Hungarian PM’s advisor, Minister of Defence held interest in deceptive “international news agency”

The activities of biligual “international news agency” V4NA that delivers thousands of news stories to the Hungarian pro-government media empire (Central European Press and Media Foundation or KESMA) are deceptive. According to information from several independent sources, the editorial office of V4NA, the organisation owned by KESMA, unofficial chief advisor to Prime Minister Árpád Habony and Defence Minister Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, was not based in London, but in the third district of the Hungarian capital. Átlátszó’s colleague searched in vain for the “news agency” at the London addresses given. The content republished in several pro-government media outlets is not actually produced by V4NA as a news agency, but is simply copied from the Internet.

This article was originally published on english.atlatszo.hu.

It was a few years ago that the Hungarian journalist got up in the morning and went to the newsroom. His working hours started at eight in the morning. It was understood that he worked for an international news agency based in England.

V4 News Agency or V4NA advertised itself as a London-based news agency that processes and sells news from a network of half a hundred correspondents across Europe. But that was not the experience of the Hungarian journalist. According to him, his work was not based in London, but in an office in the third district of Budapest.

While he was working there, the journalist saw no sign of the European correspondent network in any form.

In the print media allied with ruling party, Fidesz, the county dailies or Magyar Nemzet, foreign material from the “international news agency” appeared regularly. Just as if the information had been delivered first-hand by reliable correspondents of a serious news agency.

The Globe 3 office building in Óbuda. Source: psg-irodahazak.hu

This is certainly how the V4NA “news agency” operates today. One of our colleague tried in vain to locate the V4NA newsroom in London. In Budapest, however, we got confirmation of the information that they did indeed have their office in an office building in Óbuda.

We also learned that the “news agency” is still edited from Budapest.

Bilingual news site V4 News Agency, or V4NA has been permeating the Hungarian information ecosystem with international news selected and translated on a basis identical to the Fidesz agenda for several years. Media allied with the party of PM Viktor Orbán paint a picture of the Western Europe as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, overrun by hordes of migrants financed by George Soros.

In the last year alone, more than 3,000 news items have appeared in titles belonging to the pro-Fidesz media conglomerate KESMA and Mediaworks Zrt., which is the largest member of the group, primarily in Magyar Nemzet and county newspapers, which have referred to this “news agency”.

According to the experts we interviewed, the operation of V4NA raises professional and legal concerns as well, as it is misleading to describe their activities as news agency work.

“London news agency” is formed

The news on the V4NA website are available in English and in Hungarian, but some material is only accessible to subscribers. The first part of the name of the site refers to the Visegrad Four (the grouping includes Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia), the second part refers to “news agency”.

The first owner of V4NA Ltd., the company responsible for the publication, which was founded in London on New Year’s Eve 2018, was Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, the Hungarian government’s ambassador in London between 2016 and 2020. Within a few months, a stable ownership structure was established in several stages, with New Wave Media Group Ltd., a KESMA-affiliated company, becoming the majority shareholder with 57 percent, and the remainder being held by Danube Business Consulting Ltd.  Szalay-Bobrovniczky has had a good relationship with political strategist Árpád Habony (a notorious strongman of Hungarian politics who is known for his informal, but longtime association to the Prime Minister) for at least a decade and a half, and since this spring has holds the position of Minister of Defence.

The ownership network of V4NA. Source: Atlatszo

After the creation of V4NA, the company and Árpád Habony (who said he was “building an international news agency in London”) were first reported by Válasz Online, but the “London news agency” was also reported by Guardian.

V4NA’s leaders and staff are strangely reluctant to talk publicly about who they are and what they do. Yet the Guardian and others had good reason to report on an UK “news agency”, since the V4NA website gives two London addresses as contact details. In news stories on the website, V4NA repeatedly referred to itself as an “international news agency”.

A price list dated April 2019 (which has been unavailable since our article on V4NA last year), previously described the media organisation as such:

“The V4 News Agency (V4NA) is a new international news agency […] based and headquartered in London, UK […] Our team of 50 journalists, fast responding news teams are on location where the leading stories happen in Europe. London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Bratislava, Warsaw. We are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No exceptions.”

To this day, a version of this text can be read as a self-promotion of V4NA on the organisation’s website.

The London location seemed convincing, if only because Szalay-Bobrovniczky was undoubtedly in the British capital, and according to press reports Habony also spent a lot of time in London. We understand that several people connected to the organisation claimed the British capital as their new home on their social media profiles at the time of launch.

The “news agency” does not disclose the names of the journalists working for the organisation, so only three other people were identified: company director Balázs Medveczky, editor-in-chief Antal Tóth Tamás, and journalist Nóra Kobza-Kunfalvi, who appeared as a reporter in a V4NA video. However, as far as we know, they all lived in Hungary during the period in question, as they are all listed in the Hungarian company database with Hungarian addresses.

