London media agency carries Viktor Orbán's nativist message

V4NA, which pumps out stories on dangers of migration, has links to Hungary’s government

“Islam can take over Sweden in 50 years.”

“Migrants unhappy with the free money they get.”

Welcome to the world according to the V4 News Agency (V4NA), a newly launched London-based media outlet with strong links to Viktor Orbán’s far-right government in Hungary.

Domestically, Orbán has built his political platform on opposing migration to Europe, a message carried by a stable of government-friendly media outlets. The establishment of V4NA appears to have two goals: to provide international content for these domestic outlets, and also to amplify Orbán’s nativist message outside Hungary.

“We give a conservative, rightwing perspective of the key political, economical and other news that are critical to our life in Europe and around the world,” said a statement released by V4NA shortly after it launched, adding that it had a team of 50 journalists who were “always on location where the leading stories happen in Europe”.

In the days after the launch last month, many of the featured stories had provocative headlines about the dangers of migration, similar to the diet of news on Hungary’s state-controlled television networks.

Since then, the amount of non-ideological content has grown, and the site now boasts dozens of stories a day, many of them on sport, culture or other popular topics. “Relieving stress with the magic of llamas,” read one story this weekend, and there are numerous reports from central European sporting events.

There are still plenty of anti-immigration stories, however, featuring headlines such as: “Twenty thousand terrorists may infiltrate Europe annually,” or the incendiary: “Syrian migrant rapes a teenage girl.” The full articles are only available to subscribers, and the website gives no indication about the cost or terms of subscribing.

Independent Hungarian media outlets quickly uncovered that the agency was registered in London late last year by Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, Hungary’s ambassador to Britain.

More than half of the shares in the agency now belong to the Central Europe Press and Media Foundation, an umbrella grouping of pro-government Hungarian media set up last year when a number of businessmen close to Orbán turned over their stakes in various media outlets. A minority package belongs to Árpád Habony, a reclusive London-based Hungarian businessman known as one of Orbán’s ideologues.

Born in 1963 in Székesfehérvár in central Hungary, Viktor Orbán has been leader of the Fidesz national conservative party in two long stints since 1993. He has been Hungary’s prime minister between 1998 and 2002, and again since 2010. After two years of military service he studied law in Budapest, and then political science at Pembroke College, Oxford.

For nationalists across Europe, Orbán has become a hero, the embodiment of a nativist leader willing to eschew liberal political correctness and speak aggressively about the need to defend so-called Christian Europe. Steve Bannon has called him Trump before Trump, and Nigel Farage and Italy’s Matteo Salvini are admirers.

For many liberals, and increasingly for some of his supposed allies in the EPP, he signifies all that is rotten, corrupt and downright scary in contemporary politics on the continent.

“The age of liberal democracy is at an end,” Orbán told the Hungarian parliament shortly after Fidesz won a third successive electoral victory in 2018. “It is no longer able to protect people’s dignity, provide freedom, guarantee physical security or maintain Christian culture.”

His messaging, repeated in speeches and interviews ad nauseam, is that he is on a mission to protect Hungary and the rest of Europe from the evils of migration from the Middle East and Africa. He has frequently accused the Hungarian-born financier George Soros of a conspiracy to overrun Europe with Muslim migrants.

Orbán’s Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, which gives him leeway to make sweeping constitutional changes, and he has spoken of a plan to reshape the country over the next decade. He has installed loyalists in previously independent institutions, put a vast media network under the control of cronies and brushed off protests from the disgruntled urban elites.

One thing Orbán’s admirers and detractors agree on is that he has become symbolic of something bigger than the fate of a smallish central European state with a population of fewer than 10 million. The man himself clearly relishes his increasingly large role in European political discourse.

Frustrated with Brussels and other European critics, Orbán has built alliances with neighbouring countries, notably throughout the V4, which comprises Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all of whose leaders have at times expressed varying degrees of unhappiness with the EU, and whose unity in messaging is growing.

For Orbán, the idea that he is up against an exhausted, decaying vision of Europe is one that he has returned to again and again in his speeches. In October 2018, he implicitly compared today’s EU to the Nazis, Soviets and other imperial powers.

Shaun Walker in Budapest

Despite this, Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács said the agency had “nothing to do with the government”, and would succeed or fail according to whether it was competitive in the market. When asked about the involvement of the ambassador, Kovács said: “I can tell you dozens of examples from German or British politics where people are related to politics and the press.”

The Hungarian ambassador in the UK, Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, walking past a police officer in Downing Street.
The Hungarian ambassador to the UK, Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, walking past a police officer in Downing Street. Photograph: WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

A spokeswoman for the Hungarian embassy in London declined to comment on the agency, calling it “a private initiative” and adding the ambassador would not comment either.

Playing a leading role at the agency is Tóth Tamás Antal, an executive who previously worked in various roles in Hungarian public media outlets. Emails sent to the agency and the executive went unanswered.

Kovács wholeheartedly endorsed the agency’s stated goals, saying it would be an important counterbalance to the “distortion” of western European media about Hungary and the broader central European region.

He said: “There’s a political agenda that is being nurtured on a daily basis. There’s a narrative which clearly is not talking about the truth and what people can see on the ground. I believe those who have started this initiative believe there’s going to be a need for this unique voice.”

Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, director of the pro-government Nézőpont Intézet thinktank in Budapest, said he believed the figure of 50 journalists was accurate, and he expected the agency to hire a number of British journalists who would be experienced and able to ask questions at major European events and summits.

Mráz said the agency would function both as a news clearing house for Hungarian domestic media, and would try to reach more people, helping to create common positions across central Europe. “Through several languages they can reach other people as well, but politically they are focused on the central Europeans,” he added.

The V4 in the agency’s title refers to the Visegrád Four, a term used for Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose leaders meet at regular summits. Governments in all four countries have at various times promoted populist, conservative politics and used incendiary anti-migration rhetoric, although the political landscape varies from country to country.

Early signs suggest the initiative may not be having the desired unifying effect. The Czech and Slovakian governments have raised concerns with their Hungarian counterparts over the use of the V4 term in the news agency, given that its content appears to reflect purely Hungarian talking points, a source told the Guardian.


Shaun Walker in Budapest

The GuardianTramp

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