Dumbed-down propaganda and identical front pages don’t generate readership and loyalism is not enough qualification for an executioner – industry experience is also needed.
There has been a flurry of troubling news coming out of Orbán’s propaganda machine. (Troubling for them, it is.) Especially his 500-title media conglomerate, but also the state-funded social media influencers.
On November 15 the head of Mediaworks had to be resigned because he failed to deliver the numbers and the IT system that would allow for complete and centralized control over the titles he ruled over. He has only been in the job for 19 months and spent two billion forints just on the IT, but the elections are upon us and the audience of Orbán’s entire media holding is shrinking.
There has been news that their youthful AF TV channel will also be discontinued. It was kicked in after the 2019 municipal election defeat when one of the mistakes has been identified as not talking to youth. The 40-something kids immediately offered themselves to produce a political youth TV that – according to them – would totally mesmerize youth. They received a few billions and another TV channel was kicked out of the cable list just to accommodate them – to no avail.
They did their best though. They even jumped up and down in colorful outfits and tried so-called humor. Unfortunately, colorful outfits can’t keep the attention of the Instagram-generation long enough to distract them from the nasty, top-down “humor” the channel performed (basically wondering how the traitor opposition is still allowed to exist). The channel sucks on multiple levels but it was still a shock when their budget was cut and their illegally employed (as contractors) workers could not be paid. They cried out for sympathy – none arrived.
It was also amusing how the Orbánist media was commanded to start crowdfunding – like their independent competitors did in order to survive. The few remaining non-Orbánist media outlets have no access to taxpayer money and not even advertising money is forthcoming in the double-bind of Zuckerberg and advertisers’ fear from Orbán’s revenge. The crowdfunding drive started before index.hu was Orbanized, but that was the event that galvanized things in 2020. When their site (index.hu) was finally taken over, the entire newsroom resigned en masse and started telex.hu instead, on an incredibly successful crowdfunding campaign.
This must have hurt Orbánists because they were forced to prove that they, too, command that much love from their audiences. It was appalling and amusing how outlets that soaked up taxpayer billions and an avalanche of advertising money in the form of government propaganda spending suddenly started to spend even more on their crowdfunding drive.
According to 444.hu, the viewership of Orbán’s media has decreased.
In November 2021, the head of Mediaworks, a member of Orbán’s 500 title strong media conglomerate (KESMA), was suddenly dismissed and parachuted into a ministry. Five of his lieutenants left with him. According to news sources he was so shocked, he didn’t believe it until Orbán’s propaganda minister called him personally. The guy’s dismissal shows how the propaganda machine is desperately trying to gear up and catch traction again before the elections next year.
The new boss was no other than the Hungarian confidante of Heinrich Pecina, the convicted Austrian fraudster who buys up media outlets for others and hands them over when asked for. He performed the job for Orbán – he was also mentioned on the Ibiza tapes of disgraced Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache as the man who would buy media to turn it into party mouthpieces. His services are probably offered to other aspiring autocrats in the region when Orbán patronizingly mentors them on how to autocrat.
As of Mediaworks, it holds roughly 500 titles of TV, radio, print and online media, and has 2730 employees. Thanks to the government’s generosity they had 66.7 billion forints (222 million euros) in revenues in 2020. Roughly one third of its revenues come from “advertising”, which is not really a market-based thing as pretty much all of that is just one client: the Orbán-government. When foreign observers politely note that the government uses advertising as a concealed subsidy for loyalist media, they are only wrong in one thing: it is not concealed. The other two-third of its budget is also taxpayer money – in the form of communication tenders. It is by far the largest media holding in the country (even in Europe), but the Orbánist media authority didn’t find any problem with it when it was created as it is classified a “strategic” company and thus above certain laws like the ones against cartels.
According to the tldr analysis on 444, the government had to channel twice as much into Mediaworks as it made (also from the government) on the advertising market, just to make up for the shortfall of revenues as readership plunged. It didn’t plunge deep enough, but the numbers are embarrassing nonetheless:
- The monthly unique visitor number of the holding went from 5.8 million last summer to 5.2 in 2021.
- Most of it (3 million) is just origo.hu, the once reputable online paper that was Orbanized and zombified in 2015.
- Local papers have also lost a lot – roughly one third of their readership
- The party mouthpiece Magyar Nemzet lost one third of its readers since 2020
- Smear site 888.hu lost half since 2020
- Even Nemzeti Sport, the perennial sport daily and Orbán’s Bible has managed to lose half its readers.
Since loyalism is the guiding motive of the system, it also happens on levels below Orbán’s. The now-dismissed head of Mediaworks was a tried and tested cadre, who made his bones in the pharmaceutical industry. Unsurprisingly for anyone who understand loyalism, he brought in new managers from the only place he had loyalists: the pharmaceutical industry. It created conflict with the management that was already in place – and no doubt with anyone who was in the communication business or media. But once loyalism guides your hand, loyalism is what you get – and nothing else. Make that your KPI because readership won’t work.
The holding spent 2 billion on a new, integrated tech system to centrally control all titles. They are infamous for coming out with the same exact front page at the same exact time when politically commanded, like the obligatory Orbán-portrait and Orbán-article on election day, calling readers to vote – then the radio and televisions in the holding report about the aforementioned headlines in unison, with the words scripted “up there”, i.e. the propaganda headquarters.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t inspire readers to buy more of them, so the streamlining started – meaning firings. Journalists who stayed there and pretended to not notice censorship were unceremonially dismissed.
The new leader of Mediaworks has a reputation of a tough executioner, but the fact remains. Orbán is on final approach to the elections and his eye-wateringly expensive media holding is underperforming – nor has he a central campaign theme this time.
But one should not write off the Orbánist media influence just yet. They may be incompetent, appallingly subservient and unwatchable – but their true power is not what they show, but what they never do. Entire topics can be concealed from their viewers completely but simply not mentioning it. The Pegasus scandal or the world record Covid death rate and the appalling state of hospitals have been such topics lately. They weren’t mentioned-no one knows them.