Tag Archives: Gábor Borókai

Boycotting the media is counterproductive

Until now it was only certain high-level Fidesz party and government officials who refused to give interviews to certain left-of-center newspapers, radio, and television stations. Then, two years ago, after the breakup of the long-lasting and financially fruitful friendship between Viktor Orbán and his old friend-turned-oligarch Lajos Simicska, the boycott was extended to Simicska’s newspaper, television, and radio outlets as well. Simicska’s media holdings include a weekly, Heti Válasz, which initially refused the follow the road his daily, Magyar Nemzet, chose. It remained surprisingly loyal to Viktor Orbán. One reason for this loyalty might have been the person of the weekly’s editor-in-chief, Gábor Borókai, who, after all, was the spokesman for the first Orbán government. Unlike the others since 2010, he served throughout the entire 1998-2002 period. Moreover, it is likely that the two men already knew each other while they were law students. In 2013 Viktor Orbán made sure that Borókai received a high decoration (Magyar Érdemrend tisztikeresztje).

Lately, however, even Borókai has become quite critical of the government. In November 2016 he warned that all the lying and misinformation disseminated by the government will lead to its downfall if Fidesz politicians don’t wake up. Last month Borókai wrote a critical editorial about the government’s handling of the Central European University case and even complained about the state of democracy and freedom in Hungary. The old friendship between Orbán and Borókai was coming to an end.

András Lánczi, Orbán’s favorite philosopher and president of Corvinus University, had written regularly in Heti Válasz for ten years, but when Borókai’s weekly published an interview with Ron Werber, who devised the strategy that assured MSZP’s victory in 2002, he decided to make a clean break with the publication. As he told 888.hu, he had indicated to Borókai earlier that he didn’t approve of “the new direction,” but that interview was the last straw.

Meanwhile, the output of government-paid journalists is of such low quality that serious journalists no longer consider them colleagues. Indeed, most of the young people who staff internet propaganda tabloids like 888.hu and ripost.hu don’t deserve to be called reporters, journalists, or media workers. Even so, I’m not convinced that MSZP’s decision to boycott Echo TV, M1, TV2, Origo, Pestisrácok.hu, 888.hu, Magyar Idők, Lokál, Ripost, and Magyar Hírlap is a good idea. The party’s rationale, according to party spokesman István Nyakó, is that these publications distort the opposition politicians’ answers to their questions. Moreover, these media outlets describe a nonexistent world. “We are not going to assist them in creating manipulated material.” Nyakó told the reporter of Echo TV who happened to be at the press conference that he doesn’t consider him a journalist but a paid spokesman of Fidesz. This may all be true, but I’m not sure how these politicians’ boycott will change the editorial policies of the client media of Fidesz.

MSZP’s decision to boycott Fidesz media is most likely the result of an encounter László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership and mayor of Szeged, had with the staff of a weekly program on Echo TV called “Informátor.” According to Botka, the Echo TV people arrived unannounced, cameras in hand, wanting to have an interview with him. Botka already had a scheduled conference, but the Echo TV staff refused to budge, and they even wanted to enter Botka’s room by force. Or at least this is what Botka claims. Apparently, at that point Botka called the police. Of course, Echo TV’s story of the encounter sounds very different from Botka’s version. In any case, Botka seems to be convinced that “the government falsification factory is trying to provoke him.” In his opinion, the journalists who work for government outlets are simple provocateurs. He knows that the goal was not to conduct an interview but to create a scandal. I fully agree with Botka, but then why did he fall for the provocation? Because by calling the police on them Botka managed to fulfill the goal of Echo TV. It might have been better to give them a short dignified interview. If their sole objective was to create a scandal, they would have traveled 300 some kilometers for nothing.

Mutual boycotting will lead nowhere, although I sympathize with those who find the output of the government propaganda close to unreadable and disgusting. Moreover, I can’t believe that such obvious propaganda, rivaling the output of the Rákosi regime, can possibly be effective from the point of view of the government. Just as eight solid years of communist propaganda between 1948 and 1956 failed to convince people that they lived in a socialist paradise, Fidesz propaganda will not achieve its aims either. In fact, it might turn people off.