The journalist worked in Óbuda

The journalist who reported to Átlátszó on his experiences at the “news agency” also worked for the company during the period when Habony and Szalay-Bobrovniczky owned it. The Hungarian journalist asked for anonymity, as he had signed a strict confidentiality agreement with his former employer. During his time with the company, he saw no sign of V4NA having any presence in London, nor of the existence of the 50-member European correspondent network.

What he found was that in reality the headquarters of the ‘news agency’ was in Budapest, more precisely in an office in the Globe 3 building on Kórház Street in Óbuda, the third district of the Hungarian capital. “It was a big room and there were a lot of computers, twenty or thirty of them,” the journalist told Átlátszó.

According to him, apart from a few journalists, there were a few others who worked there, producing and editing the news sent in by others. But most of the large office was empty. Only a handful of people worked in the newsroom at a time, almost lost behind the huge monitors,” he said.

Unfortunately, we could not get another internal source to talk, and the ‘news agency’ did not respond to our questions. So the only course of action left to us was to attempt to physically contact the V4NA editorial office and staff in both London and Budapest.

Following the V4NA in London…

Atlatszo visited the London address where V4NA Ltd. is officially based. The company is registered at Kemp House, City Road, but there is no sign of V4NA’s presence on the premises.

The company registration service is moving. Photo by Gabriella Horn / Átlátszó

A flyer on the front of the building announces that the business registration service Your Company Formations, which used to operate on the site, is in the process of moving to a new address.

According to the Your Company Formations website, a Central London address can be provided to business owners for as little as £27.48. A package specifically for international clients costs £108.48.

“The international package is ideal for international clients based overseas who are non residents and require to form a UK company.”

According to the UK Company Register, thousands of businesses are based at Kemp House addresses. Presumably, this is also the way the V4NA headquarters came to be here, so there is no point looking for an editorial office here.

The official headquarters of the V4NA is also said to have moved here. Their name is not on the doorbell, only that of the company registration service. Photo by Gabriella Horn / Átlátszó

We also visited Your Company Formations’ new address, Fergusson House. There is no sign of a newsroom at this new address, however, the receptionist confirms that this is indeed the official location of V4NA Ltd.

Another London address is listed on the V4NA website as the contact details of the news agency. The site, on Kingsway Road, is occupied by Aviation House, an office building. Since 2018, the entire office space has been managed by WeWork, a flexible office space rental company. Here, depending on the client’s needs, it is possible to rent an entire floor of office space, or even just a single desk space – wherever the client can sit at the time.

We also visited this address and looked around the building. WeWork staff did not say whether V4NA is actually present in any form in the office building today, citing security reasons. As with previous addresses in London, we see no sign of the organisation operating here.

Less V4NA-compatible wall stickers on the alleged contact details of the “news agency” at Aviation House in London. Photo by Gabriella Horn / Atlatszo

It is theoretically possible that the “news agency” has something here–even if it is just a rented desk or a postal address: but there is certainly no sign of a large editorial operation.

… and in Budapest

In the Hungarian capital, we also tried to follow in the footsteps of V4NA. In Óbuda we visit the Globe 3 office building. The receptionist has to force his memory, but then it comes to him:

“V4NA, they’re the London paper of the Ripost. They were on the fourth floor. But they’ve moved to Lurdy House.”

Why did the doorman mention the Ripost? Ripost Média Kft. was formerly owned by Péter Schatz and Miklós Ómolnár until 2018, when it was donated to the then-established Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA).The two former owners are usually considered to be close to Habony, the paper itself is a hybrid of tabloid and political smear, a style associated with the former V4NA co-owner. Ripost Média has rented office space in Globe 3 since 2015, and according to company registry data, Nouvelle Média Ltd., which belongs to the same group of interests, was also registered here from the following year. Since Ripost is also a media company and the owners’ network of contacts also links it to V4NA, it is not entirely surprising that the doorman – inaccurately in company law terms – linked the “London newspaper” to this company.

Unfortunately, in Lurdy House, it turns out that the receptionist at Globe 3 doesn’t even know where V4NA has moved to. Ripost has indeed moved to the Ferencváros business and office building, next to the editorial offices of the tabloid Bors and the free daily Metropol. But neither here, nor at another office level–where some other magazines of Mediaworks Zrt. are still operating – have they heard of V4NA.

In the lobby of the magazine offices, a helpful lady at the reception desk checks the Mediaworks internal phone book and informs us that Antal Tamás Tóth is listed in the company directory: according to her, the editor-in-chief of V4NA spends his daily life at the Content Development Directorate in the Mediaworks headquarters on Üllői út.

