heti Válasz

For a while I have noticed an ideological shift in Heti Válasz (Weekly Answer), a so-called conservative weekly, farther to the right. The headlines have become more and more sensational and the message often quite shrill. It's Fidesz on steroids. The final straw for me was the re-publication of an anonymous blog in which the most incredible accusations were heaped on Ferenc Gyurcsány and György Szilvásy, a friend of Gyurcsány who headed the prime minister's office and later was in charge of national security affairs. The writer of the blog tries to convince his readers that he is an old friend of Gyurcsány from KISZ days, but since then he saw the light and discovered that his old friend is a man who should be in jail because of the criminal activities he committed together with his friend Szilvásy. The standard timeworn accusations are repeated in this blog, including an alleged socialist conspiracy to create a far-right opposition that would weaken Fidesz. Another is that Gyurcsány tried to pass MOL onto the Russians, but he resigned before this transfer could be completed. This morning I heard an interview with Szilvásy. He suspects a former high-level employee of the National Security Office of providing some not quite accurate information to the people responsible for writing the blog. Szilvásy seems to think that the blog was written by a political scientist and edited by a journalist. In any case, publishing something like this only shows where Heti Válasz has ended up under the guidance of the editor-in-chief, Gábor Borókai, who served as the spokesman for Viktor Orbán's government.

Admittedly, the paper's beginnings weren't exactly glorious either.

Viktor Orbán made no secret of his desire to create a media empire that would serve the needs of the right and the government. He pretty well accomplished this task by 2002, mostly by convincing well-heeled sympathizers to establish newspapers (Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hírlap) and television or radio stations (Inforádió, Echo TV, HírTV). While before 2002 liberal media outlets were in the majority, today this is no longer the case.

Heti Válasz was unique among the "Fidesz" press; it was financed not by private investors but by taxpayer money, funneled through a government foundation. In September 2000 the Orbán government created a foundation that, judging from its name, was supposed to have something to do with the environment and society (Természet- és Társadalombarát Fejlődésért Közalapítvány/TTFK). The head of the foundation was István Elek, who started his political career in MDF and became a member of parliament in 1990 but three years later abandoned the party and soon enough joined Fidesz. I have heard a few interviews with István Elek and I must say that I found him a very boring man and by now someone who has lost all capacity for critical thinking. He has became a crude political partisan. One particular conversation between Elek and his old college roommate and former soulmate, József Debreczeni, especially stuck in my mind. These two men couldn't see eye to eye on anything. What a change in less than twenty years.

But let's get back to TTFK 's finances. The original amount of money given by the government was a relatively modest sum of 100 million forints. TTFK had ambitious plans to aid publishing ventures, including setting up an online newspaper (www.gondola.hu), a publishing house, and a weekly that was eventually named Heti Válasz. Why eventually? Because originally Elek wanted to call the publication simply Válasz (Answer) but there was a bit of a problem. Right after the war there was a literary magazine called Válasz whose editor was the owner not only of the publication but also of its name. Her sons and grandsons refused to allow the use of the name. Thus the new publication became the Weekly Answer. And it was deadly dull. As dull as István Elek himself.

In 2001, less than a year after the establishment of TTFK, the Orbán government injected another, this time very generous sum, into this hopeless venture: 1.5 billion forints. A fabulous amount of money in those days. But even that did nothing to rescue the publication. In 2002 another half a billion forints was needed. In addition, the government, free of rent, gave Heti Válasz accommodations in a lovely villa with the understanding that the foundation would spend 150 million forints in five years on the renewal of the structure.

In the beginning Elek and his coworkers had grandiose ideas about the success of the paper. They thought that, though the first year might not be profitable, they could eventually sell 60,000 copies. They spent 108 million forints on a subscription campaign. It must have been hard to swallow that the average number of papers sold was between 8,000 and 9,000. At this point they lowered the run to 25,000. Every year TTFK had to give millions to the publication so that it could stay above water.

When Fidesz lost the elections in 2002, the Medgyessy government wasn't so generous to TTFK. As a result, the weekly downsized from 84 pages to 67. It let some employees go. But even this was not enough to secure its survival. TTFK infused another 154 million. Good money after bad. In early 2003 the decision was made to stop subsidizing Heti Válasz. It was sold to a consortium of private investors including János Martonyi, former minister of foreign affairs, György Matolcsy, former minister of economic matters, and Sándor Csoóri, poet and president of the World Federation of Hungarians from 1998 to 2002. In addition, rich businessmen like Péter Szabadhely, who returned to Hungary from the United States, and Dezső Kékessy, the former ambassador to France and business partner of Orbán in Tokaj, kicked in some money.

Sometime after 2004 Gábor Borókai, the former government spokesman who after 2002 was active in the right-wing HírTV, moved over to Heti Válasz. Although the weekly is no longer as dull as in its early days, it still has a small circulation. According to the latest numbers about 25,000 copies are sold although they print 35,000. The style of the once serious weekly nowadays resembles a tabloid. It's enough to look at some of the headlines: "Mónika Lamperth kicked into Gyurcsány: Staggering details," "Gyurcsány uncovered: Hired killer against Fidesz?"

Good reading! At least Heti Válasz moved out of the elegant villa it got from the government in 2001. From Andrássy Boulevard they moved to Horváth utca. Definitely less glamorous an address. I assume the move was not their idea.