Austria’s public broadcaster is facing its most existential crisis since a successful referendum against political meddling in the mid-1960s established the ORF as an independent radio and TV broadcaster in the mold of the BBC.
Sixty years later, undue political influence again kicked off the current crisis, leading to the resignation of the national news editor-in-chief and one of the regional directors of ORF amidst political interference scandals.
However, the problems at ORF go much deeper. By the end of 2023, the current funding mechanism will expire following a ruling by Austria’s constitutional court, which found the current structure of the mandatory license fee – which applies to households with TV and radio sets but not to those who stream content online – unconstitutional.
In response to the ruling, on March 23, 2023, Media Minister Susanne Raab presented the government’s plan for future financing in the form of a mandatory 15 euro fee to be collected from each household, regardless of whether the inhabitants own a radio or TV set. However, this plan is far from a done deal and discussions about cost-cutting measures at the ORF remain ongoing.
The constitutional court has also yet to decide on another important ORF matter. The regional government of Austria’s easternmost state, Burgenland, has brought a complaint about the legality of the recent appointment of the current director general of ORF. The complaint stipulates that the election of the director general violates the ORF mandate of being politically independent, since the government appoints the majority of the members of the broadcaster’s oversight board.
A similar complaint brought by Presseclub Concordia, a media watchdog, is currently winding its way through the legal system and will probably also land at Austria’s highest court. If the court agrees and rules the appointment unconstitutional, it will necessitate a legal reform to create a new, more depoliticized system for the appointment of members of ORF’s oversight board.
While this would throw the broadcaster into managerial turmoil in the short term, press freedom groups hope the creation of a more democratic system for the appointment of members of ORF’s oversight board could help reduce the influence of political forces and strengthen its institutional independence in the long term.
The need to reduce political interference and influence within the broadcaster has become increasingly apparent in recent months amidst a number of scandals illustrating the close connection of certain editors to political actors.
Early in November 2022, Mathias Schrom, editor in chief of “Zeit im Bild,” ORF’s main national news programme, resigned after chat messages exchanged with then-Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache became public.
In these chummy-sounding chats from 2019, the editor advised Strache, then party leader of Austria’s right-wing FPÖ, how to best deal with “leftist colleagues” at ORF 1, a rival channel to Schrom’s ORF 2. Strache copy-pasted the advice to Norbert Steger, chair of the board of trustees of ORF and a former party leader of FPÖ, for follow-up.
Schrom was not the only high-ranking editor on amicable chat terms with government members. Rainer Novak, the editor of Austria’s leading conservative newspaper, Die Presse, was tripped up over messages exchanged with a central political operator of the conservative governing party, ÖVP. In these messages, favorable reporting was promised in return for ÖVP support if Novak applied for the ORF top job.
In the footsteps of Schrom’s “chat affair,” as this and other political dealings became known came another case of partisan reporting in exchange for a promotion to higher echelons at a regional branch of ORF in Lower Austria. Robert Ziegler, regional director of ORF Niederösterreich, resigned from his post following accusations of twisting reporting in favor of the conservative ÖVP governor of Lower Austria when Ziegler was still regional editor-in-chief.
Together with the highly politicized spectacle of the election of Roland Weißmann as director general – who is widely considered close to the conservative ÖVP – these affairs have further eroded the reputation of ORF as a non-partisan public broadcaster.
However, the much more significant threat for ORF looming by the end of the current year is its loss of public funding, which roughly accounts for two-thirds of the overall annual one billion euro budget.
Addressing the ruling of the constitutional court requires new legislation. This, in turn, opens the door to further meddling at the broadcaster. ÖVP Media Minister Susanne Raab has called for a “discount” on any future ORF fee and requested Weißmann to present voluntary cuts to the ORF budget.
While the ORF director general reports only to his board of trustees by law, he followed the government minister’s request. He presented a handful of sacrifices to be made in exchange for a new licensing fee that every Austrian household – not just those with radio or TV receivers – would be required to pay. Among the cuts would be closing down the Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSO), which the ORF maintained since the early days of radio broadcasting, provoking a public outcry of protest in support of RSO.
Now the conservative-green coalition government says it will support a general household licensing fee that is lower than the current fee. While Media Minister Raab presented this as a success, there is a catch to the solution: It will require at least 400,000 households currently not paying any fees to shell out additional 200 euros at a time of stubbornly high inflation. Weißmann put the number even higher at 700,000 households.
While the fee issue may be resolved before the court’s deadline at the end of 2023, the issue of digital content and distribution channels remains unsettled. For many years VÖZ, the lobbying organization of newspaper publishers, has been adamant in its demand that ORF ceases to provide online news in the fashion of news media. And current legal requirements limit the time span for watching ORF programs online to seven days. Weißmann is trying to exchange a reduction in ORF online news content for an extension of this time span so the ORF can present all of its programs in a player app for 14 days.
Raab, however, declined to answer questions about a legal reform of digital content provisions for ORF, saying only that this will not be part of new licensing fee arrangements. A solution would be presented “in a timely fashion”, she said in an interview on ORF, although the discussion around digital content rules has been ongoing for several years.
The increasing financial pressures also come at a time of turmoil in Austrian politics. The coalition appears to be on shaky ground after the conservative chancellor Karl Nehammer gave a speech on “the future of the nation,” which did not seem to include a future with his green partner in the government.
The social democratic SPÖ has a veritable crisis of its own making after an internal challenge to its leadership. All this serves the interest of the populist rightwing FPÖ, which currently leads opinion polls well ahead of all others. For many years ORF-bashing and demanding the cancellation of its fees has been a central part of their populist platform.
The financial crisis may come to a head when the constitutional court decides on the board structure of ORF. A ruling is expected before summer. If the court overturns the current system of political appointments, a complete overhaul of the ORF law would be required. It is unlikely that this would happen before Austria’s next general election, set for the fall of 2024 – or earlier if the coalition does not hold up.
This article was comissioned by IPI as part of its work in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.