The Revolution Will Be Televised

The Austrian public broadcaster has long been under party influence. Now, journalists fight back.

News | Laurence Doering | February 2012

SPÖ’s Nikolaus Pelinka with ORF Director General, Alexander Wrabetz (Photo: APA)

It was perhaps the Austrian broadcasting corporation’s (ORF) biggest hit: Launched before Christmas, the reality TV show "Who Wants To Be A Media Exec?" kept audiences in Austria – and even Germany – under a spell until 18 Jan., when their favourite candidate, the dashing and dastardly Nikolaus Pelinka, quit the show saying he no longer tolerated "this undignified theatre."

Only that this was no TV series. This was reality itself, played out in newspaper editorials, on Twitter and YouTube, and in heated meetings at the ORF headquarters in Vienna’s 13th District. At stake were foremost some controversial job appointments by the director general, Alexander Wrabetz, triggering unprecedented protest from ORF’s own journalists. The deeper issue, though, was the public broadcaster's tenuous independence from government. With Pelinka down, the journalists have won a first victory: But the road to structural reform remains long.

It all began with an innocuously worded press release announcing "Staff changes at ORF for the new business period," starting 1 Jan. 2012. But the statement’s timing was suspicious: the day before Christmas Eve, when many of the ORF’s top journalists had left for the holidays. Was the management trying to slip something past their employees?

If so, it didn’t work. The same day, the editors’ council (Redakteursrat) fired off a press statement saying the appointments lacked "any substantive justification". Instead, "they are evidently fulfilling the wishes of political parties in return for their re-appointment of the director general during the summer."

One hand votes the other

Last August, Wrabetz was re-elected for a second four-year term as director general by the ORF Foundation Council (Stiftungsrat). Acting as supervisory board, this body not only selects the director general, but also approves the latter’s choice of directors, and sanctions the ORF budgets.

The crux is that, according to the Austrian broadcasting law, most of the 35 councillors are delegates of political parties: 15 are the envoys of parties reflecting their strength in parliament, and another nine represent Austria’s federal state governments. The remaining 11 posts are shared between the audience coucil, and the employees’ union.

As such, the political scientist Anton Pelinka (incidentally Niko’s uncle) described the board in Die Zeit, a German weekly, as a "quasi-parliament", designed to represent the interests of the electorate. In effect, the councillors may often have their parties’ power closer at heart.

Guessing what Wrabetz had to promise the councillors to secure their votes was simplified by the fact that some of them boasted about it afterwards. The truth of those claims was revealed with Wrabetz’s Christmas appointments, as the ORF journalists analysed in their press release:

Robert Ziegler was appointed to the newly created post of "regional coordinator", as requested by the Lower Austrian delegate Alberich Klinger. Similarly, the former online director, Thomas Prantner, was retained as deputy technical director, recalling the Freedom Party (FPÖ) councillor Norbert Steger’s dictum that "my vote will depend on the future of…Thomas Prantner."

Hating Niko Pelinka

But none of the appointments attracted as much ire as that of Nikolaus Pelinka, who was anointed head office manager (Büroleiter) for the director general – Wrabetz’s closest assistant.

Pelinka’s iconic appearance helped turn him into the symbol for a generation of privileged and pragmatic careerists who were moving into top positions at a young age through party ranks: expensive suits; strawberry blonde hair, gelled into an undulating, side-ways quiff; and an invariably smug expression. Promptly, Pelinka was satirised on stage by Burg Theater actor Nicholas Ofszarek, and called the "death of social democracy" by Nobel laureate writer Elfriede Jelinek in a polemical essay published on her website.

The son of the editor of the Austrian weekly News, Niko Pelinka was a quick-starter. At 19, he was hired by the Social Democratic (SPÖ) minister of education, Claudia Schmied, to handle her PR work. Four years later, in 2010, the party put the whiz-kid in "strategic communications" in charge of the SPÖ faction in the ORF Foundation Council – the largest grouping, given the SPÖ’s hold on government. Hence, Pelinka was reported to have orchestrated Wrabetz’s re-election in August 2011. Now – so it seemed – he was being rewarded with a senior position in the ORF management itself.

