How the Habony Fidesz communication machine works

May 17, 2017

Translation of Ágnes Lampé’s article “There is nothing better than a little Soros-ing.  How to feed your government media” appearing in the May 4th, 2017 edition of print weekly 168 óra (pp. 11-14).

A simple central message, methodical distribution and repetition, repetition, repetition people meaning, with the help of “experts” and “political scientists”.  The Habony communication machine steams along on this basis.  For the most part successfully, but with some bloopers. In this manner the lawn thickens. We spoke to people who worked or previously worked for governing party media about methods of mastering the media and its functioning mechanisms using Fidesz resources.

TV2 (Hungary’s second-largest commercial TV station owned by former Hollywood producer Andy Vajna-tran.) sent provocative questions to 24.hu, 444.hu, hvg.hu and RTL Club citing a nonexistent CÖF (Civil Solidarity Forum – a government-sponsored, pro-Fidesz NGO-tran.) statement for TV2’s “Soros’ media empire attacks” special.  The government-friendly channel would have liked support for the theory that in place of journalism the Hungarian opposition press serves political objectives, and that in this way Soros assists with his deceitful campaign, using the CEU scandal as a pretense to attack Hungary, his ultimate objective being to exert pressure on Hungary’s immigration policy.  TV2 believes all of this is apparent by the number of editors and journalists completing their studies at “Soros University.”  The TV’s final conclusion: the media outlets cited are Soros agents who try to influence public opinion with anti-government messages dictated by him.

The action is without precedent in the history of Hungarian media in that a national commercial television has never attacked the editorial staff of another media outlet so sharply with clear political goals.

Except for the fact that one of the journalists (accused of being a Soros agent-tran.) looked into the citation and it turned out that the statement in question did not exist.  CÖF, it was later explained, sent it directly to TV2. And only to TV2.

While the “blooper” caused not a little tension in the already tense government communication circles eager to satisfy no matter what, it revealed how the “Habony machine” works.

First Árpád Habony and his inner circle prepare the creative work, developing simple slogans into which it casts the latest government message, defining what statements and expressions are obligatory to use.  The prepared materials are sent to the government and the Fidesz communication center, which spreads the message to the public primarily through government media.

The methods of distribution are varied.  The basis is the press conference where governing party politicians or spokespersons explicate the current topic. At that time it is obligatory to use the expressions supplied for the topic, repeating them as many times as possible.  What else can the journalists (including those not affiliated with the governing parties) do but report these? Our sources jokingly recall with some shame one of the pearls: the memorable press conference during which Antal Rogán applied the expression “hard working little man” on every political level.

There is always a favorite.  Right now it happens to be “Soros agents,” the “Soros network,” the “Soros university,” and the “Soros world” appearing on the programs.

Supposedly it is expected that uncomfortable, provocative questions that are not “on topic” be disregarded and handled by referring to the fact that the press conference was called to discuss other topics.  If that is not successful, then comes lecturing the journalist, outrage, insult, and withdraw; the latter being the permanent creation of the endlessly creative (Fidesz) parliamentary faction leader, Lajos Kósa.

The other way for spreading the message is direct influence over media outlets.  Similar to an algorithm, the message arriving from the government communication center is published through the editors of the governing party press, who “place” it in as many articles as possible.

One of our sources maintains that “the origin of the concept is not bad.”  Anyway, the plan was for the scandal monger, mud slinging tabloid 888.hu, the regular tabloid Ripost, Origo and TV not to be such direct government speaking tubes.  Instead, using the two organs’ high readership, or rather their traffic, almost imperceptibly, progressively preparing the readers for the government messages seeped into the articles and the news at a later point in time, say between two celebrity programs. Originally, they did not want to alarm viewers and readers with raw propaganda.

That things turned out differently was brought about by necessity according to our sources.  The directors of Origo and TV2, like ministerial press office employees, wanted to prove themselves. Meanwhile, the directives handed down from “above” were more and more unvarnished, and it happened more frequently that complete articles with titles and introductions were issued from the center.  The topics were defined more and more precisely, and in many cases the names of those to be quoted defined.  “Below” everyone tried to figure out the thoughts of the “central brain” and regularly exceeded their otherwise absurd expectations.

Repeat, repeat, repeat — it was not for no reasons that convictions within the Fidesz communication group were changed.  If something is repeated sufficiently that sooner or later it seeps into the knowledge of the general public. The proof of this was the (government’s anti-migrant rhetoric-tran.):  Today even those fear refugees who have yet to meet a single one.  They are hoping that the anti-Soros rhetoric will have such an effect. They are confident, that sooner or later he will really come to be the main enemy, until the end of the election campaign.

Anyway, the recipe is old.  Take information with some basis in reality, choose a known person as the target, portray him as an enemy, and continuously bombard people with your exaggerated messages.  At the end they will come to believe you, especially those in the smaller settlements where most of the people watch public media and read the local press.

The “repeating men” play an important role: the so-called government experts, political scientists, heads of institutions and agencies, who systematically appear in Fidesz media, while their colleagues who are even a little critical of the government’s policies do not.  That is entirely forbidden.

On top of this comes the abuse of interviews: governing party politicians are not allowed to speak with certain channels or newspapers.  The task is made simpler by barring entire newspaper and editorial staffs from press conferences, or even from parliament.  Forbidden from speaking outside their assigned cue card, government party members of parliament are especially cold to journalists hunting them in the corridors of parliament. But even that does not matter.  In this way come about such funny situations as when a Fidesz politician pretends to speak on the phone, looking outraged, or in a hurry, or simply looks right through the journalist. Which is understandable: mistakes, misstatements, awkward statements are known to have serious consequences.

