Today let’s begin with one of András Bruck’s observations about Viktor Orbán which, according to him, explains a lot about the system he has been busily building in the last five years. And that is vengeance. If someone stands in his way, he retaliates. Orbán is someone who orders the closing of the research institute headed by his former undersecretary of agriculture, József Ángyán, because he criticized the government’s land lease program. He is someone who blocks the appointment of a history professor because he happens to be the son of a man who is critical of the regime. He is the kind of person who cuts off sponsorship of the Paks football team because the city’s voters did not elect the “right” man for mayor last October.
The latest example of Orbán’s vindictive nature is the reorganization of MTV, which is supposed to function as an independent public television station but which by now is nothing more than a government propaganda machine. Admittedly, MTV badly needed a face lift. Quite a few years ago Sándor Friderikusz submitted an application to head Hungarian public television. In it he outlined the need for separate news, sports, and cultural channels instead of trying to squeeze everything into one channel, from religious services to sports events to soap operas. Friderikusz, of course, didn’t stand a chance of getting the job because of his liberal political views. Moreover, the public was told that to reorganize MTV along the lines Friderikusz proposed would be far too expensive. Well, these days MTV costs Hungarian taxpayers more than 80 billion forints for programs nobody wants to watch. And yet there is now money for multiple channels.
Somewhat belatedly, the Orbán regime came to the conclusion that after all it was a good idea to have several channels with different media content. In addition to MTV there is Duna TV, which was established to target the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin. I don’t know how popular Duna TV is outside of Hungary’s borders, but I understand that it’s not watched much by the locals. Now it will be the “mother ship” of the reorganized MTV. It will be “the chief television station of the nation” while M1, the former mainstay of the network, will be a second BBC cum CNN. This is at least what government officials promise. They even hired a Brit, Simon Jago, who worked for BBC and al-Jazeera, to head the news channel. I wonder how long he will last once he realizes that he is supposed to run a propaganda machine. But I guess as long as he doesn’t understand the language all will be well.
In addition, there will be a sports channel (M4) and Petőfi TV, which is described as a channel for youngsters and young adults. Way back in October when the plans were first announced, 444.hu made fun of this swinging new channel “offered to the lovers of public media.” It is a well-known fact that no young adult ever watches stodgy state television. But perhaps Petőfi will do the trick.
We know that Viktor Orbán can never leave anything alone. He must turn everything upside down. Therefore it is understandable that he wants to reshape the state television network. But in this case there is more to it. The reorganization of state televison has the added benefit of making the lives of two “enemies” very difficult. I’m thinking here of RTL Klub and Lajos Simicska’s HírTV. Petőfi TV will be taking on RTL Klub while M1’s news channel will compete with HírTV.
RTL Klub is the most popular commercial television station in Hungary. The channel airs programs aimed at a younger (18–49) audience, which some high-brow people consider to be mindless entertainment. RTL Klub wanted to remain on friendly terms with the government and therefore the station’s news program did not dwell on the darker side of the Orbán regime. They rarely announced news that was uncomfortable for the government. But RTL Klub’s subservient attitude did not satisfy Viktor Orbán, who decided to drive the company out of the country by levying an inordinately large tax on its advertising revenues. RTL Klub did not take the assault lying down, and the news editors began filling their evening programs with juicy stories about the corruption cases involving government officials and friends of Viktor Orbán. The war was on. The move backfired. RTL Klub’s audience soared, and many observers are convinced that RTL Klub’s decision to “enlighten” its younger audience contributed substantially to the general dissatisfaction with the government that has been growing rapidly of late.
And there is the another problem for Viktor Orbán–his old childhood friend, Lajos Simicska, whom Orbán once described as a financial genius. Simicska became a very wealthy man, an oligarch with great political influence. There was a division of labor between Simicska and Orbán that seemed to be beneficial to both. In the last six months, however, there has been more and more talk about their falling out. Perhaps Orbán thinks that Simicska’s political influence is no longer in his own interest and would like to see him out of the picture.
Whatever the case, in addition to his company, Közgép, which has received 44% of all government contracts financed by the European Union, Simicska has a media empire that includes Magyar Nemzet and HírTV. Both have a very bad reputation as far as reliability is concerned. Magyar Nemzet must have been sued at least 300 times for publishing false information. HírTV is also notorious for falsified stories and the unprofessional behavior of their reporters. In fact, at some of the demonstrations people chanted all sorts of derogatory slogans about HírTV, and in one case one of their reporters was roughed up a bit. HírTV’s staff worked hard and with enthusiasm for the cause, but now they are no longer the favorites of the regime. Most likely they are the victims of the Orbán-Simicska feud. HírTV’s fate was sealed when it refused to air Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal speech” in Romania last summer.
Who would ever have believed that the vice president of HírTV would give an interview to the social democratic Népszava? But that is exactly what happened. Péter Szikszai, vice president of HírTV, told the reporter that it has been clear to them from the initial announcement of the plan that the creation of an MTV news channel was a move against HírTV. The creation of this new channel will cost an additional 4-5 billion forints, but experts doubt that it will be a success given the reputation of MTV. Neither HírTV nor ATV, which also specializes in news, worries about the launch of M1.
Szikszai was not kind to MTV when he predicted that the new state television news station will be full of “production reports” (termelési riportok), which were the standard fare of television news in the Kádár regime. Surely, HírTV will have no difficulty competing with such programming. They have more than ten years of experience and are ready to pick up the gauntlet. Such attacks only make them stronger. They will forge ahead without changing their profile. “Despite the advertising tax and the launch of a rival station, we will do what the job of a right-wing television station is. Even if at the moment a right-wing government does not like us.”
This last sentence sounds ideologically correct from the vice president of a right-wing TV station, but I somehow doubt that the content of HírTV will be exactly the same as it has been in the last ten years. I wonder whether they will follow RTL Klub’s example and send out their aggressive reporters who until now have gone after only opposition politicians to do the same with the members of the government that “does not like them at the moment.” Because if this is the case, Viktor Orbán’s vengeful plan may backfire.