Yet Wrabetz argued that he chose Pelinka because of his personality, not his politics. "He has experience, knowledge…, and my personal trust," the director general told the Austrian Press Agency (APA) on 28 Dec.

The statement failed to convince his outraged employees. Armin Wolf, the mercurial news presenter at the forefront of the dissent, told the weekly magazine Profil on 7 Jan. that "I believe the ORF leadership is being politically blackmailed." Yet even if Pelinka’s appointment had not been politically engineered, his cosy relationship with the SPÖ leadership – particularly with the party’s young general secretary, Laura Rudas – disqualified him from working for a media company that ought to be a check on government: "Every morning, the editorial computer system contains the topics for the evening news; from 6.30pm the entire texts…are in there. I can’t stand the thought of the SPÖ general secretary’s closest confidant sitting there," Wolf stressed.

The protest widens

While the party-controlled Foundation Council has drawn scorn for years, this time something was different. Since 2006 – ironically, under Wrabetz’s tenure – ORF’s editorial independence has greatly improved, breaking with the government-friendly reporting known under Wrabetz’s predecessor, Monika Lindner. While this had buoyed journalists’ confidence, it also meant they now had more to lose: their credibility. "We are seen as a government mouth piece, although we aren’t one," Armin Wolf summed up the cause for their anger.

As editors returned from their vacation, their protest took on an organised form: An open letter to the director general threatened legal action against his appointments, claiming they violated company rules for a competitive selection process, as well as affirmative action laws. A manifesto for an "independent ORF" was signed by 1,316 employees – three quarters of staff journalists. And an open letter to Pelinka asked him to withdraw his formal application for the post he had been promised.

In parallel, the journalists harnessed both old and new media to publicise their protest: Armin Wolf launched tirades on Twitter, but also wrote a biting editorial for Die Zeit. And the ORF news team privately made a protest video, which it posted on YouTube; it showed all 55 news editors in quick succession, reading out a manifesto stating that "ORF belongs to all Austrians." Within two days, the clip had been watched over 400,000 times.

The same day the video went online –  Monday,16 Jan. – the Foundation Council itself turned. As APA disclosed, the council’s chairperson, the SPÖ-affiliated Brigitte Kulovits-Rupp, wrote in an email to the council: "I have today advised the director general Dr Wrabetz to cancel his vacancy notice for the post of head office manager."

But Niko Pelinka pre-empted his would-be boss: On 18 Jan., he withdrew his application for the job, stating to APA that he did not want to be "a symbol for something that does not correspond to my personal values."

Promptly, Wrabetz released a statement marking an almost perfect U-turn: the office manager vacancy will be dropped, as will the plans for the "regional coordinator" post promised to Ziegler.

Strikingly, Wrabetz also noted that the events had shown that "corporate governance rules should be evolved," specifically by setting a mandatory cool-off phase before Foundation Councillors could join the ORF’s executive branch. The following day, the council announced it would draft a corresponding code of conduct.

While these sudden reform ambitions vindicate the ORF journalists, they are a cosmetic fix. A cool-off period for councillors would do nothing to change the council’s fundamental structure of party-representation, political scientist Peter Filzmaier commented on ORF evening news on 19 Jan. This would require re-writing the broadcasting law – something the main parties have little appetite for. "That parties have no say at all, that doesn’t exist in all of Europe," SPÖ chancellor Werner Faymann ventured in parliament on 18 Jan., clearly forgetting about the BBC.

As long as Austria’s parties appoint the members of the ORF Foundation Council, who in turn elect the ORF management, the hit show "Who Wants To Be A Media Exec?" is sure to enter another season.

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