In a similar vein, the latest “national consultation” seems to be a flop. Of the 8.5 million people who received questionnaires, only 1.3 million have returned them thus far. Kósa is already “asking the government” to extend the deadline from May 20 to May 31 because the post office was late in delivering some of them. Of course, the post office story is bogus. The real explanation is the stupid questions posed and the even stupider answers provided.

It’s time for Viktor Orbán to rethink his communication strategy. His massive pro-government media network may not be the panacea he anticipated.

May 16, 2017

Elemental rearrangement on the Hungarian right?

Over the past few years we often heard that the regime Viktor Orbán built in the last five years can be dismantled only from the inside. Internal dissatisfaction with the leadership will one day reach such proportions that it will force the retirement of Viktor Orbán and his closest associates. Until recently, however, we didn’t see any such movement within Fidesz, despite its steady loss of sympathizers and supporters. We do know that there are insiders, including Fidesz members of parliament, who would like to get answers to their questions and who complain to reporters that they have been waiting a long time for an opportunity to discuss the problems the party is facing, without any success. Still and all, I don’t see any serious cracks in the solid political wall of Fidesz.

The right-wing media is another matter. Although some talking heads predict that the Simicska affair will blow over in no time, I disagree. I believe that the Simicska-Orbán falling out will have serious repercussions in the media world, signs of which have already appeared. My bold prediction, admittedly mixed with a large dose of wishful thinking, is that the fomentation in the media will facilitate the collapse of the Orbán-led political edifice.

On what do I base this prediction? First of all, there are signs that Lajos Simicska means business. He will use his considerable talent and financial resources to build a media empire that can take on state television and radio, a task that is, let’s face it, not terribly difficult. He began by appointing Péter Tarr to be one of the directors of HírTV. Tarr worked for Radio Free Europe until 1994 when he moved over to MTV. In 1997 he became the first managing editor of RTL Klub. In that capacity he was influential in exposing some of the corruption cases of the 1990s. According to Esti Újság, Tarr is gathering a fantastic staff at HírTV that should be able to produce the best news television in Hungary. The plan is to produce a program that “would restore the pillars of democracy and the power of the media.” Well, one could say that this is far too optimistic a scenario and that Simicska is not the most obvious man to lead the fight for democracy and against corruption. Admittedly, but he seems determined to ruin his old friend Viktor Orbán. People who know both men, like Gábor Fodor, a former friend from college days, are certain that this fight will last until only one of them is left standing.

So, what are the signs that encourage me to predict real changes on the mediascape? First of all, the report from the far-right wing media that half of the reporters of Magyar Nemzet and HírTV had quit turned out to be premature. For instance, Szabolcs Szerető, one of the people who quit last Friday, has already changed his mind and returned to the fold. He was the editor of the Monday edition of the paper.

Second, one can already detect substantial changes both in news reporting and in the opinion pieces in Magyar Nemzet. Let’s take a piece of news that has occupied the Hungarian media in the last two days. The chairman of Fidesz’s youth branch (ifjúsági tagozat) was caught with €30,000 of counterfeit currency. Fidesz immediately tried to distance itself, claiming that the young man had been removed from the party way back in 2012. The proof they presented was specious. In the past Magyar Nemzet would have supported the Fidesz position regardless of how ridiculous it was. But not this time. Let’s start with the headline: “He didn’t pay his membership fee and therefore was expelled?” The article continues with an honest description of the case and leaves no doubt that the Fidesz version is most likely untrue. In fact, when the article refers to the culprit as the “former chairman” of the organization, the writer or the editor put a question mark after the word “former.”

