Four and a half years to the day after its launch, The Budapest Beacon is publishing its final article today – starts the interview. In it, Richard Field, BB’s managing director explains what is happening in Hungary.
Some of the most poignant statements from the interview with Richard Field:
On the decline of media pluralism and shrinking pool of independent news sources:
“When we started we could typically draw on four or five different articles published by different media outlets on any given news story. The closure and/or purchase of a number of independent media outlets by pro-Fidesz businessmen makes it increasingly difficult for us to source accurate, reliable news about what is really happening in Hungary.”
“And the more the government spends “informing” the public about existential threats at home and abroad, the more taxpayer money can be diverted to pro-government media and advertising agencies. Over a period of three years they spent 100 billion forints, or $400 million, on a virtually continuous countrywide campaign conflating migration with terrorism.”
On why Fidesz won in the poorest regions:
“People threatened with starvation or exposure tend to be risk averse. Viktor Orban told them Islamic terrorists were going to steal their social benefits and rape their women. And they believed him.”
And why the European Union cannot act. Not just because of its consensus rule:
“My understanding is that western companies are making a lot of money in Hungary and are only too happy to run interference for Viktor Orbán with their governments. German companies in particular receive huge Hungarian state subsidies.”
“Corruption extending beyond Hungary’s borders might be a factor. Certain EU officials may also be in on it. Who knows? If someone is stealing billions of European taxpayer money each year, they can afford to share the love.”
Why is corruption (and public procurement and the distribution of EU funds) such a problem in Hungary?
“Because if you can steal $5 million a day filling in forms why would you do anything else? … Winning a national election in an EU fund net recipient country today is a license to steal money from European taxpayers.”
“Thousands of government employees do little more day in and day out than generate the reams of documents necessary to call down EU funds and disburse them to the companies owned by businessmen close to Fidesz officials or their relatives.”
On Orbán’s electoral victory:
“As for the electorate, you scare them by, for example, telling them that an old rich Jew is sending young Muslim men to rape your wives and daughters and strip you of your jobs and pensions. The European migration crisis came at the perfect time for Viktor Orbán and his merry band of kleptocrats.”
The shutdown came two days after the last broadsheet national daily, Magyar Nemzet was discontinued after Orbán’s landslide victory, alongside a radio station and a TV channel (HírTV) that is allowed to look for new investors – if they can and if the media council allows anyone but Fidesz oligarchs to buy it.
The Budapest Beacon started in 2013 and was one of the rare independent, English-speaking portals where you could get news about Hungary. I would contest Field’s opinion that “there is ample English language news about Hungary these days, from The New York Times to the BBC” though. They have become busy before the 2014 elections and published pretty much the same facts about Hungary, starting with a painfully long and tedious prologue about Orbán’s past in 1989. This tells you all you need to know about the degree of attention these outlets have for a tiny country such as Hungary. No one starts an article about the upcoming British elections with Theresa May’s youth and the country’s political history during the last 25 years to get readers up to speed. It is simply not the job on international media to follow parochial issues on a daily basis – yet, they also rely on local journalists when they need to report.
The end of media pluralism in Hungary will hit foreign correspondents, too, because they will find it more difficult to report about Hungary in the absence of independent local journalists. And the next time they will write about us? When arrests start or Orbán announces the state of emergency.
As Field put it:
“Hungary isn’t the only western country going over to the dark side. Our publisher loves Hungary and is genuinely concerned about democratic backsliding in this small central European country of 10 million. However, there’s a North American country of 320 million people he’s even more concerned about, if only because, for all of its problems, it remains a bastion of democracy for the time being.”