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Ondřej Neff: A multi-media conscience

We see him on TV, we read his commentaries. Writer, sci-fi enthusiast, internet and digital photography fan, and publisher of a popular online daily, Neviditelný pes (Invisible Dog), he's something of an institution in the Czech Republic.

You're a member of the famous Neff family, whose history dates back to the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Your ancestors were active not only in business, but also in culture and philanthropy. Your great-grandfather founded a gymnazium in Lipník nad Bečvou, your father was a famed novelist, and your mother was an actress and translator. Do you feel a commitment to live up to your family's illustrious history?
My ancestors were very active. One of my great-grandfathers was a real estate merchant and founded the entire Žižkov quarter in Prague. Another great-grandfather opened the first Czech kitchen appliance store, on Na Příkopě street. In the 1860s it was seen as almost a cultural act. (ed. note: At that time Bohemia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German language predominated in Prague.) I grew up in this very intellectual environment, but I didn't think it was anything special. Everyone's born into some family. But when you have a famous name it's usually worse, because people say you're a privileged child and should demonstrate what you're made of.

You undoubtedly passed the test for how children of famous parents assert themselves. You're already a part of history, not only as a sci-fi writer but also as the founder of the first internet daily in this country, Neviditelný pes. How did it occur to you to found this?
Neviditelný pes was a relatively long time coming, and it was connected with my mother. At the end of her life she contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized in Motol. I visited her every day and wrote news reports for her about what was happening to me, our friends, and our neighbors. They also covered serious matters, but it dealt with them lightly. When in 1995 the internet arrived I immediately installed it, understanding that there should be a web site for readers, updated daily with news. But what news? I recalled what I'd written to my Mom, and Neviditelný pes was born. I don't know why I named it that, I only know that I had a picture in my mind from the 1989 revolution. At the time we had Gordon, a German shepherd, whom we neglected a bit, so he went his own way. Once I came home to find him stretched out in bed! He covered his eyes with his paws and pretended to be invisible. This remained in my memory, so the Neviditelný pes logo is a dog with his paws covering his eyes.

Can you describe a typical Neviditelný pes reader?
A mixture. Intellectuals, small-town waiters, people from embassies. My editorial policy is simple. I don't want to publish stupidities like "Jane Doe slept with John Q. Public", and I refuse to settle personal accounts. I want interesting opinions on topical matters, and humor. It contains everything that people are talking about, like an online Hyde Park.

Can Neviditelný pes survive on advertising?
It was very profitable before the internet bubble burst. But then there was the precipitous collapse, and today it runs in the red. I also have another internet daily, DigiNeff, which deals with digital photography. That's the business I earn my living from. Pes is just a hobby.

Speaking of the internet, in your novel Tma (The Dark) you described what would happen if electricity stopped working all around the world. Do you think that technical advances make people happy, or would we be able to live without them?
I just got back from Kenya, where the Masai live. While they're young they're physically very beautiful, but when they're 25 their teeth are gone and they have chronic eye problems, because they have open fires in their homes and their eyes are constantly exposed to smoke. When they're 45 they look very old and are essentially blind. What am I trying to say? There's no returning from civilization. When people say TV keeps them from being happy, they just shouldn't watch it. Human happiness can't depend on the external material environment and the idea that you'd be happier if you lived on a desert island in a palm-frond hut is as silly as thinking you'd be happy if you had a robot to dress and spoon-feed you. Being happy is a spiritual trait that you have to find in your ability to live with people and by involving yourself in useful activities.

A life in numbers
1945 born on 26 June in Prague
1969 graduated from the CU School of Social Science and Journalism
1970-74 worked in the promotions department of the publishing house Albatros
1975-79 worked as a photographer at the Center for Folk Art
1979-85 editor for Mladá fronta
1987-89 editor for Kmen, a literary daily
1990-94 editor for Mladá fronta Dnes
1996 on 23 April founded the first Czech internet daily, Neviditelný pes
1999 founded DigiNeff, a digital photography webzine
Currently working as a writer and journalist, he has written many books, including: Milénium, Tma (sci-fi), Zepelin na Měsíci, Dvorana zvrhlosti (short-story collections).

As a journalist you deal with political commentary. What do you think about the morals and professionalism of Czech politicians, especially now, with discussions whirling around premier Gross?
We must remember that after 1938 we had to go underground, and that the fall and liquidation of the elites continued until 1989. It will take decades for us to regain the level we enjoyed in 1938. My generation can never catch up. We must relearn how to make correct decisions and rebuild a political elite. But what is politics really about? Unless you take bribes it's terribly demanding of your time, it's boring, enervating work. A person who engages in it honestly has but one reward - personal satisfaction.

I understand it will take a long time for moral behavior to be the norm, for the public to start demanding this of their politicians. But in your opinion, should premier Gross, who has yet to convincingly explain his apartment's financing or his wife's dubious business contacts, step down?
Of course he should step down. He committed a cardinal stupidity and I, Ondřej Neff, hold him in contempt - at the first press conference in connection with the financing of his apartment he started citing some papers, and when Mr. Kmenta of MF Dnes (ed. note: Jaroslav Kmenta, the journalist who opened the case) wanted to see them, Gross chased him off. He failed completely. He has no idea that Mr. Kmenta is the eyes and ears of the public that pays him! Just take America, a functioning society where a banal infidelity almost destroyed a president. Not because of the affair he had, but because he lied. Americans do not want a leader that lies. Here the whole political party stands behind him (Gross) and they do not mind.

One plus is that Czech journalism is more audacious, it discusses the abuses of politicians and businessmen. Do you think the Czech media is truly independent, or that there still remains a certain amount of self-censorship?
Political dependence is slight. Naturally, journalists have more sympathies for one person and less to another one, that is part of journalism. But economic dependence is worse. For instance I'm convinced that in the case of the privatization of Český Telecom, direct and indirect corruption appeared. Corruption definitely exists in journalism, and the only thing keeping it in check is that there are many media. You can't corrupt everyone, there is always someone who doesn't get the trip to Hawai and writes about it. Plurality is the fuse.

You are pugnacious in your efforts to uncover abuses. Your son David isn't afraid either - as a war photographer, he goes into the hearts of conflicts. Are you afraid for him?
Yes. During the war in Yugoslavia, when I was at home and saw a bullet-proof vest, I got angry and said he was risking his life so someone could glance at his photos over coffee and then watch a soccer match. On the other hand, I know that if, God forbid, he died, it would be during the performance of his work, and, unfortunately, that's a part of it. It's his choice and I respect it.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I'd like to limit my crazy activities. I will move out of Prague, where I'll have peace and quiet to take up writing again.

How would you describe yourself in a few words?
A damned curious guy.

What should be written in the encyclopedia under your name?
Ondřej Neff: Internet missionary.

© The Prague Tribune, 2005
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