Newsroom / News / Media / Info Magazine LGP NEWS 01/2022 / Press & Politics: Rules? Why rules?

Press & Politics: Rules? Why rules?

Press & Politics: Rules? Why rules?

The allocation of government advertisements and press funding is strictly regulated. However, back doors and the absence of sanctions are leading to millions of euros taking remarkable routes year after year. 

But now for real. The consequence of the so-called advertisement affair is to reform how the Austrian press is funded with public money. This at least is the hope of opposition politicians, media observers and leading journalists. The reason: the Public Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption and Financial Crime (WKStA) is investigating the accusation that ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and several of his confidants, along with publishers Wolfgang and Helmuth Fellner, may have set up a system of favourable polling and compliant reporting, paid for with advertising placements (= advertisements) by the Ministry of Finance in the publications “OE24” and “Österreich”. All of this at the taxpayer’s expense. The affair has cost Kurz his position as head of government, and he resigned due to public pressure. All other suspects have denied the accusations, described them as groundless, or remained silent. 

In coming to terms with this case, there have been calls for a restructuring of the relationship between the media (especially the press) and politics. The majority of expert and publishers’ contributions on the subject reads along the lines of: Austria’s tabloids profit disproportionately from advertising, which henceforth should be greatly reduced, and the funds thus released should be distributed, at least in part, in the form of a significantly increased press subsidy. This press subsidy should then be distributed to recipients according to quality criteria alone. Across this debate, a whole series of experts convey the impression that there is no alternative to supporting newspapers and magazines with public funds. This is in part because the all-powerful ORF, financed by compulsory fees, publishes its content on the internet, which is also the publishers’ second source of income after the print business. In fact, ORF and the legislator are thus contributing to a distortion of competition. But what if in the future public money is distributed to publishers in such a way that only the supposedly “right ones” profit from it? Who determines quality? 

In an interview with the German newspaper “die Zeit“, Armin Thurnher, editor of the magazine “Falter“, recently proposed quality criteria such as the number of journalists employed, or whether a paper “cultivates genuine criticism and commentary”. But can this be objectively determined? What is “genuine criticism”? Who should or may determine that? An attempt to use the number of employed journalists as a criterion for eligibility has failed once before during the tenure of Federal Chancellor Christian Kern. When it became clear that according to this criterion the “Kronen Zeitung” was ahead, traditionally despised by top journalists of the so-called quality segment, behind the scenes everything was done to sabotage the reform. Former media minister Thomas Drozda remembers it well: “This resistance had such a strong effect because we as politicians were suddenly caught in the middle. The high-circulation newspapers didn’t need the reform, and the others rejected it in its proposed form. And we didn’t want to implement something for which we were being publicly denigrated.” 

Even the idea of legally standardised press funding seems to have very specific goals in Austria. Or more precisely: beneficiaries. One reaches this conclusion if annually distributed funds are allocated not to individual titles, as is usually the case, but to spheres of ownership over a longer period of time. If this is applied from the point the current Press Subsidies Act came into force, the following picture emerges: The largest sums have gone and continue to go to newspapers belonging to Catholic associations, dioceses, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and a few publishing families. The list of recipients is headed by the profitable Styria Media Group, which after ORF and Mediaprint is the third-largest media group in the country. From 2004 to 2020, titles belonging to the Graz-based company were funded to the tune of 38.3 million euros. The ranking continues: the Bronner family (“Der Standard”) with 21.4 million euros, the quasi-monopolist of the Vorarlberg region (Russmedia) with 19.9 million euros, the Upper Austrian ÖVP (“Volksblatt”) with 17.1 million euros and the dioceses of the Catholic Church and their church newspapers with 12.3 million euros. 

Politics has made provisions even for grey areas. Strictly speaking, according to the Press Subsidies Act, “neither customer magazines nor the press organs of interest groups” may receive subsidies. How is it then possible that political parties, but also the farmers’ association of the ÖVP (“Bauernzeitung”, “Neues Land”) receive millions in subsidies every year? This has to do with the so-called Press Subsidies Commission. This is the body that prepares decisions on press subsidies for the communications authority. Interestingly, members of this commission are delegated by the funding agency, the Federal Chancellery and representatives of the funding recipients. Together they elect an external chairman. Hence, representatives of the government, the Association of Austrian Newspapers (VÖZ) and the journalists’ union judge who is eligible for payments from the subsidy pot. 

