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Martin Lengyel: Spokesman of a new media generation?

Martin Lengyel arrived for the interview early and draped his six foot four inch body casually into a leather chair in Bratislava's Hotel Fórum. He had a purposeful and confident air about him, as one might expect from a 26 year-old who until a short time ago was the spokesman and right-hand man of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.
But Lengyel's sang froid was obliterated when The Slovak Spectator photographer at the meeting hauled out his camera. "Wait, I wasn't expecting this, you said nothing about a photographer, I'm not prepared," he protested, adding resignedly, "How do you want me to look?"
"Try to look natural," was the answer.
"Natural? Hmmm..." he responded, and in the end came up with a credible effort.


While negotiations with financial backer Hanco have broken off, Lengyel feels sure that a new investor will be found soon.
photo: Ján Svrček


"Polls show that people are constantly channel-surfing and trying to find news they are happy with, which proves that there is a demand here for quality information."

Media expert Stanislava Benická


Martin Lengyel arrived for the interview early and draped his six foot four inch body casually into a leather chair in Bratislava's Hotel Fórum. He had a purposeful and confident air about him, as one might expect from a 26 year-old who until a short time ago was the spokesman and right-hand man of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.

But Lengyel's sang froid was obliterated when The Slovak Spectator photographer at the meeting hauled out his camera. "Wait, I wasn't expecting this, you said nothing about a photographer, I'm not prepared," he protested, adding resignedly, "How do you want me to look?"

"Try to look natural," was the answer.

"Natural? Hmmm..." he responded, and in the end came up with a credible effort.

Still in his mid-20s, Martin Lengyel is currently living out a life-long ambition - starting his own television station, named TA3 (a play on the famous Slovak mountain chain Tatry, which is pronounced the same way as the TV call sign). TA3 is to begin broadcasting by cable rather than transmitter in Slovakia this coming September, having received a license from the Slovakia Radio and Television Broadcasting Council on September 19, 2000.

For the average Slovak television viewer, who is exposed to a fare including Argentine soap operas and game shows such as the ubiquitous "Millionaire", TA3 offers something completely different - a CNN-type news station with updates from morning to evening. Lengyel expects prime time viewership levels of 10%, which is several times better than the best results achieved by cable stations VTV (whose low viewership led to its demise in 1999) and TV Luna, which is fighting to remain on the air somewhere between 1% and 2% viewership.


Looking natural. Martin Lengyel has stayed close with Dzurinda.
photo: Ján Svrček

Television expert Stanislava Benická, who has trained TV journalists at each of the country's existing stations, says Lengyel may not be far off in his projections. "A high-quality news station has a chance to reach 10%," she said. "Luna and VTV simply were not able to offer a quality product, and their programmes changed in accordance with their financial health, which of course is completely irrelevant to the viewer."

But Lengyel has bigger fish in mind than VTV and Luna - he has trained his sights on TV Markíza, whose viewership level is around 73%, which puts it ahead of the public Slovak Television (Slovenská televízia - STV) with 34%. He says that Slovaks are fed up with the news they get from the current market leaders: "STV offers this dry, public-service style, Markíza is too commercial."

It's a view that Benická takes as well. "Polls show that people are constantly channel-surfing and trying to find news they are happy with, which proves that there is a demand here for quality information," she says. "It appears that this demand is not being met by any of the current TV stations. If TA3 offers dynamic and current news, and appeals to a middle-management audience late at night, when these people return from work, and helps them in the decisions they have to make, then it has a chance."

But Lengyel's war with the market competition may be overshadowed by his battle for viewer confidence. Many Slovaks know him better as a political 'image-maker' than as a balanced journalist; Prime Minister Dzurinda himself makes no secret of the fact that he remains on friendly terms with Lengyel and "often meet[s]" his former spokesman.

Lengyel will have to work hard to prove that his TA3 station is not a promotional vehicle for Dzurinda's new SDKÚ party. For given Lengyel's political past, his station will be heavily scrutinized for biased reporting and coverage.

Before parliamentary elections in September 1998, Lengyel left his job as head of the news department at the private radio station Twist to become the head of Dzurinda's election team. He organised the future Prime Minister's memorable bicycle tour across Slovakia, which became the centrepiece of Dzurinda's election campaign, and used his media savvy to steer his boss towards positive media coverage and election victory over controversial Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.

Lengyel had been the spokesman of Dzurinda's SDK party for barely two weeks, however, when journalists alleged that the SDK was trying to buy positive coverage from journalists. His first reaction to the scandal was that he saw the affair as a "provocation", and the work of people who wanted to discredit the SDK. Even as evidence continued to mount, including three journalists who came forth and said they had been approached with bribes by the SDK's PR agency, Lengyel stuck by the SDK.

"I don't think about it any more. It's behind me," says Lengyel today, when asked if he ever came across evidence that the charges were true. His expression says that there's no point in pushing the question; while he remains loyal to his former employers, however, the scandal is clearly a raw nerve.

