The Price of Independence

The FPÖ would like nothing better than to hobble the independence of Austria’s public broadcaster, the ORF.  Now Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache picked up the banner again…

A serious news medium usually succeeds in offending nearly everyone at some time or another: After all, “the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.“ Thus, on Austria’s public broadcaster ORF, respected news anchors have clashed often with leaders of the far right FPÖ, going back to the party’s legendary firebrand Jörg Haider in the 1980’s to early 2000’s.  

So when FPÖ party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache announced his goal to eliminate the GIS – the mandatory levy that provides most of the ORF’s operating income – it looked like ongoing tit for tat.  But then party colleague Hubert Fuchs, now number two in the Finance Ministry, confirmed live on ORF itself (a Meet the Press broadcast March 17) that Strache’s goal was indeed to replace GIS with direct funding from the general budget.

It was a declaration of war on the ORF’s independence. And the opposition parties and ORF itself reacted accordingly.

Some background: The ORF is Austria’s publicly owned broadcaster operating four TV channels and 12 significant radio stations.  Its independence is guaranteed by federal constitutional law, which defines the guidelines for ensuring “objectivity und impartiality in reporting and respect for the variety of opinions … and balance in the programming.”  Two-thirds of the ORF’s budget is financed by the mandatory fee (GIS) on all households with radio or television reception devices and one third by advertising revenue. As the ex-monopoly broadcaster loses its market share to commercial TV channels (ORF now has about 30%) advertising revenue is falling.  But at the same time population growth and the trend to single households has meant that GIS income is surging.

Almost certainly, though, Strache’s lunge is not really about money but political influence. ORF’s guaranteed independence is a sensible framework in an open, democratic society and a source of irritation to politicians with agendas to push.  In most western democracies, people in the media business tend to be somewhat left of the political center, so the issue is clear: Were today’s government to be controlling the purse strings, the danger of undue political influence on the broadcaster would be undeniable.  ORF’s boss Alexander Wrabetz understands this: “ORF doesn’t belong to the government, but to the people” he fired back in the daily Heute.

There is an additional principle at stake. Like Britain’s much-respected BBC, ORF’s charter commits it to the Bildungsauftrag, essentially an obligation to educate as well as entertain. Why, the critics ask, should we pay the GIS levy when we can watch the same trashy US series for free on the commercial channels?  And shouldn’t the national broadcaster be supporting domestically produced content (as French channels are required to do). They do, Wrabetz protests, with shows like Tatort or Vorstadtweiber. But the American material is often the cheapest, which does not really convince those insisting on quality content.

So far the dispute has been unleashed by the FPÖ’s habitually aggressive Strache. As the daily Der Standard reported March 18 his senior coalition partner and Kanzler Sebastian Kurz has been silent. But not the leaders of the nine federal states (Länder), who have responded with a unanimous “Nein!”, six of them the Chancellor’s ÖVP party colleagues. And this time it certainly has to do with money:About 16% (€147 mio.) of the GIS revenue goes directly to the Länder – with no strings attached, Vienna alone getting nearly €38 mio.  That’s about €20 a head for the city coffers, reason enough to defend the status quo.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.
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