The same is true of Zsuzsanna Körmendy, who used to write the most vicious editorials about the opposition and was always supportive of the government and Fidesz. Zsolt Bayer predicted that “everybody from Csaba Lukács to Zsuzsanna Körmendy will quit because they will not be ready to write articles” demanded by Simicska. Yet today Körmendy wrote a piece titled “Self-examination never hurts.” Here Körmendy confronts her readers with the steady decline in Fidesz support and calls on the party “to examine its decisions thoroughly.” From here on the government should make wiser and more thoughtful decisions because “there is nothing more pitiful and destructive than taking back in full or in part earlier decisions. One ought not to experiment with citizens who have been losing their patience.” This kind of language is new in Magyar Nemzet. So it’s no wonder that Policy Agenda, a think tank, is certain that “after five years of governing Fidesz has lost its media,” which will be deadly for the future of the party.

But that’s not all. The most faithful Gábor Borókai, editor-in-chief of Heti Valóság, who served Viktor Orbán’s government as its spokesman between 1998 and 2002, stood by Lajos Simicska and against his former boss in an editorial that appeared today. For Borókai it is obvious that with the Simicska-Orbán duel “an unpredictable tectonic shift began that will turn into an elemental rearrangement on the right.” According to him, that kind of change has been long in coming. In plain language, the performance of the third Orbán government is dismal. In the past year Viktor Orbán has been preoccupied with his balancing act between Merkel and Putin while at home everything is falling apart. People have had enough of a government that wants to rearrange every facet of their lives. They want to be left alone.

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Of course, Borókai is still a man of the right, but not the kind that Orbán surrounds himself with these days. He is yearning for the “western, strong, sovereign and ‘polgári’ Hungary which Viktor Orbán wanted to build in 1998.” In 2010 Orbán set out to fulfill this wish, and he did rebuild a devastated economy, but “since then everything around us has changed for the worse. While searching for new solutions one shouldn’t forget the original goal. Otherwise, the chandelier will fall on us.” Borókai’s piece is full of contradictions, but it must be difficult to admit that his assessment of Viktor Orbán and his ideology has most likely been wrong all along. Even in 1998 when he decided to represent the first Orbán government. At one point he claims that “it is not too late” for Fidesz to find itself, but elsewhere he talks about an elemental reorganization of the right. Eventually these right-wing journalists will sort out their ideas, but at least they have begun writing as individuals instead of media servants of the government.

Meanwhile Reporters Without Borders published its World Press Freedom Index, 2014. In the last four years Hungary’s ranking dropped from 23d to 64th out of 180 countries. While the situation in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia is considered to be good, in Hungary there are “noticeable problems.” Even the Romanian press is freer than the Hungarian. Hungary is in the cluster with Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and Albania. Nothing to be proud of. But perhaps there will be a revolt of the right-wing journalists and with it will come a freer press and perhaps even political change.

Viktor Orbán no longer needs the oligarchs’ right-wing media

It was on January 9 that I wrote a post about the reorganization of the state media. I used the word “state” instead of “public” because by now Hungarian public television and radio are no more than government propaganda tools. I also wrote about Viktor Orbán’s vindictiveness, which is manifesting itself in plans for a state TV channel devoted exclusively to news. With this move Orbán is creating an alternative, backed by the state budget, to Lajos Simicska’s HírTV, which until recently faithfully served his and Fidesz’s policies. The two men had differences, however, and in Simicska’s media empire, of which HírTV is only one outlet, a few mildly critical programs and articles have appeared of late. For Orbán such disloyalty cannot go unpunished. Hence the new state news channel.

By an uncanny coincidence, on the very day I posted my article a “secret” meeting took place in the parliament building. Not until a week later, on January 15, did the public learn that Viktor Orbán had called together the editors-in-chief of right-wing, pro-government papers “to discuss and evaluate the work of the last year with them.” That is, to talk about how well the “media lackeys,” as one blogger called them, did their jobs last year. It wasn’t that we were unaware of the close cooperation between the government and the right-wing media, but it was still something of a shock to discover that this meeting was actually an annual affair. Apparently, every January the “lackeys” and the prime minister get together to discuss the successes or failures of the these media outlets’ work in the past year.