Company names at 48 Üllői út. Photo: Atlatszo

Today, there are three signboards next to the entrance door of the Üllői út building: in addition to Mediaworks, there are those of New Wave Media Group Kft and Mandiner Press Kft. The third sign is out of date: the company that published the weekly Mandiner was merged into Mediaworks last year. This company catches our eye because on paper it is known as the main owner of V4NA. This summer, the official headquarters of KESMA moved here.

At the reception desk we learn that Antal Tamás Tóth is indeed working in the building. First we are promised a lift to see him, then it turns out that he is not there at the moment. That’s as far as we got.

So the balance of the search is as follows:

  • We saw no trace of the existence of the V4NA in his London address. Theoretically, it is possible that something is there, but there was no sign of the large 50-strong operation described in the ‘news agency’ brochure.
  • The receptionist at the Globe 3 office building confirmed that the V4NA newsroom had indeed been there in the past.
  • We have not been able to establish where the V4NA editorial office is physically located today – although we cannot be sure whether the “news agency” has an editorial office at all.
  • We have learned from a reliable source on the matter, several Mediaworks employees, that V4NA editor-in-chief Antal Tamás Tóth spends his daily life in the Mediaworks building in Budapest. All we can say for sure is that the “news agency” is not edited from London, but from Budapest.

News agency or translation agency?

While our journalist source was working at V4NA, he found that, like him, others were not gathering first-hand information in the field across Europe, but were posting news stories from home  that had already been published elsewhere on the internet, copied and translated, or even slightly rewritten.

He reckons that in all, the company had at most 20 people working for it, significantly fewer than the 50 people quoted in the ”news agency’s” brochure. The UK company’s accounts show even fewer employees: two in 2019 and one in 2020 and 2021.

The picture that emerges from our source’s claims is consistent with what we have previously established in our analysis of V4NA’s content on Atlatszo. We found then that although in 2020, V4NA’s material appeared on average more than 100 times a month in the pro-government media, the bilingual site produced almost no classical news coverage. And the published material did not seem to substantiate, quantitatively or qualitatively, the claim about the extent of V4NA’s correspondent network. The same conclusion was reached by 444.

A venture of Fidesz-allied political strategist Árpád Habony, bilingual news site V4NA channels misinformation between Hungary, Slovenia, and North Macedonia. The ambitions fuelling the self-styled news agency, however, are curtailed by its meagre capabilities.

According to a source who used to work at V4NA, the kind of work they were doing was actually “not a news agency. Because I think news agency is having [our own correspondents on the ground] everywhere, not […] taking news from everywhere, slightly rearranging it and then publishing it like that,” the journalist said.

“We selected the news and they were written in a way that I think was propagandistic,” said our journalist source, who added that they also took information from sites from the Internet that he said were extremist and less reliable.

V4NA “gave the very impression, even when it was launched, that its basic purpose might be to allow Hungarian propaganda sites to link to something.” – Ágnes Urbán, university lecturer and researcher at the Mertek Media Monitor, told Átlátszó.

“It was very strange that shortly after its launch there were some independent newspapers who tried to subscribe, but the company didn’t seem to want to sell its service very much. They didn’t even want to pretend to be a normal service that wanted to sell its product in the market,” the expert said.

Urbán said it was simply a case of “the word ‘news agency’ sounds good”, and that it was “being used to legitimise the news of this whole media or propaganda empire”.

They fill the propaganda press with content

We have compiled statistics on which Hungarian media outlets referred to V4NA material between 2021 and July 2022. It shows that the content of the “news agency” is almost exclusively used by the pro-government KESMA-Mediaworks, which used it a lot: in one year, 3050 V4NA materials were published in KESMA media.

We used a media monitoring tool called Spike Newswhip, which was used to check out one by one all Hungarian-language newspaper articles available online that mentioned V4NA in the text. The list contains a total of 3,367 items, including just a few dozen links that do not refer to V4NA as a news source, but rather critically attempt to interpret the activities of the “news agency”.

At the top of the list of media titles regularly referring to the “news agency” is Magyar Nemzet, which publishes a piece almost every day. Overall, however, the most significant users of V4NA are the county newspapers.

Online, or in the Arcanum press archive, there are also traces of the “news agency’s” materials leaking into the Hungarian public beyond the border, for example into the Székely Hírmondó daily, the Kárpátalja weekly, the Hungarian Ma7 news site in Slovakia, but unfortunately we cannot quantify this effect beyond the border.

Previously, we found that V4NA news was used in small numbers outside the Hungarian language area (mainly in Slovenia and Northern Macedonia, i.e. in countries where Hungarian businessmen linked to Habony had previously made media investments). This has now virtually ceased, and the material of the “international news agency” is practically only used by officially registered media in Hungary.

