“The glorious death of Népszabadság”

October 29, 2016

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The following interview with media analyst Ágnes Urbán took place during Wednesday’s media roundtable discussion in Budapest hosted by the Millennium Institute:

Budapest Beacon:  Is it for political or economic reasons that the government is taking over the entire country?

Ágnes Urbán:  Both. The two go hand in hand. You can debate which plays a greater role in a given transaction, but on a systemic level the two work in parallel in support of one another

BB:  I am thinking about the destruction of Népszabadság in particular.

ÁU:  Clearly political. The economic interests are clearly subordinated to the political ones. They could have sold Népszabadság to investors and continued to operate nol.hu, or taken rational steps from the point of view of cost savings.  But they didn’t.

BB: What was Népszabadság’s circulation in the recent past?

ÁU: During the first half year on average 38,000 copies.

BB:  You said the suspension of Népszabadság was a political decision.  This opinion is widely shared but there’s one thing I don’t understand.  The 38,000 copies amount to, say, 100,000 readers.  These 100,000 people were not enthusiastic supporters of the National Cooperation System (NER) to begin with, and they won’t be now despite being freed from Népszabadság.  Either the paper no longer exists or it will be close to Fidesz.  Where is the political rationality in this?

ÁU: For me this is the real question.  I think in this case cold political calculation supplanted rationality, which, anyway, is characteristic of them in media matters.  When Deutsche Telekom sold (online daily) Origo to New Wave Production, the entire editorial staff was replaced in such a way so as not to set off alarms as in the case of Népszabadság.  Slowly they started firing the old journalists but this went completely unnoticed.  Fidesz knows how to do this.  In the case of Népszabadság, it is as though their deliberate goal was scandal and outrage.  I do not understand the political rationality of this.

BB:  Is it a distraction?  There is a commonly held belief that when Fidesz does something outrageous like this, it is trying to distract attention from some other outrageous act.

ÁU:  With this they only drew attention to themselves.  I’m neither a political scientist nor a psychologist.  But for Fidesz the failed referendum sparked passions which prompted them to take this step.  But this is only speculation on my part.

BB:  And what if we view things from the point of view of Fidesz being “cold blooded, rational evil-doers”?

ÁU:  Yes. My view of Fidesz is very similar but I think in this case they did not make a rational decision, and it is as if they got carried away by events.  They were not prepared for the editorial staff to close ranks within a few hours and find its own channels to the public.  Nor did they calculate, even though they should have, that the society of Hungarian journalists would show such solidarity with Népszabadág.  Almost every editorial staff can imagine this happening to them. Everyone is providing them with a large media area.  Everyone is keeping the question on the agenda.  Everyone helps keep the issue before the public.  Even international organizations and foreign papers have got involved.  I think this is something Fidesz did not anticipate.

BB:  Do I see correctly that in the long run the combination of Fedél Nélkül (Hungarian equivalent of Street News-ed.) and Facebook will prove unsustainable?

ÁU:  Yes. There is no business model or revenue behind this. This can continue for a few weeks. It’s painful to say but this is the glorious death of the Népszabadság editorial staff.