Two months ago Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-British-American media tycoon, bought half interest in a new tabloid newspaper, Mai Nap ("Today") and half of a weekly news magazine, Reform, in Budapest, Hungary.
Robert Maxwell, whose flamboyance as a British press lord outdoes even Murdoch's, bought 40 percent of a one-time Budapest Communist Party evening daily, Magyar Hirlap ("Hungarian Daily").And Germany's giant Axel Springer publishing company, which is aggressively looking for new markets (Media Monitor, July 13) snapped up seven of 19 provincial dailies once owned by the Communist Party.
- Hungarians see this surge of acquisitiveness as a mixed blessing for their democracy.
On the one hand, the media need help. As an executive of the leading advertising agency there told me, "Our country suddenly has 4,000 or so periodicals, but most of them are too new and too small for us to advertise in. Many won't succeed without outside money."
On the other hand, Hungarians worry that they are merely exchanging one kind of control, the old gagging "guidance" by the party Central Committee, for another, capitalist monopoly.
So fretful is the government that it took control of one company that owned much of the provincial press to forestall further takeovers despite Hungary's opening to the West and its policy of privatizing.
- HUNGARY WAS RIPE for a burst of new and different media. Its press had been evolving toward freedom for at least two years. The country had what Hungarians call the "smooth dictatorship" of a less repressive regime from 1956, following the crushed rebellion, until Janos Kadar stepped down as party chief in 1987. But by then the economy had been wrecked beyond communist repair.
Reforms came on without the mass demonstrations and riots that drove the party from power in neighboring hard-line countries.
After the May 1988 party congress approved some sweeping changes and new political parties ballooned, the press burst forth in a torrent of commentary. All sorts of once-covert topics were discussed freely. Last October the Communist Party was dissolved and its assets, including its newspapers, redistributed. Then in January an amendment to a media law formally permitted private ownership of the press.
- MURDOCH HAS AT LEAST so far kept his hands off the editorial operation of Mai Nap, though he watches the financial side closely. He paid a modest $3.7 million for his stake, enough to get the editorial operation computerized and to pirate top journalists from other papers. Mai Nap is housed in a famous old corporation building. No Hungarian paper has its own printing capability, however; all continue to be printed in a central government plant.
The paper was founded by three newsmen from the Budapest party's evening daily. They began planning even before the 1988 reforms, reasoning that their time had come because Hungary had to open up if it wasn't to go broke.
Mai Nap is a bouncy tabloid of 24 to 32 pages that appears every day but Saturday. (There is only one other Sunday paper, an entertainment sheet.) It carries punchy stories, in contrast to the turgid "Germanic" think pieces that characterized the traditional Hungarian press. There are loads of features, celebrity interviews and an obligatory crime story every day, though it is a far cry from Murdoch's "Sun," an outrageous London popular paper. Circulation has gone up fourfold, to 120,000, since Mai Nap was born in February.
A familiar sight at noon in Budapest is Mai Nap newsboys hawking the paper to drivers at intersections.
The concerns about monopoly are heightened by Mai Nap's aggressive founding of new periodicals. It owns humor, news and entertainment magazines. Soon the company will bring out a morning daily to extend its range beyond its Budapest base. It will have to use the state post office to deliver the paper to the boondocks even though it is scornful of the country's snail's-paced postal delivery.
The company also owns a share of a new breakfast TV program, called "Sun," which it produces in its own studios and airs on one of the two state-owned channels.
- AS TO THE OLD COMMUNIST press, it is still around in a different dress, some of it owned by old associations like the trade unions and some trying to make it in a market economy without subsidies.
The former communist flagship paper, Nepszabadsag ("Freedom of the People"), is trying to reshape itself on the American newspaper-of-record model, despite a leftish tinge. It leads in circulation at 380,000 copies, but that is half a million copies fewer than it circulated when it was required reading as the party mouthpiece. It still claims a million of Hungary's 10 million people read it regularly.
Nepszabadsag got its independence a year ago when it refused to a accept a new editor appointed by the Politburo, and the party boss, Karoly Grosz, knuckled under. Last October it was taken over the Socialist Party, made up of the liberal wing that split off from the orthodox communists.
The socialists have since renounced the rights to publish the paper and have set up an independent foundation to manage it.
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- HUNGARIAN RADIO AND TV have a lot less wiggle room than the press because they are still basically a state monopoly. ("We have no interference from government but quite a bit from politicians," one executive told me.) There is one private regional TV company in a resort area licensed before the government slapped a moratorium on permits. Applicants for private channels are lining up, 56 for FM licenses and 46 for TV frequencies so far, hoping the government will decide to establish a true dual private/public system.
Until parliament passes a radio-TV law, the state broadcasting companies will remain rudderless, operating under temporary presidents.
Meanwhile, Hungarian TV is becoming, alas, more like the American in that commercials are beginning to be aired within programs, including the news, because of an acute need for cash.
Next: The Polish press fihnds independence expensive