"They were either bought off or blackmailed!" – Sándor Csintalan on Simicska's media empire

March 8, 2015


Translation of an interview with Sándor Csintalan, editor and presenter at Lánchíd Rádió, made by Gergely Miklós Nagy, published in Hungarian print weekly Magyar Narancs (“Lajos erre azt mondta…”) on March 5. 2015. 8-11. pp.

The last interview we made with him was twenty years ago. At the time, he was the political infant prodigy of Gyula Horn’s Socialist government. A lot of thing happened since then and today, he can describe himself as a close friend of Lajos Simicska. This, and his involvement with Lánchíd Radio, is why we now asked him about what is happening in the rightist media empire today.

Biography: Sándor Csintalan joined the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party–Hungary’s Communist party–in the Kádár-era as a teacher of history and Hungarian literature, where he dealt with public affairs early on. After the change of regime he continued his political career in the Hungarian Socialist Party, becoming its vice president after the 1994 election victory. In 1998 he was once again elected as a Socialist MP from his constituency, but within party circles, he was already moving to the background. He left active politics in 2002, opening a pub at Lehel Square. In 2007 he joined Fidesz. He was a television presenter in Hír TV’s phone-in discussion program for years. He now has a regular program on Lánchíd Radio every Monday.

Magyar Narancs: On February 6th Gábor Liszkay and many others resigned their positions out of matters of conscience and bid farewell to Lajos Simicska’s media empire. Among those resigning was your former editor-in-chief, Ottó Gajdics, Gábor Élő, who was the editor-in-chief of Magyar Nemzet Online, Péter Szikszai, deputy CEO of Hír TV, Péter Csermely and Szabolcs Szerető from Magyar Nemzet (the latter has since returned to the journal). A month later on, how do you see what happened on that day and how we got there?

Sándor Csintalan: What has happened had its antecedents both in a political and a human factor sense. The fact that an entirely new understanding of media is forming in the head of the prime minister and his circle could have been sensed from discourses even before. The source of such ideas was an intention to create a system of exercising power that will be faster and more effective than before. This is why they started to meddle with the system of checks and balances years before, even though I personally dislike this expression. But speaking about the media: the need for reforms was first articulated by the prime minister in April last year, after the election victory. Then he repeated the notion at several occasions. The gist of it was that “even this is too much.”

MN: How do you mean “too much”?

S. Cs.: Critical elements in our [government-friendly – ed.] media. This means (pro-government weekly – ed.) Heti Válasz, which is not the member of the Magyar Nemzet group.  The government thinks it is unpredictable and “wobbly” in a political sense in the past times. When in January, Orbán invited pro-government media executives, he told them that he fully understands that in private media there are certain expectations from the readership and viewership to feature critical elements, especially after years of governance, but a type of media is also needed that could serve as the “mouthpiece” of government politics. The prime minister and his circle thought that the time has come to rearrange the media market. But this does not solely affects us, but also RTL Klub and Index.

MN: What would have happened to Index?

S. Cs.: To summarize it superficially they wanted to buy it, then rearrange it, ploughing everything underground. This did not happen, but the total rearrangement of the media landscape is well on the agenda in order to generate a wider loyalist circle. But I think that however good the situation would be in a country, even government-friendly media publications have to be critical in some matters. The present power cannot tolerate such an attitude. I am not sure the extent to which this is a specific Hungarian phenomenon. In the past 25 years that I have spend in and around politics, what I have seen was that, regardless of party affiliation, if someone come to power, they would immediately turn hostile towards the media. But there are other things, as well. On one occasion, Orbán said that Lánchíd Radio, part of Simicska’s media-holding empire, should simply be shut down. He said the alternative would be the public media. And let me say something else as well: Lajos Simicska, who effectively created this democratic and Conservative media empire never wanted to influence its content . . . 

MN: I am reluctant to believe this. After the general elections Simicska’s confidante, Zsuzsanna Németh, was replaced by someone else at the Ministry of National Development. Following that there were a series of articles demanding the dismissal of the new minister, Miklós Seszták, uncovering his involvement in some off-shore businesses. One op-ed was entitled “The minister should step aside!” – penned by one of the editors, Péter Csermely, who now has left the paper bacause of matters of conscience. What is this if not an attempt to influence politics?

S. Cs.: Well let’s stop here for a bit. What I claimed was that there is this center-right media world, operating on a market-basis…

MN: …and with the help of billions of forints of state advertisements sold.

S. Cs: In Hungary, not counting some honorable exceptions, there is nothing like a Western private sector, because of the small size of the market. This should be enough about this for now, do the math. As for Seszták, writing and speaking about the earlier off-shore dealings of a minister should be acceptable. If I do not want to be a bootlicker, than this has to be done.

MN: To what extent did anyone else outside of the editorial office have a say in what should be published in the Magyar Nemzet?

