ATV executive says independent broadcaster does not kowtow to Fidesz

August 29, 2016

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The following interview with ATV deputy CEO and news chief Dr. Szilárd Németh was published by mediapiac.hu on August 29th, 2016 under the title “Dr. Szilárd Németh: “Then the world’s greatest scam is taking place” (Dr. Németh Szilárd: “Akkor its a világ legnagyobb átverése zajlik).

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Dr. Szilárd Németh, deputy CEO of ATV, says that ATV owner Hit Gyülekezete (Faith Church), did not enter into a pact with Fidesz in exchange for the church’s state-recognized status. He says obtaining state recognition was not even a goal of the church. He flatly rejects that there is any legitimacy to conspiracy theories that ATV made a deal with Fidesz.

Many are of the opinion that it is impossible maintain a centrist position in journalism. What do you think?

Experience shows us that in reality you cannot. One is either committed to critical journalism and, as a result, labelled “opposition”, or not, in which case they are given the title “pro-government.”

Which category does ATV fall into?

Opposition, naturally.

When ATV first positioned itself as “the objective source of news”, it appeared it would remain in the center.

[ATV’s] slogan means that we will give everyone the opportunity to make their opinions known, not that we will not discuss uncomfortable topics.

This was also the case earlier.

Yes, but we believe this to be incredibly important and we want to emphasize our consistency. There was no change of direction at ATV and we are proud of our values. For example, when we run a news report, we do not employ the means of seeking statements from individuals connected to an unpleasant story, only to manipulate it by chopping their statement in the interest of equal time and barely give it any room in the report.

This is obvious. It should be like this at all media outlets.

There is a serious selection process in editorial boards when choosing stories.

What kind of selection process?

It is often difficult to provide a professional explanation why some stories are included or left out of the news.

Where?

I’m speaking about the Hungarian media in general.

Prominent Fidesz members and government officials regularly appear on ATV. What can that be attributed to?

We invite the representatives of all sides on a daily basis. Some politicians say yes, other do not. It seems there is no party directive which would forbid them from coming here.

There are some big guns who come to ATV but do not go elsewhere.

For example?

For example, Antal Rogán.

It’s true, but that was long ago. I would like to point out that we have journalists who have been doing interviews with these politicians for decades. In such cases, personal relationships between the journalists and politicians can be very useful. There are politicians who come for interviews with journalist A, but not journalist B, and vice versa. We are sometimes fortunate enough to have these politicians come on our shows because the host just happens to be someone the politician gets along with.

The “I will visit this journalist, but not that one” can be a powerful weapon in the hands of parties. HírTV is affected by the Fidesz boycott, so they invite Jobbik politicians next to socialist ones, for which it is stamped with the Jobbik label.

The ruling powers have always considered television to be the most important platform, more so than the daily newspapers or weekly magazines. Politicians take their television appearances more seriously and always weigh the benefits of appearing on television. I once spoke to a Fidesz politician who told me s/he comes to ATV because s/he enjoys the intellectual challenge. S/he said s/he does not like going to places where s/he is given easy questions. By coming to ATV, s/he is able to give him/herself new challenges by going into the lion’s den.

That is not characteristic.

I can name three such politicians off the top of my head.

A modest proportion.

It is not really that bad.

You once said that ATV has a relationship with all parties. How would you describe these relationships?

We contact them through their respective press offices. We sometimes touch base with the party heads and ask them to send us their representatives. We even established a relationship with Jobbik once we ended our boycott of the party.

Why did you end the boycott?

Two years ago, around the time of the elections, several government agencies initiated procedures against ATV and that contributed to us making that decision.

Contributed?

We could not have done it any other way, even if we wanted to. There were other reasons that also prompted us to invite the party.

What other reasons?

Jobbik got into parliament for the second time with a very serious electoral mandate. We took this to mean that Jobbik would be a defining player in public life over the next few government cycles. Therefore, we cannot allow ourselves to leave them out. And because their representatives appear in the programming of other channels, putting them under quarantine would have been to do the same to ourselves..

But now you are providing a platform for Jobbik. Back then, every media outlet covered the Hungarian Guard ceremonies on their front pages and that provided huge publicity for an otherwise little known organization.

The press reacts to the divisive statements of foreign politicians – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson – the same way, which can strengthen them. At that time the strength of Jobbik came from the party existing outside the confines of the system. The media’s hysterical reaction to the party strengthened the party’s character, which, in turn, made the likes of Vona much more appealing to those who were disillusioned with the system.

Did the press walk into Jobbik’s trap?

Partially, yes. I spoke to a former Jobbik politician who told me that this was a deliberate strategy on their part: to provoke the media by making harsh statements and expand the base.

