The Battle For ORF

The Heated Campaign Has Heightened Concerns of Undue Political Influence

ORF‘s Alexander Wrabetz: Hope for Change | Photo: Creative Commons

On August 17th the long battle over the top spot at the ORF finally came to an end. Alexander Wrabetz was named the new head of the Austrian National Broadcasting System, backed by a surprising coalition of the Socialist Party (SPÖ), the Greens, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Party for the Nation’s Future (BZÖ). Everyone but the Peoples’ Party (ÖVP), who were backing former ORF head Monika Lindner.

“With the support from all camps, I don’t  see myself obligated to special interest groups, but to a single public and to the board,“ Wrabetz said.

As head of an overwhelmingly dominant national broadcasting system, Wrabetz will have a powerful influence in the Austrian media. He serves a five year term beginning in January 2007 and is responsible for selection of the broadcast content as well as criteria for production, for both television and radio.

The conflict arose in April 2006 when the previous director, Monika Lindner, was seen applauding Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel from a second row seat amongst party leaders. The next day, she was publicly criticized at a media gathering by Zeit in Bild moderator Armin Wolf, in the presence of Austrian President Heinz Fischer and assembled dignitaries of the Austrian media. The story was picked up and the debate went public. On May 29, a consortium of prominent people circulated a petition “SOS-ORF” and collected 70.000 signatures in support of political independence for the ORF.  Given the importance of the post, however, the position became a political football within the Advisory Council, leading to intense lobbying among the various appointing bodies. The 35-member Council includes six appointed by the parties of the national assembly, nine appointed by regional provinces, nine by the current government, six by the elected Viewers Representatives, and five from the Employees Union of the ORF.

This heated campaign heightened concerns of political influence at the ORF. Lindner had been accused repeatedly of giving the ÖVP preferential treatment and growing power in programming and hiring decisions.

As the election approached, the political battle shifted into high gear, secret and not so secret meetings between parties took place almost daily, candidate support feverishly negotiated. The BZÖ played an unusually important role choosing between the candidate of their coalition partner, Lindner, or Wrabetz who was supported by the other parties. Ultimately their support went to Wrabetz, a move that sealed the election.

Satisfactionwith the outcome was not universal, however.

“This is certainly not the promised new beginning,” said former ORF head Gerd Bacher, a reaction described by the NetWorld Austrian newsportal as “surprising” and “heartfelt.”

“There are two top people on board, Lorenz and Oberhauser,” Bacher said. “They are where I put my hopes.”   There was also criticism from Peter Huemer, a spokesman for SOS-ORF.

“It has not turned out to be a ‘Team of the Best and the Brightest,’ although some of the best are involved.” Huemer said. “It is a compromise, made apparently under great political pressure from all sides. We had hoped for a clear signal of independence.”

Wrabetz campaigned on a program of both renewing traditional television and radio, and developing the ORF’s role in new media as an information provider.

He also vows to establish greater independence from the Government and business interests in Austria, to “make the public trust the ORF again.” This will include restructuring inside the ORF, increasing in quantity as well as quality of informative programmes, delegating more within a flattened hierarchy and working on a project basis, and promoting more women to leadership positions.

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