Now, one could say that there is little discretionary leeway in press subsidies since their disbursement is actually tied to the conditions described in the Press Subsidies Act. In practice, however, there are exceptions to this, with the help of which the Commission, as the extended arm of its beneficiaries, can exert considerable influence. In fact, the Commission is in a position to circumvent the ban on subsidies for interest groups. While the interests of the publishers (as much funding as possible) and the trade union (as many journalistic jobs as possible) remain the same over the years, the interests of the government change with the respective Federal Chancellor. That is why the composition of the commission shows how important co-determination is to the heads of government when it comes to allocating money to newspapers. In 2021, in addition to two representatives each from the trade union and VÖZ, two representatives of former Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz sat on the panel: Michael Ulrich and Johannes P. 

Ulrich moved to Ballhausplatz with Sebastian Kurz in 2018 while still an administrative trainee. He was the deputy department head of the Ballhausplatz information service. Today, Ulrich is press spokesman for the new Minister of Finance, Magnus Brunner. The chancellor’s second representative, Johannes P., was useful and influential for the chancellor’s party ÖVP for other reasons; he headed the Communications and Public Relations Department in the Ministry of Finance. This department is the largest newspaper advertiser for the federal government after the Federal Chancellery. P. is currently listed as a defendant in the advertisement affair. He does not want to comment on the accusations. The fact that Federal Chancellors send their confidants to the Press Subsidies Commission and can thus influence the distribution of many millions of euros in subsidies is not a peculiarity of the Kurz era. His predecessors had already made ample use of this. During the terms of the Social Democratic heads of government before him (Christian Kern, Werner Faymann, Alfred Gusenbauer), reliable people (according to the Chancellor) sat on the committee – and Kurz had them replaced as soon as possible after taking office. Appointments to this body are always limited to two years. 

The importance of the composition of the Press Subsidies Commission can now be seen in the unintended funding of titles by interest groups. If the commission nevertheless votes unanimously in favour of the expert opinions it has drawn up, the authority can grant exceptions. The bad news for taxpayers is that the reports are secret. Nothing has ever emerged about the background to these exemptions. The possibility that the “new” rules will change anything in the distribution of subsidies and advertisements seems small. This is because such rules already exist not only for press subsidies but also for advertisements. However, while the Press Subsidies Act seems to have been designed to serve the political-media system as its inventors intended, the rules of the Media Cooperation and Subsidies Transparency Act are simply ignored. Indeed, there are no punitive provisions at all. 

The law actually states quite clearly that politicians may only place advertisements if their subjects contain “recommendations for action or behaviour and factual information”. As part of the federal government’s Corona campaign, full-page ads appeared before Christmas 2020 featuring a child in an elephant costume. “Thank you!”, it read, and continued, “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. After Christmas came the next wave of advertising. Again full-page subjects, but this time on page 1 of the newspapers. Next to a green coronavirus image on a turquoise background, the following statement read: “Still right, but now doubly important! “ The information content for citizens seemed at the very least dubious. Based on the publicly available price lists of the newspapers, it is estimated that this series alone cost several hundred thousand euros. 

The Federal Government does not answer when asked how a slogan such as “We wish you a Merry Christmas” fulfils the “objective need for information” enshrined in the law. The media also do not report on this obvious violation. This could have something to do with the fact that publishers who profit from it have little interest in shedding critical light on the matter. But this debate has taken place before, in the hidden and hard to access world of legal journals. It was initiated by an employee of the Federal Chancellery, of all people. To be precise, by one of the officials who drafted the Media Transparency Act at the time. His name: Michael Kogler. 

Kogler heads the office of the “Independent Party Transparency Senate” and is also deputy head of the department “Media and Information Society” in the Constitutional Service of the Chancellery. His assessments as a civil servant are controlled by the political leadership. As with most other employees of public offices, criticism is rarely made public. The filters of the press offices make sure of this. 

As a scientist, however, he does not have to mince his words and can – quite objectively – investigate the question of whether the content of federal and nine state governments’ advertisements is in accordance with the law. In a nutshell: Kogler has his doubts. For example, when the Ministry of Transport asks, “Did you know that more than a third of the journeys we make by car are shorter than five minutes? “ Or when the Department of Defence pays thousands of euros to run the slogan: “Our Army matters. Right now.” Does this serve the required “concrete need for information”? Or is it ultimately just marketing, which is expressly impermissible? 

His summary assessment is as diplomatic as it is humorous: “Even several years after enactment, the terms “factual information” and “marketing” which are used and described in detail in this legislation are understood differently by the federal government and from state to state.” 


AUTHOR:

Andreas Wetz, Author and Journalist at VGN

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