This is an old political trick.

But this now seems to be more effective around the world, including in Hungary.

There is also another trap: becoming a political tabloid to increase viewership.

Without doubt political tabloids increase viewership, and there is an increase in this type of reporting. The world is moving toward simplicity. I have witnessed the shift in this direction in the five years that I have spent as a news chief. We, on the other hand, do not want to abandon our principles. What’s more, the press in Hungary exercises much more restraint concerning the private lives of politicians.

The story of János Volner’s encounter with a lady behind a bush would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

We didn’t develop this story either in our news show, but rather in the background discussions and in the context of whether or not it is permissible for the press to cover it in that manner. While there is no doubt that the story represents a milestone in Hungarian media history, we do not want to move in that direction.

But if you did, this would provide an excellent opportunity to lure viewers away from the increasingly tabloid-esque TV2.

ATV cannot, nor does it want to, produce the kind of viewership that TV2 has. This is not our goal. The majority of our viewers are interested in politics, they live in big cities, and they have college diplomas. We would lose our position if we ever tried to compete with TV2. When we tried to make our morning shows a bit more tabloidy, we immediately lost our viewers that were interested in politics and we were unable to take viewers away from TV2.

Then where will you get more viewers from?

We want to retain the maximum amount of our current viewership.

Who is your main competitor?

In terms of viewership, our main competitor is M1.

M1?

Yes. For the entire day and considering total viewership, M1 is ahead of us because they broadcast all day long. But between 5pm to 10pm, our 5-6 percent market share makes us a leader in this category.

I would have sworn that you consider HírTV to be your main competitor: similar content, themes, target audience, and programming structure.

Our programming structure has been set for a long time. We will never have the kind of relationship like the one that exists between TV2 and RTL. We agreed that we would respect one another.

That’s nice, but you can only expand your audience by taking from one another.

That is not how this works. Putting up an “opposition” sign does not immediately result in hundreds of thousands of viewers. The key is personality. The hosts at ATV were build up over many years, they are accepted personalities, like Olga Kálmán.

Anyone besides her?

Egon Rónai is incredibly popular, and even András Bánó has had extensive presence on television. There could be six other opposition channels besides ATV, but as long as these personalities are so popular, we will be able to retain this level of viewership.

G-Day (the day Fidesz oligarch Lajos Simicska publicly broke with Viktor Orbán) really caused a stir on the market.

We have retained our viewership since G-Day. In fact, it has even increased.

ATV is full of state advertisements, while other opposition outlets have absolutely no state advertisements.

Let me reply with a question: is this reflected in our content?

Should it?

Those who watch our programming know what kind of issues we deal with. I am happy to send statistics about the types of issues we report on for those who are not familiar with our content. We have always run state advertisements.  Sometimes we did, and sometimes we did not.

It is interesting that in Olga Kálmán’s show there is often very serious criticism coming from opposition personalities regarding the government’s position on the migration issue, while during the commercial break, there are several spots for the government’s advertisements on the subject.

State advertisements are neither here nor there, the real problem would be if ATV could not survive without them. There are two important things to consider here: journalists want to work independently, and the owners want profit. Communism has ended and we are not ashamed that interests on both sides of the political aisle want to advertise with us.

Those familiar with the political maneuvering in media say that it does not matter who says what or where it is said, if there are political advertisements, politics has stepped into the content.

It is worthwhile to look at whose interests it serves to make such statements about ATV.

Who?

When we say goodbye to someone, it can happen that our friend wants to harm us. This has been used against us before.

Are you referring to ATV employees that have been fired?

There have been cases like that in the past. But aside from this, I think there is a very legitimate debate that can be had regarding whether or not to accept state advertisements. Several abnormal events have taken place in the media market, and our viewers are worried about ATV. But if they watch the programming, they will see that the content has not changed, just as it will not change in the future. We are a commercial television station. When our competitors try to lure our colleagues away with prospects of higher pay, we need every forint to make sure we can retain the level of our content.

Are you referring to public media?

Yes. And I’m talking about our producers, video staff, graphic artists, and sales and financial employees. Sometimes the offers they receive are staggering. But they stay with us, nonetheless. One of the reasons for this is that it is peaceful here.  We are not part of any war. Once a television becomes part of some political war, it is exposed to risks on all fronts.

Those who have fallen out of favor can be driven into the background. But those who are in it can enjoy a number of benefits.

We are a special case. We never gathered up a large amount of capital. When others had huge backwinds, we were financially pushed into the background. We stayed where we were, but the market changed and we went from being winners to being the losers.

Does Egyenes Beszéd and (program hostess) Olga Kálmán symbolize continuity?

ATV is Olga Kálmán for many people.