One exception was found in the past year. On 18 June, the party of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of northern Macedonia, an ally of Viktor Orbán, organised an anti-government demonstration in Skopje estimated by the Associated Press to have been attended by thousands of people. V4NA published some unsigned and blurred, low-resolution photos of the protest from unknown sources, and said that “hundreds of thousands” marched through the streets of Skopje.

The pictures show, that there are no hundreds of thousands. Referring to the “international news agency”, the figure, which is exaggerated by several orders of magnitude, has been quoted  by several northern Macedonian news portals.

It’s not okay to call it a news agency job

According to Ágnes Urbán, what V4NA claimed about itself in the previously quoted price list document “could even be true, taken very, very literally. So it may not necessarily be in terms of editorial operation, but it may be a headquarters in London, say even a one-man headquarters of Árpád Habony”.

According to the researcher, it is even possible that the Habony team has contacts here and there in the world who send out this and that which V4NA uses, “but that doesn’t make it an editorial or journalistic operation. Probably the real lie is not that they have people abroad, but that [what they do] is called news agency work,” Urbán said.

“If someone sells material gathered from the internet as a news agency service, it is not professionally sound”

– Péter Kövesdi, the former editor-in-chief of the Independent News Agency (Független Hírügynökség), told Átlátszó.

Until its closure in 2011, FüHü was the only competitor of the state-run Hungarian News Agency in the market for general news agencies in Hungarian. The key question, according to the former editor-in-chief, is whether customers subscribing to the news agency service know that they are not getting independent, proprietary material for their money.

According to Kövesdi, the essence of true news agency work is to provide information as a primary source of news that others can use. “A news agency’s news is a reference source that can be quoted to a newspaper without the risk of publishing unverified information. That is why it is so important that the news agency’s information is correct. If I am a newspaper, for the money I paid to the news agency to get bad news or fake news, that is a criminal category,” he said.

Incidentally, there are spectacular recent examples of just such a case. In August, the “news agency”, referring to an Australian site, spread a classic fake news story, false information in general, in the Hungarian media.

According to the fake news, large areas of farmland in Ukraine have already been bought by American multinationals. However, the claim of the Australian site is a fabrication: the French text given as the source of their information (which is a translation of a study by an American institute) does not contain any claim about US multinationals, but says that only Ukrainian individuals will be allowed to buy land in Ukraine until 2024. V4NA’s fake news was published in several sites of Mediaworks, as well as in Blikk and hirado.hu.

What happened to the £1.5 million?

The great mystery surrounding the operations of V4NA Ltd is that the company has been in a significant loss for years. The deficit at the end of 2021 was over £1.5 million, or £738 million at today’s prices. The deficit, according to the annual accounts, is the result of the company having taken out a sizeable loan in its very first year of operation and then essentially losing that loan somehow.

It is not known how the money was spent. Earlier, information appeared in the Slovenian press that millions of euros from Hungary had been channelled through several companies, including V4NA, to media investments in Slovenia and northern Macedonia by Hungarian businessmen linked to Árpád Habony. We cannot verify this claim.

It is also not known from whom the people in London received the loan – what seems certain is that the provider of the loan, which was originally due to expire within a year, is in no hurry to recover the money.

According to documents filed with the British Companies Registry, since October 2021 V4NA Ltd. is no longer headed by Balázs Medveczky, but by Róbert Morvai. Morvai also exercises certain ownership rights. It is not clear whether this change has an impact on the ownership structure, as according to V4NA’s 2021 report, the main owner is still New Wave Media Group Ltd. This would mean that V4NA belongs to the same group of companies whose publications it serves with its content.

Relevant part of Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky’s asset declaration. Source: kormany.hu

It is certain, however, that Defence Minister Szalay-Bobrovniczky is still a member of the London-registered company, according to his latest asset declaration, made in August.

The mysterious new company director could not be identified with certainty on the basis of the available data. However, studies available online identify the author as Róbert Morvai, who happens to work for Mediaworks as a controller, i.e. in finance. We called Morvai to find out if he is the new head of V4NA. After we mentioned the “London news agency”, he asked for a delay and a later call-back, citing urgent business. Since then he has not answered the phone.

We have not received any reply to our emailed enquiries from him, nor from V4NA’s contact details, nor from Mediaworks Ltd. Nor was there any response to our questions sent to Szalay-Bobrovniczky via the Ministry of Defence’s press contact. Unfortunately, we do not have the contact details of Árpád Habony.

Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original, Hungarian version of this story was written by Márton Sarkadi Nagy and can be found here. Gabriella Horn also contributed to the article. Cover photo by Dénes Balogh. Company data provided by Opten Kft. The archive material for this article was provided by the Arcanum database

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Márton Sarkadi Nagy

Hungarian reporter at Átlátszó, with 10+ years experience in doing investigative reporting for various Hungarian outlets. Based in Budapest.