S. Cs.: The mechanism did not work in a way that Orbán and Simicska coordinated what the tone should be. I am in this circle for a very long time now, and it cannot be claimed that Simicska was closely supervising the activities of the holding. There was nothing like that here. Most of the colleagues did not even know Lajos. Only Liszkay and Csermely were in contact with him.

MN: Did Liszkay and Csermely coordinate with the party as well then?

S. Cs.: Yes, they did.

MN: With who exactly?

S. Cs: Mostly with András Giró-Szász and Máté Kocsis. Or with those who were authorized to speak with them. There were coordinations with these people, but I am not sure about the content of these discussions. It never happened, however, that any of these politicians would sit in at our editorial meetings. The fact that a change will come in the media politics was realized during an Orbán-Simicska discourse.

MN: At that April meeting last year?

S. Cs: Exactly.

MN: Were you there at that meeting?

S. Cs.: Hell no!

MN: What do you know about that meeting?

S. Cs.: That meeting happened immediately after the election victory of the prime minister, when he informed Lajos about what the future will look like.  What the future holds, Orbán said, is another kind of media.  So what I said earlier about Index, about how Lánchíd Radio is not needed, and about the government’s very own media. To that, Lajos said no. The prime minister – who is not used to being refused – then replied “Ok, Lajos if you do not want to participate in this, then we will find somebody who can offer another solution.”  In effect that was the cancellation of a political alliance then and there. After that, the Russian connection and the case of Paks II surfaced. This is when a second “No” was articulated by Lajos. He said that this will not be acceptable financially and politically in the long run. Because it could not be seen how one eventually extricates himself from such a commitment.  This is contrary to Hungarian interests. This is why Simicska said that he will not be the part of this. At the same time, Simicska offered to back away and not to be active in the future. This proposal was eventually turned down by the prime minister.

Read more about the Orbán-Simicska war and the resignations at Simicska’s media outlets here

MN: Simicska wanted to get out entirely?

S. Cs.: Yes. However, this was not accepted by the prime minister, because if Simicska gets out of the whole business entirely, he is more dangerous than if he is in. What is happening now is still better for Orbán than the retirement of Lajos to Hárskút to be a Sulla. In this way, processes could still be kept under control, and they will slowly bleed us out.

MN: How did the editorial offices in the holding react to all this last year?

S: Cs.: This is interesting. People surfaced, especially at Magyar Nemzet, who were not interested in normalizing the events, meaning convincing the Prime Minister to be more open regarding media issues. And here I mean Gábor Liszkay and Péter Csermely. Actions destroying personal and confidential relationships were initiated against the government. Do you remember the Magyar Nemzet front page featuring a fall in Fidesz’s popularity, and beside that Simicska?

MN: How on earth would I not remember that? It was amazing!

S. Cs.: When I saw that, a couple of swear-words left my mouth. I said that my good Lajos has nothing to do with this. This was a set-up by Liszkay and Csermely!  This is what I am talking about. That front page was about rubbing salt in the wound. Do you see what I mean? Matters have changed. After a while, Liszkay was only willing to speak to anyone in the company of another person, Csermely.  hen we attended some “psychotherapy sessions” so to say, where radical words were uttered about Viktor Orbán on the part of Csermely and Liszkay.

MN: How should we picture these exactly?

S: Cs.: This is how it was. Csermely is a prominent well-poisoner. I will offer an example: Csermely started to lobby the owner after April, saying that the whole crew of Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV is waiting for an occasion to hit the government hard at last. He told me this in person as well. And on behalf of Csermely and Liszkay, there was a definite intention to radicalize the feelings of the owner Lajos Simicska. He did not want to do away with his holding, but he did not want to be a mouthpiece either. This is why his fate had to be decided. An open confrontation was not in the government’s interests, so an alternative solution had to be figured out. That solution was what we have seen, the resignations. I’m not sure what the roles of Liszsky and the others were. But there was some kind of a conspiracy for sure.

MN: Why do you think that the events of February 6th were organized?

S. Cs.: On Thursday, Simicska still met with a group including Liszkay and Csermely and some others, who I will not name here, but believe me, my sources are good. Nothing in the world happened there. They said goodbye, and Simicska said that he is going on a vacation. So the time had come to pull those people out without whom there is no paper, radio or television during the weekend. Nothing happened until Friday, 11am. Then Liszkay calls a meeting where he told everyone that the time has come, saying that he received an order to attack Orbán’s family, to finish off the “Orbánists.” He also said that he was requested to change the tone of the paper entirely.

MN: How did you know that Liszkay said that?