After 1998 elections, Lengyel was offered the spokesman's job by Dzurinda, and took it gladly. As time passed, the phrase "Lengyel will take care of it" became a stock saying in the Prime Minister's vocabulary, just as journalists learned to take it for granted. For a while, Lengyel took care of a great deal.

But what motivated him to leave journalism in the first place, to cross the great divide between those who report the action and those who create it?

"I had a chance to sign my name under the changes that were sweeping the Slovak political scene, I witnessed the occurrence of historic events, so I took it. I knew it would be difficult, but it was worth it," he responds.

While Lengyel does not admit room for any concern about his objectivity, he says the journalists working for TA3 will be insulated against meddling by the very way in which TV news works. "I don't need to run the news department, that's a professional job and the responsibility of the editor-in-chief" he said, adding his selection of his news director was further evidence that the enterprise would be balanced.

Lengyel has chosen Czech journalist Zděnek Šámal, former editor-in-chief of the state-owned Czech station Czech TV (Česká televízia - ČTV). "We will welcome anyone on our screen, whether it's Dzurinda, Mečiar or [Speaker of Parliament Jozef] Migaš," Lengyel said, "we'll give everyone the same space".

Some press experts are giving him the benefit of the doubt. Ján Fule, the chairman of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists, and someone who has known Lengyel for the better part of the last decade, said Lengyel was not so foolish as to openly favour one political party over another. "If Martin built his TV station on a party basis, he would be an even greater fool than many [of his competitors] take him for".

Lengyel says he intends to distance himself from the heart-on-sleeve approach of Markíza owner Pavol Rusko, who in January declared his intention to found his own political party. Lengyel says he's convinced that Rusko will "manipulate his journalists to achieve his political goals", and added that because he was convinced the journalists would allow themselves to be pressured, he had not tried to hire any of them away from Markíza to TA3.

Rusko, for his part, called these statements "unprofessional", and said "I have no good feelings about the TA3 project".

The Markíza boss said he "doubt[s] the intentions of anyone who wants to put money into the TA3 project", and added that these financial backers "represent a certain economic interest - news alone is not capable of making money in television, so I wonder why anyone would put tens of millions of crowns into TA3 when they will not be able to make their money back? It's a dubious project, and I don't trust it".

The fact is that TA3 at the moment does not have a contract with any investor, having agreed with the domestic firm Hanco not to sign an investment contract last year after extensive negotiations. Lengyel says he has always had in mind a foreign investor, as foreign capital is less likely to put pressure on the station to follow a political line. He say he is currently looking for a "foreign investment fund-type investor", and has lowered the financial demands of the project to 160 to 180 million crowns ($3.4 to $3.8 million) to attract wider interest.

Although investment funds still have to be secured, Lengyel still has powerful tools to attract the best from other media - starting pay of 40,000 Slovak crowns ($850) per month, which is almost four times the average national wage, as well as "the professional challenge that TA3 represents".

In return for such largesse, he expects to get the pick of the crop - journalists who don't have close relations with politicians. "One of our main failings in this country is that relations between politicians and journalists are often too friendly, which makes for journalists which have an axe to grind," Lengyel says.

The roots of this relationship, he says, lie in the lead-up to 1998 elections, when "every journalist [which sympathised with the opposition] wanted to fight Mečiar and stop him from winning the elections. It's also a result of the fact that the ruling coalition is much broader now than it was under Mečiar, which makes for more lobby groups and more attempts from various parties to influence journalists".

On-the-job training

Although young, Lengyel wears the mantle of a seasoned professional. When only 18 he worked as a foreign beat reporter for STV, a job he left in 1994 with the return of the second Mečiar government to power.

The same political pressure he felt at STV caused him to bolt his second employer, VTV, in 1996 (the station was owned by Vladimír Poór, a Trnava-area business supporter of Mečiar's HZDS party).

Lengyel left the television for Rádio Twist, where at 21 years of age he was boosted into the news director's seat of a station regarded as one of the most staunch opponents of Mečiar.

"That was a really happy time," he remembered. "I didn't have a problem with my age, even if others did. It was evidence that during the 1990s we needed some new blood in journalism to replace the old guard".

Lengyel is not so much an educated - he quit a journalism degree in Bratislava in his third year - as an experienced journalist. He recalls the first moment at which he knew he would end up in the profession as a bus ride with a tipsy STV reporter named Ján Onda (currently the spokesman of the National Bank of Slovakia).

"He asked me if I didn't want to try working at STV. A week later I showed up and got the job".

Smiling at the memory, Lengyel glances at his watch. The interview has been over an hour, and the dictaphone is already turned off. Lengyel, an infrequent smoker, asks for a cigarette; the untutored way he strikes the match offers a fleeting contrast to the polished veneer of a man who for years has been trying to appear infallible in public.

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