Inside Story

Dazzled on the Danube

What was Greg Sheridan doing in Budapest?

Peter Browne 7 June 2023 1185 words

Last bastion: Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

Even the hardened reader of the Australian might have been surprised last Saturday by Greg Sheridan’s effusive account of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, a country described as a “precipitous decliner” in Freedom House’s latest review of democratic gains and losses. Sheridan endorsed Orbán’s refusal to “toe the line of coercive and ideological contemporary left-liberalism,” brushed off widespread criticism of the governing Fidesz party’s attacks on the media, the electoral system and the rule of law, and gave foreign minister Zsolt Németh an almost comically easy ride. (“On China, Németh is equally nuanced: ‘Some say we are moving towards a new cold war.’”)

Why Hungary, and why now? A tagline revealed that Sheridan, the Australian’s foreign editor, is just back from a week as a visiting fellow at Budapest’s Danube Institute. What the newspaper didn’t tell readers is that this evocatively named organisation is funded by the Hungarian government (via its Batthyány Lajos Foundation) as part of its breathtakingly generous bankrolling — to the tune of billions of dollars in funds, buildings and other assets, according to Foreign Policy magazine’s Ana Luiza Albuquerque — of conservative institutes based in Budapest.

The job of these institutes is to host visiting fellows like Sheridan, often for months at a time, and run seminars, publish reports and periodicals, and generally promote what Orbán calls “illiberal liberalism.” (Orbán has also described Hungary as “the last Christian conservative bastion of the Western world.”) The Danube Institute alone publishes three journals, the European Conservative, the Hungarian Review and the Hungarian Conservative. Other Budapest-based institutes with government links include the Mathias Corvinus Collegium and the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs.

Orbán’s largesse is no doubt part of the reason for the sharp rise in his stocks in recent years among English-speaking conservatives of a more hardline bent. But it is his record of four consecutive election wins since 2010 — however tainted by bribes, crackdowns and electoral tampering — that has become a talisman for those American conservatives who worry that real democracy will never guarantee them the power they want.

Prominent among Orbán’s beneficiaries is the American conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher, who crops up repeatedly in media coverage of Hungary’s cross-Atlantic appeal and has benefited from Danube Institute hospitality. Dreher is the thread running through Foreign Policy’s account of Orbán’s spending on the institutes, and he’s also the larger-than-life centrepiece of a New Yorker article investigating the appeal of Hungary’s authoritarianism for figures on the Republican right.

For Dreher, Orbán’s example is “so inspiring: this is what a vigorous conservative government can do if it’s serious about stemming this horrible global tide of wokeness.” He was especially struck when Orbán told a group of visiting conservatives, “We hope you will think of Budapest as your intellectual home.”

Where Sheridan ignores Fidesz’s excesses, Dreher believes “we expect too much of these post-Communist countries if we judge them by Western standards of clean government.” He takes the credit for having persuaded Fox News’s then-presenter Tucker Carlson to broadcast a week’s worth of programs — even less critical of Orbán than Greg Sheridan’s piece — from Budapest in 2021.

But another figure also keeps appearing in the New Yorker piece. One moment he’s lunching in a bistro in Budapest wearing “a pin-striped suit and a tie from Liberty, the London clothier once favoured by Oscar Wilde.” Then he’s in his nearby office, assuring the magazine’s Andrew Marantz that his long wait for permission to attend the Budapest-hosted Conservative Political Action Conference is “merely an oversight.” (It wasn’t; Marantz’s request was eventually refused.) Here he is — with an “Ah, good, you made it!” — when Marantz slips into the conference reception at the five-star Párisi Udvar hotel. And here he is, when a friend of Dreher lends Marantz a spare pass, giving the reporter a friendly slap on the back.

This genial scamp is the eighty-year-old British journalist John O’Sullivan, who has been president of the Danube Institute since its inception in 2013. O’Sullivan has impeccable conservative credentials: he wrote speeches for Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s and later helped draft her memoirs; he took over from William F. Buckley as editor of the New York–based National Review in 1990; he was editor-in-chief of United Press International and then executive editor of Radio Free Europe in the early 2000s.

But one job is missing from the New Yorker’s summary. During 2015 and 2016 O’Sullivan was editor of Quadrant — yes, Australia’s Quadrant — and since then he has been the magazine’s international editor. More than that, he appears to have stayed on as president of the Danube Institute throughout his editorship.

It’s strange thought: that decades-old tribune of the Australian right, Quadrant, being edited by an Englishman who also held the most senior position in a Budapest-based think tank funded by the Hungarian government. Did he continue to be paid by the institute? Did he spend much time in the Quadrant office in Sydney?

Quadrant hasn’t been entirely candid about O’Sullivan’s relations with the government of Hungary. When the magazine announced his appointment as editor in February 2015, his work at the Danube Institute was mentioned only in the past tense. I can’t find any instance where the dual role was made clear to readers during his editorship.

Even after he moved to the international editor’s job, his relationship with the institute barely rated a mention — even at the foot of a piece he wrote in September 2021 about Tucker Carlson’s “polite questioning” of Orbán (a good thing, in O’Sullivan’s view) — although he did fleetingly mention his work at the institute in a piece a couple of months later. This year the institute has cropped up a couple of times in O’Sullivan’s articles on general topics, but without any reference to its generous backer.

Other Quadrant contributors admire Hungary too (though not all contributors to O’Sullivan’s old magazine, National Review, do). Former Liberal frontbenchers Tony Abbott and Alexander Downer have all accepted invitations to speak at Danube Institute, and former diplomat (and Abbott adviser) Mark Higgie took up a fellowship there.

Unlike O’Sullivan, Sheridan is worried by one characteristic of Orbán’s Hungary: its hardline enforcement of immigration controls. But for the Australian’s foreign editor, “freedom” (whatever that means in a country fast slipping down the democracy rankings) trumps everything. Freedom, above all, from “coercive and ideological contemporary left-liberalism.”

Surely Australian conservatives haven’t caught the Hungarian disease from the more intemperate of their American counterparts? Maybe not all of them, but there are signs that Greg Sheridan has. Should he have mentioned to readers that the think tank that hosted his visit is funded by foreign minister Németh and his colleagues? I’d say so, but perhaps he sees the battle with left-liberals as so vital, and so unequal, that such niceties must be sacrificed. •