S. Cs.: I know this because I spoke with everyone except Csermely, meaning Gábor Liszkay as well. Well, of course now he denies this version. He had no other choice. Because I know Lajos, and there could be no political situation in which he would order the paper to take on Orbán’s children. And a complete turn in the tone is utter nonsense. Just see how a similar thing worked out for Magyar Hírlap, not even worth mentioning it… Also, you cannot convince people to do such things just like that. This is why I said earlier that Simicska is not stupid. I know that he does not think like that. This is complete nonsense, and an absolute lie! But these leaders and editors were essential to the paper’s functioning and so they needed to be removed. Gábor Élő was also involved in this conspiracy, about that I am sure. He was the one who was calling other journalists during January to blow the whistle abut Orbán wanting to pull state advertisements from these journals, this is enough about him. Csermely was enjoying te situation all along, I am sure about that. He could finally be himself. Gajdics, on the other hand, did not really understand what was going on around him. He started to panic. By the way, I quite liked him, not his performances on screen, but him personally.

MN: Did you speak with hm as well?

S. Cs.: Naturally.

MN: But if you told him what he heard was not the truth, that Simicska never requested such a thing, then how come he did not return to his post?

S. Cs.: I did not tell him only this. What I told him was “Ottó, you know Lajos, can you imagine something like that about him?” To which he replied – and this could be confirmed by Szabolcs Szerető as well – that the particular situation he found himself in was a kind of a psychodrama–a situation in which he felt that if he does not follow his boss, than he would become a traitor. These people have a serious bond to Liszkay. Szabolcs had the sense to return later. I also know that Sziksza was contemplating a return, but in situations like this, there is a mutual loss of trust.  For me, by the way, there is only one unanswered question in this whole coup: Liszkay. Ok, I have a friend who told me that Liszkay was shitting his pants and that he had had enough of the whole affair, but why was a coup like this necessary? Liszkay is one of the most influential figures of the media. Who could have made an offer to him to do this? I guess it was the prime minister, but this will be revealed sooner or later. Hee is the question, the rest – Csermely, Élő – are really just talking heads. Honestly, to this day, I do not get Gábor’s [Liszkay] intentions. He was the one assembling this community, very systematically, with a serious influence.  Then he did this. I am more and more willing to accept that the same thing has happened to him I said happened happened with Szabolcs Kisberk from Célpont: they were either bought off or blackmailed.

MN: So it is your conviction that the objective was to render the whole media holding dysfunctional by February 7th?

S. Cs.: Yes, that was the intention, to shut Magyar Nemzet down. What else could have been the reason? Well, listen to me! On the Sunday following that Friday, I was talking to Liszkay. Then he told me that Lajos was requesting him to fire this and that person. He said he could not do it. I was in a similar situation myself, and I know, that in being confronted with such a request one usually hands in his resignation.  Or you request your boss to fire you, because you are not going to proceed with this. Or a mutual agreement I reached on the dismissal. But I would never call a meeting with all the important people to get them all to resign before tomorrow’s paper is published! Let’s not joke, this is impossible!

MN: Are you aware of any substantial rumors that employees of the Simicska-empire are now being lured into the public media?

S. Cs.: Yes, I hear such stuff…They are trying to lure them in one-by-one. As far as I know the public media struggles with a shortage of staff right now, especially at the production department. I am an old warrior.  I have seen such things before. I hear all kinds of stories from people involved, but these stories are often contradictory. So this could also be a test. But what is presently going on at the public media, whoever puts up with an environment like that, deserves to be hired by them as a way of punishment. What is going on in there is simply terrible.

MN: And what is going to happen if the government will start boycotting Hír TV? Or other outlets in the holding? Can you operate in a situation like that?

S. Cs.: On the one hand, I think, yes. But this boycott-threat is being manufactured on purpose. That was all Szikszai was talking about to Kisberk. I know this because I always investigate information. I had a long discussion with Kisberk early in the morning after which I phoned Szikszai. Szabolcs [Kisberk -ed.] was referring to him, so I asked him, what is this all about… So this is an ongoing manipulation, but we could overcome this. If something like this is going to happen it won’t last long. This new public media – and I am saying this ironically – plays in the league of Echo TV and Magyar Hírlap. And with this statement I do not even refer to the details, barely the proportion of viewership. I am not suggesting that we are doing really well in terms of viewership.  We are far from the 2006 situation, but I still think that a boycott is not a real threat. After all, politics is going on in the public space, and you need to reach out to people. Otherwise they will find alternative figures. And with this, I do not only mean the opposition.

MN: What do you mean then?

S. Cs.: You can produce other genres of programs. It is not only politicians who could talk to us about politics. You could give voice to those who have not got a voice yet, in the frameworks of debate-programs.

MN: This “new public media” and a new news site is said to be organized by Árpád Habony, or at least he has a lion’s share in the work. Have you ever met him? What do you think about him?

