Instead of continuing with a brief history of the Hungarian right-wing "media empire" I will move quickly to the left because Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist who is a media expert, wrote a critical article entitled "Balliberális médiaharakiri" (Left-liberal media harakiri) in the June 19 issue of Élet és irodalom. And because Vásárhelyi knows much more about this subject than I do, I decided to turn to her analysis of the current situation, which she considers disastrous.
Vásárhelyi begins her article with a series of questions, among them "Can anyone take a party seriously in the twenty-first century that has no media strategy whatsoever?" "Can a party remain a player in political life when there is no politician in it with any coherent media program?" Obviously, Vásárhelyi thinks that the answer to these questions is a resounding "no."
The author briefly summarizes the situation right after 1990 when the overwhelming majority of journalists were of liberal persuasion while the first government of democratic Hungary was a coalition of forces that came from the right of center. The government realized that its difficulties were multiplied under the constant criticism of members the left-liberal media so it made rather clumsy attempts to establish a media empire of its own. Its efforts to establish a viable newspaper friendly to the government were not successful. But the government still had a monopoly on the electronic media inherited from the Kádár regime: the state television and state radio. The problem was that the state-owned TV and radio stations were run by a liberal staff. Getting rid of the old guard wasn't exactly easy. The government put its own men at the head of the Hungarian Radio (MR), and they immediately started "cleansing" the staff. Admittedly, the staff was too big but the 164 people who were let go were politically unacceptable to the government. The reaction of the journalists was virulent, and Vásárhelyi acknowledges that the media played an important role in the spectacular defeat of the Antall-Boross government in 1994. Those years are called the time of the "media war."
The temporary winners of this war were members of the media. I will never forget my total astonishment when as a newcomer to the Hungarian political scene I discovered a picture on the cover of 168 Óra that showed the triumphant formerly fired journalists "storming" the radio station after the election results were announced. They simply pushed aside the official announcer and took over the job of broadcasting the day's news. The journalists completely identified with the new socialist-liberal government and quite a few hagiographical pieces appeared in which they sang the praises of all the socialist politicians who could return to the political scene after their four years of exile in opposition. I must say that I was horrified at this blatantly partisan behavior on the part of an allegedly independent media.
Fidesz learned a lot from the failure of the Antall government. First of all, politicians are not supposed to alienate journalists because they are a powerful lot. It is not a good idea to wage war against them. Instead Fidesz would have to build a media empire of its own that would counterbalance the liberal bias of the profession. Billions of tax forints were passed on to these burgeoning enterprises, and wealthy individuals were convinced to support newspapers and television and radio stations. I wrote earlier about Heti Válasz (May 22, 2009) and the other day about Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, and Inforádió. I learned from Vásárhelyi that Hír TV, as a result of the billions it received from various sources, was able to purchase the most technically advanced equipment that allowed them to broadcast with greater ease huge street demonstrations. The station became famous when it was the only television station on hand at the storming of the MTV building. (One has wonder how it was possible. What did the staff of Hír TV know the others didn't?)
Vásárhelyi comes up with another observation that might shed light on Fidesz's media strategy. If one accepts the supposition that within Fidesz there exist three different groups–moderate conservative, national-populist, and far-right–then, says Vásárhelyi, one can see that Fidesz's media empire is organized in such a way that all three groups can find something that speaks to them. The extreme right can read Magyar Demokrata and Magyar Hírlap or watch Echo TV. The national-populists have Hír TV, Lánchíd Rádió, and Magyar Nemzet. And the conservative wing can listen to Inforádió or read Heti Válasz. In addition there is a free newspaper Helyi Téma (Local Theme) published in 650,000 copies in conjunction with local governments mostly in Fidesz hands. This is in addition to local radio and television stations, also in the service of the locals.
On the other hand, the left-liberal media didn't know how to use or keep the admittedly undeserved monopolistic position they inherited from the old regime. Fidesz originally demanded only a "balanced" situation, but by now the right-wing media is much stronger than the left. In seven years of socialist governing the situation has further deteriorated in favor of the right. Vásárhelyi complains about the sorry financial state of the so-called liberal media. ATV is the only liberal television station, but it is owned by the Hungarian branch of the Assembly of God and therefore its evening political programs must share space with The 700 Club and such low-level programs as Vidám Vasárnap and Fásy-mulató. Klub Rádió doesn't have that kind of problem and by now almost the whole country can listen to it, but apparently the station lives from day to day. There is no strong financial support behind it. And even public television and radio are under the influence of the opposition party. Without going into the sordid details of the disastrous financial state of MTV and the incredible waste associated with it, one can safely say that most of the programs lean toward the right rather than to the left. Nap-kelte, an early morning political program, is a good example. I wrote about it earlier. Originally the people who conducted the interviews came from the left as well as the right. Fidesz insisted on firing the liberals and their places were filled with second-rates.
As for the liberal papers. The situation is also terrible there. While behind Heti Válasz there is a group of well-heeled investors with plenty of money, 168 Óra operates on a shoestring budget. Heti Válasz sells only 18,000 copies while 168 Óra sells 25,000. But Heti Válasz manages to get as many ads as HVG whose circulation is four times greater than that of Heti Válasz. Just lately a 25% stake in Heti Válasz was sold for 300 million forints. Vásárhely raises the question: how is it possible that investors find putting money into these right-wing media ventures profitable while there are no investors interested in the liberal media? Vásárhelyi, I think rightly, comments that most likely these people hope for returns "not from the media market."
And finally, Vásárhelyi talks about journalism as a profession. As we know, in most western countries the left-liberals are in the majority among journalists. In England the ratio of liberals to conservatives is 9 to 1. In France two-thirds of the journalists consider themselves left of center. In Germany the majority of the newspapermen are social democratic voters. In Spain only 12 percent consider themselves right-wingers. In the United States the majority are Democrats. In Hungary, according to a 2006 study, the majority are still on the left-liberal side but their percentage has decreased dramatically in the last twenty years. Those newspapermen who sympathize with MSZP decreased from forty to eighteen percent while supporters of Fidesz increased from ten percent to thirty-four percent. This tendency will most likely continue because the future isn't too bright for liberal journalists. When the liberal journalists were fired, for example, from Nap-kelte, Vásárhelyi says, "the government parties showed total unconcern and didn't move a finger in their defense." In brief, liberal newsmen can't hope for any help from liberal politicians.
As a footnote. Shortly after Mária Vásárhelyi wrote this article came the news that the government gave some money to Népszava and Klub Rádió. Ten and fifteen million forints. That is not certainly not enough.