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25.02.2018

ORF: Battle cry from the Vice-Chancellor

By Martin Hoffmann

Austria is in discussion about the “fake news” demonisations from Vice-Chancellor Strache against the ORF moderator, Armin Wolf. More than a personal feud is behind this: the independence of the public broadcaster is at stake.

Austrian flag Austria: “Since the FPÖ politicians are part of the national government, the attacks on independent journalists are drastically increasing”

Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache announced it, already before the forming of government in December: “they want to secure optimisation at the Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), this would also apply to the little objective reporting”. With “sounds interesting”, the announcement of the FPÖ man was roundly answered by the ORF News Anchor, Armin Wolf, whose critical behaviour at interviews in his programme “Zeit im Bild 2” has brought him many prizes – and uncountable public demonisations from the right wing.  Until now, Wolf has met switching FPÖ leaders with a professional distance, just as with representatives from other parties. But now he is taking on the vice-chancellor of Austria, HC Strache. Wolf announced wanting, for the first time in 32 years, to make an exception and to bring the FPÖ politician to court.

For Strache, the minister-in-office for public affairs and vice-chancellor, has accused the ORF-Moderator Wolf on his own Facebook profile with lies, propaganda and propagation of fake news. In-between, Strache has apologised for his outbreaks, declared as “satire”. Not only for reasons of formality does this most recent development in the FPÖ’s self-proclaimed “Infokrieg” (information war) bring journalists and associates into the picture.

Dangerous new media-political power

Because, more threatening than the breaking of taboo and the public defamation of journalists through a democratically voted vice chancellor, is the media-political power that Strache and the FPÖ are able to instantiate against, from their point of view, the non-objectively functioning ORF; they could instruct the beginning of the end of critical reporting at the ORF, should the ÖVP do nothing against it. After the FPÖ’s gain of power, there seems to be an emerging comparison with Hungary and Poland. As, in both EU States in recent years, state broadcasters were formed out of public broadcasting companies. Apart from that, Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has recently demonstrated ever-closer foreign ties with Central-Eastern-European states. States like Hungary in which Viktor Orban completely derided the MTV channel since 2010 with dismissals, blatant censorship and home-affiliated formats. And in Poland where the PiS Party disciplined channel TVP with a reconstruction of the broadcasting office and with a total renewal of personnel.

But does this development sustain itself in an “old” democracy like Austria? Josef Trappel, professor and chair of media policy and media economics at the University of Salzburg, regards a domino effect toppling over from Eastern Europe as “not very likely. Most PSM operators are implemented by constitutional legal provision in the “old” democracies, and changing their legal status is difficult even for right wing governments.” Apart from this, the public broadcasting company is still strongly accepted by the population, says Trappel.

Nevertheless, the academic sees the independence of the ORF as threatened after the latest change in government. For the majority behaviour in the controlling centre of the channel and of the company board has changed. The board is largely seated by political representatives at the national and regional level. A possible gateway for political influence – as the coalition now has a decisive majority, remarks Trappel: "The elections in 2017, allows the governing parties ÖVP and FPÖ to second 24 out of 35 Board members, thereby securing a two-third majority. This is important because this majority is required to dismiss the Director General. Although it is unlikely that the Director General is dismissed any time soon, he has to be aware of this possibility in his day-to-day routine decisions. In this regard my answer is yes, the independence of the ORF is under threat." Looking at the current structure reforms at the ORF, the enduring majority behavior in the company board is obtaining even more weight. The General Director Alexander Wrabetz shall now clearly receive more internal power and program-influence. And he presides similarly under heightened pressure from the party representatives. The ORF has thereby long held the reputation, that the leading personnel are comparably tightly fitted with politics.

This is about the independence of ORF

But also from the other side, the independence is threatened. The new majority behavior in the board could cost the channel in the medium-term its financial integrity. For the battle against the belittled “forced charges” counts as an essence of the FPÖ brand. This is what they’re called in the FPÖ’s 2017 election program: “It is unfair, that the ORF are financed through forced charges, whereas the share of Austrian film and music production is increasingly scarce.” The sufficient two-third majority in the ORF executive board is causing the channel, however, to be vulnerable to financial reforms, says Professor Josef Trappel: "For example, the Board decides on the amount of the license fee. As the governing parties represent the majority in the Board, they could lower the license fee and create problems for ORF's financial sustainability." Should the FPÖ actually achieve it, to remove those hated charges from their association, “then the ORF is broken”, says Armin Wolf. It hasn’t come this far – and, historically considered, the population of Austria has always opted for the independence of the ORF, says Trappel.

But apart from the ORF, strong winds are gusting from Vienna against journalists, three months after the change of government. Journalist organisations are now warning that the FPÖ are demoting colleagues as “riff-raff”, the media as “Lügenpresse”. With drastic consequences: “Since the FPÖ politicians are part of the national government, the attacks on independent journalists are drastically increasing”. With this, the development in Germany could repeat itself, where massive “Lügenpresse”-insinuations from right populists in the AfD and Pegida lead to dozens of physical and thousands of verbal attacks.

While this demonization in Germany has recently decreased, the Austrian journalists, face-to-face with FPÖ-insinuations and current positions of power, are posed before many battles. Armin Wolf isn’t worried about his future, he tells Magazin Falter. He can find something to do apart from the ORF.





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