S. Cs.: I met him once, long time ago. What do I think about him? Well what he and his circles do or produce is a nightmare. His is a mental generator of aggression. I cannot presume that he is generating intellectual content, as he is only capable of aggression.  Rhis could be seen in public during his street-side incident (The event was revealed by Magyar Narancs in the February 28 2013 issue. Árpád Habony was convicted of public nuisance after seriously wounding and elderly couple and he was sentenced to two years on probation in 2011. / N.G.M). He is a political macho of the worst kind. He functions as a source of energy for the system in this regard. His Gucci-type lack of taste should not even be mentioned here. I also know that those in the immediate circles of the prime minister are really scared of Habony.

MN: And what does Simicska think about him?

S. Cs.: His opinion about him is firm. But I am not his Hungarian voiceover. Let’s just say that if his media empire gets destroyed, he is prepared to publish a lot of things people said about each other in these circles.

MN: How functional the Simicska media empire will be in the lack of any state advertisement whatsoever?

S. Cs.: I don’t know.  I am not familiar with the finances. From department heads, I know that we can cope with the situation on our own for quite a few years.  This system is the result of a twenty-year construction process. It is unusually precise, systematic, structured, backed by working capital, and this should be enough for normal survival.

MN: Oh yes, I almost forgot Csaba Schlecht! He is the new editor-in-chief of the Lánchíd Radio, following Ottó Gajdics. His appointment was a surprising move on behalf of Simicska. I don’t know if Schlecht has spent even a minute before working in the media. How is he coping with the job of an editor-in-chief?

S. Cs.: Look, firstly, he is a man capable of learning. Secondly, I think that his appointment is a symbolic message to Viktor Orbán.

MN: Why, what did Csaba Schelcht mean? “Viktor, watch out as my next appointee could easily be Josip Tot?”

S. Cs.: Csaba Schelcht is a man who has the full confidence of Lajos Simicska, and…

MN: …and his person could be a message to Orbán, that Simicska does not forget?

S. Cs.: Well, ok, I am glad, that we are talking about this as well. I am especially glad, as I can tell you that I do not believe in these skeletons in cupboards kind of stories. These people know each other since sharing a dormitory room. What would they be able or like to share about the other one? Who slept with who in the dorms? These two men have built a functional political system. And did not steal the whole Hungarian state in the process. I wish that we could be already in an era where politics everywhere is backed by such an organized structure.

MN: But this is exactly the point! Csaba Schlecht is a chapter of the story of how this system has been built. Everyone knows that political parties spend much more money on election campaigns than their legal allowance…

S. Cs.: Yes, that is right. Don’t tell me something that I already know.

MN: But then what are we talking about? If you already know this?

S. Cs.: Yes, but I am also openly saying this ever since 1992!

MN: So now you are saying that Fidesz’s campaign matters are not exactly clean either?

Cs. S: Whoa, slow down! How they are using their legal opportunities can be traced back from the financial side. This is not exactly a skeleton in the cupboard. I am talking about this. What could be revealed in connection with this? Oil- or gas businesses? VAT-payments that have never happened? It is maybe a secret that some people used illegal money to fund their political campaigns, but this is not something this system was built upon. Do you know what I mean? In this environment, the Simicska-empire is by far the most transparent. Let’s stick with this and leave it at that. Whatever you think about this right now, this is the truth.

MN: Does Lajos Simicska harbor any political ambitions? Is he considering founding a party?

S. Cs.: Right now, he is working on putting his media empire back in order.

MN: Since when do you know him?

S. Cs.: Lajos? We met in around 1994-1995.

MN: At that time you were still a vice president of the Socialist Party.

S. Cs.: Yes, back than I held an authorization from the prime minister (Gyula Horn – ed.) to get to know Fidesz better, even if they were a minor party with 6% of the votes at the time, as they seemed to be very talented guys. This is when I got to know most of the Fidesz-leadership as well. This relationship persisted, more intensively with some, and less intensively with others. With Lajos, it continued because he is a particularly interesting fellow. A real vibrant personality. I was partly envious and partly an admirer of the oevure that he was beginning to build at the time. I envied and admired that somebody is capable of putting a functional system of institutions behind a political party. I was impressed by the way he built all that.

MN: What is next? What could be the end of the Orbán-Simicska war?

S. Cs: First of all, the prime minister should reconsider the condition and quality of his inner circle. Does he need a domestic political war in the fifth year of his power? I am not even sure if the election rationality could be a sufficient reason for everything. I have serious doubts about that. And I also think that he should behave as the prime minister of the whole country. One condition of that is criticism.

MN: But what would happen with this war?

S. Cs.: If the latter version happens, then it could mean a relatively quick peace agreement, even if the status quo will not be restored. But if we do not start into that direction, than we should learn how to tolerate each other. When that moment will come, I have no idea. However, if they expect Simicska to throw up his hands and just walk away from this, than I can say that I see no chance for such a scenario at all.