Election Farce at the ORF

With its de-facto monopoly, Austria’s national broadcaster needs an honest debate over the station’s leadership

“In reality, to them, critical journalism is the enemy incarnate. Logical, from their point of view: They make the cheese, and we drill holes in it.” This is what Robert Hochner, Austrian journalist and TV anchorman, said in the last interview before his death in May 2001. With “they”, he was referring to politicians and with “we”, he meant journalists.

Five years later, ORF anchorman Armin Wolf cited this quote in his acceptance speech of the Robert-Hochner Award given for his “critical attitude towards the powerful of every stripe.” An outspoken critic of the growing political influence on Austria’s national broadcaster, he called for more editorial plurality at the station.

This summer, Alexander Wrabetz was re-elected as head of ORF – the first director who managed to be elected twice in a row, this time without any dissenting votes. The only other candidate, ORF correspondent Christian Wehrschütz, did not stand a chance – he had not received sufficient political support to be considered a serious candidate. The SPÖ backed Wrabetz, the ÖVP complied – and garnered harsh criticism for failing to nominate another candidate to seriously challenge the incumbent.

With this starting position, Wrabetz’s confirmation was less a true democratic election than a political farce, a performance that helped all of those involved save face. The foundation council that re-elected Wrabetz for another 5-year term resembles more a political chessboard than a serious council composed of members selected for their expertise and experience in the media field. Further, it is shameful for a party in power to allow a vote to be cast on one of the most powerful jobs in the media sector – with more than 4,000 employees, ORF is the biggest media enterprise in Austria – with only one serious candidate.

Why bother, some would say: Most people today rely on the Internet for news, anyway. Television as a source of information, they argue, is an outdated model.

Wrong. Despite the ever-growing reliance on the Internet, especially among the youth, a considerably big group of people still receives the majority of its information about politics from the daily news shows they watch. Moreover, most of what appears on the internet comes originally from the mainstream media, from the print press and the leading broadcast television networks.

It is from these ORF news shows that one of my most vivid childhood memories springs: Although usually very approachable, there was one time of the day when my brother and I were absolutely not allowed to disturb my parents. From 19:30 until 19:45, they would watch ZIB-1 (Zeit im Bild) on ORF-1. They would settle on the living room couch to find out what had happened in the world that day – condensed into a succinct 15 minutes. And so I grew up sitting silently next to my parents, as we watched Hannelore Veit, Danielle Spera and Josef Broukal present the news.

It is in this segment – TV news – that ORF still outperforms commercial competitors like ATV and Puls4. ORF thus holds a de-facto monopoly on TV information as the most-watched and hence most-dominant information provider in the country.

A monopoly on information? In a democracy? Yes, in Austria – a country of many contradictions that do not seem to particularly bother anyone – this has been a reality for years. Since none of the private TV stations seems to be able to challenge ORF dominance on TV information any time soon, the question is: How can such a monopolistic position in one market segment be justified in a functioning democracy?

“Only through internal competition and the resulting plurality of contents and opinions,” was Wolf’s answer to the question in his acceptance speech. Editorial independence, a critical distance from politics, diversity of opinions and balanced reporting are key characteristics the ORF has to fulfill in order to live up to its responsibility as a de-facto monopoly.

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