So, there was nothing unusual about the gathering itself, but what apparently transpired during the two-hour meeting was something else. Although not all those present told the same story, it seems that Orbán informed the editors-in-chief that from here on he will rely exclusively on state television and radio for government propaganda and therefore the generous subsidies to right-wing media outlets in private hands will be curtailed or may even cease. The subsidies to these government papers and television stations came in the form of advertisements from state companies. Just in the first seven months of last year Magyar Nemzet had ad revenues of 191 million forints from the Hungarian National Bank, 91 million from MVM, and 146 million from the state lottery Szerencsejáték Rt. If state advertisements stop, the right-wing media will be in the same boat as the socialist-liberal papers and the single left-leaning radio station (Klubrádió). This would impose a heavy financial burden on the owners, for example on Lajos Simicska.

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Orbán apparently made it clear that he was not satisfied with their work last year. There was still too much criticism of the government, which makes the electorate uncertain about the wisdom of the government’s decisions. According to the very detailed description of the meeting by Népszabadságthe prime minister was of the opinion that these newspapers and HírTV can manage on their own by now. Talking specifically about Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both belonging to the media empire of Lajos Simicska, Orbán noted that being financially independent will free them from the quandary of identity. They can be both right-wing and government-critical in good conscience.

According to some of those present, the message did not come as a complete surprise. Gábor Borókai of Heti Válasz and spokesman of the first Orbán government (1998-2002) told Népszabadság that any casual reader of the right-wing media can see that since last fall “there have been very few ads from state companies and absolutely nothing on the current campaign of the prime minister’s office.” What surprised the editors, however, was how openly Orbán talked about the government’s goals with respect to the media. He did not hide his intention to use the “public media” for government propaganda. I guess he doesn’t care that soon enough Hungary’s allies, the European Union and the United States, will hear his candid words about the connection between the government and the public media reaffirmed by some of the participants who were present at the meeting. Of course, it is possible that even this revelation will not move the European Union to act, although one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the Orbán government was the law on the media, eventually toned down on EU insistence.

Is Orbán’s move wise? Does it make sense to alienate the right-wing media and to bet the farm on an untried news channel of state TV, which has only 10% of total viewership? I see no compelling rationale for it, even from Orbán’s point of view. Mind you, he has done so many crazy things lately that perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he decided to take on the until now loyal press. For a government there can never be enough good press, and turning on journalists can be lethal. Viktor Orbán knows this better than most. At the end of his first term at the beginning of 2002 he bemoaned the fact that during his four years in office he had not paid enough attention to building up a friendly media. So, what then? Is he that sure of himself? That is also hard to believe given the incredible loss of popular support for his party and for himself.

There can be only one explanation for this seemingly crazy move: he really thinks that the journalists in question are totally devoted to the right-wing ideology of Fidesz and that even without extra subsidies they will not turn against him and his government. Although I don’t think that all journalists working for the right-wing media outlets are so devoted, there is a hardcore of true believers. It is unlikely that they would start writing critical articles about the government. RTL Klub was different. It was neither a right-wing nor a left-wing television station. Its editors just decided to leave out a lot of news that showed the government in a bad light. They did not want to irritate Viktor Orbán. From this neutral position it was easy to shift the newscasts to include items that previously would have been omitted.

Even if the people working for, let’s say, Magyar Nemzet abandoned their right-wing ideology, the editor and owner of a paper must also think of the readership that is accustomed to and demands a certain political stance. These papers cannot suddenly change their content although, according to ATV, Lajos Simicska, who owns HírTV, Magyar Nemzet, and Lánchíd Rádió, wants a shift in political orientation to appeal to the conservative center. The question is whether there is such a thing in Hungary. I don’t believe there is at the moment, unless as a result of Viktor Orbán’s move to the far right a more traditional center will emerge in the coming months.

All in all, Orbán might be correct in not worrying too much about the pro-government orientation of these newspapers in the future. If that turns out to be the case, the new state news channel will be just an added bonus for those folks who don’t have cable and who from force of habit watch nothing but state television. After all, this is what they did in the good old days when there was but a single TV channel. It satisfied them then and it satisfies them now.