Géza Peltzer: The party-owned regional papers have become party-owned regional papers

With the well known former journalist from County Vas we talked about the transitions of daily papers, the freedom of press and the real journalists' real tasks.

In the middle of November we had a podcast with Podcast Peltzer Gézával: Az egykori pártsajtóból húsz év kanyar után újra pártsajtó lett 2020. November 22. 11:23 the well-known journalist Géza Peltzer, who had worked for the regional daily newspaper Vas Népe for 22 years. The following interview is the shortened and edited version of the conversation.

How long did you work as a journalist?

24 altogether, and from 1993 to 2014 at Vas Népe under Miklós Halmágyi editor-in-chief.

What did working for a daily paper mean in 1993? What were the principles and expectations of you?

At that time the paper was owned by a German company, and earlier it belonged to a political party, the MSZMP (The Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party).

So the former party paper has become a party paper again. It used to represent the governmental authority and so does now.

Meanwhile there was privatiosation as well. That time the daily papers were big deals, even the employees could get company shares. Most employees sold their shares and later they deeply regretted their decisions as having wasted a treasure.

When I started to work for them the German owners had practically only one goal: to increase the income and maximize the profit. They did not care about the contents so for me the mid 90s was the Golden Age. We could write what we wanted to.

Peltzer Géza
Szilágyi József (telefonos fotó)

What was the daily circulation that time?

It was 65,000.

And what is this number now at Vas Népe?

As far as I know it is under 20,000. People used to say in the countryside that something did not exist if Vas Népe did not write about it. We and the state tv were the information sources in the countyside.

What was your speciality?

I was in charge of the economy because I was the only one who had a degree in engineering and knew that one meter was how many tons. Okay, it is a joke but the others dealt with politics and arts. I had to go to agricultural cooperatives and write about ill cherry trees and spray mixtures. Being a rural daily paper economy meant mostly agriculture.

We should not forget that this period was a Golden Age not only for Vas Népe but for the entire Hungarian media landscape. It was like letting the genie out of the bottle.

It is true. There were morning Kurír, afternoon Kurír and evening Kurír. There was everything. The journalist got off the treadmill of news production and they were able to ask nasty questions, make reports amongst the people. They asked back when the interviewee did not answer the questions. That was unusual for the political power as earlier ready-made interviews had been sent to the editors.

Later I was the head of the news section dealing with domestic news. Mr György Ipkovich was the Mayor of Szombathely. I put the voice recorder in front of him and just talked about fishing or what car he had. When the tape was full I told him I could not write more, that was all. He said he just wanted to start talking about his political programmes. I said I was sorry, but that was all. And we really published the interview in that form. Later Mr Ipkovich called a press conference and introduced his program there.

Then Mr Tivadar Puskás became the mayor of Szombathely and our ex-colleague Laci Angyal was his press secretary. I was simply not able to meet Mr Puskás and was told to send 5 questions. So I did. I got the reply saying my questions were not okay so they rewrote then the mayor answered them. And there was my name at the end of the article. And all of these in the name of freedom of press, of course

Let’s make it clear what rights the interviewee has. He or she cannot change the title and the lead, cannot change the questions if they are ethical. He or she can decide the answers. It is not compulsory but most media outlets send back the interview for approving and the interviewee can review his answers and modify them, if it is needed.

That is correct. Just think it over. There is the published interview with Tivadar Puskás, which was not written by me, neither the questions nor the answers were mine but my name is there. What can I say now? Embarrassing.

Look at the second principle. The mission is the press to control the actual political power. And then the politician complains that the press wants to attack him and ask unpleasant questions. In fact the press just does its job when wants to know how the local council work, how the money is spent, what about the tenders and the city management. From this perspective it does not matter what colors the councils or the government are.

I agree, the press must always have oppositional voices. But professionalism is also disappearing. When I was a section leader I started the work in the morning with 3-4 own ideas. There were my young colleagues, who are in important positions now, and I asked them for their ideas. And there was a big science there, they were just sitting and waiting for somebody to talk them what to do.

A country town is more difficult than the capital. It occurs that you have to ask difficult questions and reveal unpleasant things about people you personally know and meet.

You have to deal with it. If we look at the links between the conflicts and the journalism, I believe there are three variations. If someone avoids the conflicts that should not be a journalist. The second type takes the conflicts so can be a journalist. And there is the third type who enjoys conflicts to feel the power. Well, this is not good either, I know some of them.

But you also must know how far you can go and to what extent you expose the person to the public. Many do not know their rights or the option of not saying anything.

That is true. He or she is introduced in a bad environment and people are allowed to label and laugh at him. And there comes another principle: you as a journalist must defend people who don’t know their rights, even you must inform them about this.

People know the old journalists recognizing them in the street, at the market and restaurant, providing them subjects to write about. But they don’t know the new generation.

Because they don’t go amongst people. They go to work, waiting for the instructions and that is all. In the next bloch of apartments there lives a chimney sweeper, and he said the nicest thing when I was fired from Vas Népe: you are not at the paper so ordinary people’s problems will not be published in it. Last week I got a calendar from him. Do you need a better confirmation?

The press has a power to support causes to help ordinary people solve their problems.

7 cases out of 10 you cannot do anything. But sometimes it is enough to publish their letter or listen to them and they feel being looked after.

Sometime you must make it clear for the people that the government, that the local council and the offices operate on their money, they pay the politicians and authorities who don’t have rights to neglect or humiliate anybody. By the way, does any of your ex-colleagues still work for the Vas Népe.

Not really. The redundancies, in which I was fired, started much earlier. There were three reasons for firing editors, proofreaders and other professionals: they were too clever, too smart or earned too much monex. Then they employed inexperienced newbies for 100,000 HUF salaries who did not know anybody and did not intend to do so.

I rarely meet my ex colleagues, there is not a cooperation and cohesion than used to be. Some have died, and I am almost sure it is because he or she was fired at the age of 59-60, which was a big trauma for them.

It seems journalism has become smartphone journalism. They check the social media and occasionally ask for information via telephone considering field work expensive and time consuming.

But a small issue is an issue too. For example when you next your next door neighbour burns car tires or nobody cuts the grass on the roadside.

And we have to talk about those who consider themselves as journalist but in fact are political activists.

It reminds me of making some notions clear. In the press a distinction must be made between facts and opinions, just like news and advertisements. It is important to mark it somehow as it is not sure that everyone knows that.

My favorite story about that is the following: the former editor-in-chief of the New York Times was asked who his life was going having retired after 40 years. He said he finally could write his opinion in the New York Times. As he was the editor-in-chief he could not do that.

Do you remember. The Népszabadság one had a motto the went the news is sacred the opinion is free.

It is still true. But we read opinions as articles on news portals. And the ordinary reader believes them because it is published.

Recently a government degree was printed incorrectly in Magyar Közlöny. We picked it up, just like other outlets. They knew they made a mistake but the pro-government media reacted fiercely and labelled everybody liars and fake news who did that. They managed to activate the entire media empire within 15 minutes.

Can you see how effectively the news factory, the media of the political power are organized?

A magyar nyelvű cikk ide kattintva Peltzer Géza: a megyei napilapok pártlapból pártlappá váltak 2020. December 12. 19:00 olvasható.

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