Ondřej Neff: A multi-media conscience
Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
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
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
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
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.
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?
life in numbers
||born on 26 June in
from the CU School of Social Science and Journalism
||worked in the promotions
department of the publishing house Albatros
as a photographer at the Center for Folk Art
||editor for Mladá
||editor for Kmen, a literary daily
||editor for Mladá fronta Dnes
||on 23 April founded the first
Czech internet daily, Neviditelný pes
||founded DigiNeff, a digital photography
working as a writer and journalist, he has written
many books, including: Milénium, Tma (sci-fi), Zepelin
na Měsíci, Dvorana zvrhlosti (short-story collections).
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
destroyed a president. Not because of the affair he had, but
because he lied. Americans do not want a leader that lies. Here
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.