No matter how much it stage-manages or plans every minute detail, lately the government communication stab has been forced to acknowledge two failures. The one was the fact that the quota referendum was not valid despite spending HUF 17 billion (USD 60 million) and the manner it was forced through the media.  The other was the matter of the referendum (on whether Budapest should host the 2024) Olympics and the success of the Momentum Movement, which supposedly upset Orbán very much. It was difficult to explain how the increasingly squeezed opposition media managed to publicize the organization and its goals across the country in so short a period of time.

From these two failures, the Habony communication machine reached the conclusion that the government media is still not sufficiently strong, and still not sufficiently effective, and still not capable of acceptably offsetting the “left-liberal media.”  For this reason, it switched gears, and now with the help of established placards they have started attacking opposition journalists and editors too.

Moreover, the Momentum’s activities revealed what happens when a grain of sand gets stuck in the communication machine. According to our sources, they did not calculate within Fidesz that the collection of signatures would have such a compelling effect, and for this reason did not prepare the placard to be repeated.  The situation immediately showed how inflexible, slow and centralized the system is, and how helpless and indecisive was its apparatus. This was how it happened in the Olympic matter that Fidesz potentates issued statements that absolutely contradicted one another, and only after a few days of chaos was it apparent that the obligatory libretto had been prepared. The paralysis further compounded everyone’s fear of saying the wrong thing. Finally, there was a scandal over the non-existent CÖF statement over which, according to our sources, a number of people were stood on the edge of a cliff.

Then came the firings at TV2 and at Origo and Ripost as well, which, according to our information, Habony and company did not expect as they only observed a progressively stronger servility and, of course, deepening existential dependence.  Not without reason.  Anyway, politicians consider journalists to be subservient. In this regard, more and more signaled that they were quitting: this level is intolerable for them, and they won’t do it anymore even despite their uncertain future.  Csaba Vultur, the Ripost editor who recently quit, wrote on Facebook:  “For a while there is the fact that they pay well.  After that comes the fact that I don’t need to deal with politics.  Then comes the fact that it wasn’t me that wrote it.  Then follows the fact that I wrote it, but they changed it. Then comes the fact that I have to support my family from something. And of course the fact that I don’t have any other choice.  From this moment on, these no longer exist.”

INDEX AND SIMICSKA

“‘Dark clouds gathered over Index’ is how I could more politely express the fact that the independent news portal prepared to the best of our ability became an object of negotiation between the oligarchs’ dirty paws. It is difficult to otherwise characterize the situation when Simicska, Hungary’s roughest oligarch since the system change, who kept Fidesz and the government in his pocket before falling from power, obtained an option to purchase Index before the 2014 elections. The party treasurer who built the (Fidesz) party media was given the opportunity to turn the biggest Hungarian news portal into a government propaganda newspaper. Or anything. As to why Index’s owner to date, Zoltán Spéder, the other oligarch to fall out, agreed to the deal, we can only speculate,” wrote Index editor-in-chief Gergely Dudás in his op-ed piece after it turned out that Lajos Simicska exercised his option on April 20th, 2017 and the Foundation for Hungarian Development had become its new, sole owner. Simicska appointed media lawyer László Bodolai, who had long handled the portal’s legal affairs, to head the board of directors. Bodolai’s asset management company NPO Nanga Parbat 17 Zrt. is the sole owner, which, according to court documents, registered the foundation in March of this year.

In this way old rumors proved true according to which Simicska obtained an option to acquire Index in February 2014. The date is important because it took place one year before G-day (the day Simicska publicly broke with Viktor Orbán-tran.) and two months before the general election. Simicska at that time was still Viktor Orbán’s right-hand man.  The Fidesz other lord and definitive director was the number one handler of the party cash desk. At that time his media manually executed Fidesz orders and publicized the party’s messages.  The system he built worked very well. After G-day Fidesz rebuilt the structure again copying it, only with Andy Vajna, Árpád Habony and Lőrinc Mészáros.

Many are of the opinion that the claim that Simicska and Orbán planned the winding up of the complete destruction of Hungarian media at the beginning of 2014 to be not too far from the truth, and many believe the same fate was slated for Index as Nêpszabadság. However, according to our sources, this was not the case because the leading news portal was too valuable, known, and established to simply plough under.  For this reason they would “only” have placed it among he government propaganda outlets.

Obviously, it is not by chance that Simicska had an option to purchase Index similar to that of TV2.  Our information is that he did not finalize the latter because it would have cost too much to operate once deprived of its advertisers. At that time Simicska lost Class FM and had to close Metropol, and the capital city started demolishing the Mahir advertising pillars as well.

But those events happened after G-day.  Since that turning point Simicska’s obvious goal has been to topple Orbán from power.  It is said that towards this end he has fabricated a precise script and detailed schedule through 2018.  In this one of the tools is his remaining media, now supplemented with Index. Although he executed his option, the fact that this was realized through Lászlö Bodolai in the form of a foundation indicates that, while he could do so, he does not want to interfere in the editors’ work.

Perhaps the reason for this is that he sees the result of party control of Origo and TV2, and realized that hands-on control would result in the loss of part of its editors and would damage Index’s image. Along with this, we understand that Simicska regularly meets with the leaders of his media portfolio and is well informed, but pays attention to material matters, and does not have a say in questions of content.

As Gergely Dudás writes: “What does this mean to our profession, and obviously our readers as well, from the most important view of independence of editorial content?  That, while Simicska’s people are involved in the running of Index, they could be informed of any transaction or possible sale, but so long as Bodolai, the chairman of the board and owner, does not permit this, politics cannot enter the editorial board.  While there is no sign of attempts to influence, the editors were promised the issuance of guarantees that would ensure its continued independent operation.”