ORF: The Party Channel

Austria’s public broadcaster must reform to become more like the BBC

The detectives of ORF’s Soko Donau don’t mind getting their hands dirty Photo: ORF


A matter of style? The secret service officers in the BBC series Spook | Photo: BBC

Vienna, 9 Aug. 2011. Behind closed doors, the governing council of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) – the so-called Stiftungsrat – re-appoints Alexander Wrabetz for a second term as the broadcaster’s director general. There are no votes against and there is lots of congratulatory back-slapping for the press. But the backroom deals soon emerge: Two board members – Helmut Krieghofer and Michael Götzhaber – are promptly made directors within the corporation; two more, Robert Ziegler and Niko Pelinka are offered senior jobs but are forced to withdraw amid howling protest from the ORF’s journalistic staff.

Their critique: Of the four appointees, two each were delegates of Austria’s ruling parties. The deal brought home how, between them, they had divvied up the public broadcaster. (See TVR Feb. 2011, p.1 – The Revolution Will Be Televised)

London, 23 Jan. 2012. Chris (Lord) Patten, chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s governing board – the BBC Trust – announces that the Trust has started looking for a successor to director general Mark Thompson, who is due to step down later this year. Hence, the Trust has hired a headhunting firm to gain an “intelligent view” of possible candidates qualified to run the world’s largest public broadcaster, with over 20,000 employees according to its 2011 figures. No horse-trading, or informal party quotas.

These snapshots illustrate why the BBC is viewed as a model for independence and professionalism among public broadcasters – and the ORF less so.

The ORF’s journalists now want the Austrian broadcaster, with its roughly 3,200 employees, to become more British. They have handed the parliament a set of proposals for reforming the Broadcasting Law. Notably, they want the governing council de-politicised: Currently, 21 of its 35 members are appointed directly or indirectly by political parties. Instead, the council should be reduced to 12 to 15 independent experts, who then elect their own successors.

On the face of it, these proposals seem inspired by the BBC’s 12-member Trust. But, paradoxically, the trustees’ independence is not so much guaranteed by law as by the BBC’s professional culture and its place within British public life. So says Georgina Born, an Oxford anthropologist who has studied the workings in and around Broadcasting House from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Her book, Uncertain Vision (2004), is the most comprehensive independent study of the BBC ever conducted.

A very British idea

The BBC trustees are appointed directly by the government for a four-year term. A prior recommendation by the cross-party media select committee is not binding, but it is still taken seriously. “There’s a custom that they’re not political appointees,” says Born over the telephone. “It’s a kind of consensus idea.”

This was not always so. The weak constraints are easily overcome by aggressive governments: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously appointed a string of Conservative trustees willing to meddle with the BBC’s programming. Born relates in her book how a documentary that took a sympathetic view of a prominent IRA activist was censored in 1985. “But not all governments use that power,” Born says. “And the period when Thatcher did that has been much criticised.”

With Lord Patten’s appointment in 2011, the Conservative-led government indeed promoted a former minister from its own party to the helm of the Trust. But this is misleading. “He’s very centrist,” Born points out. “They would never have put someone in that position who wasn’t of that makeup.”

In recent times, trustees have been again chosen for their professional expertise, rather than their political alignment. Half of the current trustees have a background in the media, including a former editor of the daily The Independent, or a former programme director at the private channel ITV. The others are major bankers, lawyers, or businesswomen. “It’s a very British idea,” Born says of the belief that independent professionals are best placed to run the broadcaster in the public interest.

Soko Donau

The detectives of ORF’s Soko Donau don’t mind getting their hands dirty | Photo: ORF

Party nation

Not so in Austria. The ORF council is designed as a forum of interest groups, rather than a committee of independent figures. It includes representatives of the parliamentary parties, regional governments, senior citizens, the Catholic Church, and the employees’ union, among others. Hence, the political scientist Anton Pelinka has described the Stiftungsrat as a “quasi-parliament”.

The structure reflects Austria’s wider political culture: University students vote for parties to represent them vis-à-vis their institutions; professionals join trade associations that are either red (Social Democrat, SPÖ), black (Conservative, ÖVP), or Green; and motorists put their faith either in ARBÖ, traditionally the working class and socialist break-down service, or ÖAMTC, its bourgeois-conservative equivalent.

In Britain, by contrast, “the very idea of a balance of representation between the parties is just not part of our political life,” says Born. Matters of the public interest are viewed as “above party political interests.” This includes the BBC, but also public inquiry committees that are called to investigate sensitive issues independently of government. The on-going inquiry into phone hacking by tabloids is chaired by Brian Leveson, a senior judge. Tellingly, Austria’s current investigation of high-level political corruption is being conducted by a panel of MPs.

But if the public broadcaster’s organisation reflects the nation’s wider political culture, how can it be reformed?

“It begins with the institutional design,” says Born, raising hopes for ORF’s would-be reformers. But ultimately, it comes down to public pressure. “There has to be a commitment in public life to a truly independent journalistic cadre.”

Dieter Bornemann, one of the reporters leading the ORF’s reform thrust, agrees. Austria’s parties are unlikely to reduce their influence in the broadcaster unless there is “wide public support for our proposals,” he tells The Vienna Review.

“In Britain, notions of the public interest really do have credence, in the BBC and in certain other areas,” Born sums up. “There’s something there about our political culture, which I guess I’m rather proud of.”

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