Is that a good thing?

It is. I should point out that if there really was some kind of conspiracy, how would it be possible for Olga’s show to be extended by half an hour? If we were in cahoots with the politicians, all the while extending the length of Olga Kálmán’s show, then this would be the greatest scam in the world. Come on, now!  That is absurd!

There is also a widely held view that ATV’s owner, the Hit Gyülekezete (Faith Church), received state recognition because it made a deal with Fidesz.

As one of the executives of ATV, I can say I experienced nothing of the sort. Anyway the Faith Church has been a registered church since 1989. In other words, all that happened was that it retained the status it had before. To the best of my knowledge, the church never wanted to receive the status of a historical church.

According to this theory, the Faith Church stopped backing MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) in 2009, which resulted in Fidesz finally being able to rid itself of its right-wing rival. In exchange for doing that, the Faith Church received its status as a historical church. Meanwhile, the station was pacified and turned into His Majesty’s opposition.

ATV’s programming and what we produce day after day is a flat rejection of that idiotic theory. ATV plays no role in any such conspiracy theory.

In Válasz.hu’s May 31, 2011, article “Power and Glory”, which deals with the Faith Church and its political background, the daily wrote:

“Every church member we spoke to told us that the church’s increasing acceptance in society has also resulted in the church becoming more politically diverse. ‘There are no anti-Fidesz sentiments amongst us. In fact, the members of our church represent the full range of the political spectrum. We are on the same wavelength as the government on several worldview issues, including the protection of the fetus, same-sex marriage, and the strengthening of families,’ said Péter Morvay’.”

I assume he is a member of the church.

ATV’s owners have not lost their minds. They know that a reversion of the channel’s political direction would lead to the death of the channel. This is why the channel gets a lot of freedom. There are no directives forcing ATV to broadcast the views held by the Faith Church. Day after day, employees of ATV work just like employees of other independent outlets, and they do not even hear about the church.

The Faith Church’s “direction” obviously had an impact on which party its members voted for.

I have no idea how they voted.

It seems the church shares the government’s opinion regarding the migration issue.

ATV’s news programming does not showcase the opinion of the church. My job is to ensure this freedom for all of the employees. My personal experience is that the church’s position on the migration issue has remained unchanged for years.

You are a member of the Faith Church, and your father is its founder and leader.

And I am proud of that.

If you, as a member of the church, share the position of the government regarding migration issue, how do you represent the opposite opinion as the news chief of an opposition channel?

I do not represent positions on television, there is a lot of freedom on the channel and I think that is very clear in the programming.

Why didn’t they appoint a professional to be the news chief?

I think I am prepared enough professionally to do my job. Furthermore, before I became news chief, I produced a morning show and was the editor for atv.hu. The executive producer for our news show is András Bánó, and Egyenes Beszéd’s producer is Olga Kálmán. Both are free to manage their staff as they see fit. We work well together and I have done my fair share for the team.

But appointing a professional who is independent of the Faith Church could have done much to quash the aforementioned presumptions.

If you look around, you will see that these presumptions do not stand up to the facts. If they want to label someone, they will do it. If not against the father, than against his friends, if not his friends, then against his business partners, wife, or former classmates — and I could go on. I can give you several examples of this from Hungary’s current political and business life. But I would approach it from the opposite side. ATV’s professional work gives nothing for its enemies to grab onto, even with the news chief being a member of the Faith Church.

Regarding the cancelling of Sándor Friderikusz’s show, Mária Vásárhelyi wrote:

“Surely, no one can really believe that Friderikusz’s show was cancelled because it was ‘overly serious’. It is obvious the show was cancelled because it was too balanced and overly ‘opposition’, it provided a forum for liberal and left-wing thinkers and artists who have been completely closed out of other forums. Surely, no one believes that in the September they launch a more easy-going program!? This is what they call an adjustment. It is obvious that Friderikusz’s expulsion came at the price of receiving more state advertising — which makes every respectable democrat’s stomach turn, and which represents the exact opposite of the values ATV claims to represent.”

I would like to beg Mária Vásárhelyi’s pardon, but her statements are not only malicious but totally unprofessional, which is the big problem. There are meetings currently under way. Sándor is without doubt one of the biggest personalities in media. We are proud of the work we have done together. Furthermore, as a very serious professional, Sándor is committed to producing a show that not only adds value, but also brings viewers. Admittedly, this is a very difficult task in today’s world, but we are committed to making a show like this happen. Of course, I must say that the abnormal situation in the media market has many worrying for us. They are afraid that ATV is the next medium to be swallowed up, but the war has not made it here. If we continue to do work with the same level of professionalism and humility as we have until now, then perhaps we will be accepted for who we are.