Austria: tabloids and politicians thick as thieves

The Ibiza affair, which led to the collapse of the governing coalition between the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in 2019, not only cost long-time FPÖ leader and former vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache his job. Richard Schmitt, online editor of the highly influential Kronen Zeitung, was also forced to leave his post. Under his aegis, the FPÖ and the Kronen Zeitung had apparently been pushing each other’s interests for years on social media.

Heinz-Christian Strache had to resign from his post as Vice Chancellor in 2019 because of the "Ibiza-gate" scandal.
Heinz-Christian Strache had to resign from his post as Vice Chancellor in 2019 because of the "Ibiza-gate" scandal.
After Strache was secretly recorded forging plans for the takeover of the Kronen Zeitung and calling all journalists “whores” - with the exclusion of Richard Schmitt – while on holiday in Ibiza, the relationship cooled down. Richard Schmitt was taken off the Kronen Zeitung’s staff and switched soon afterwards to the free newspaper Österreich. After that, the Kronen Zeitung became more critical in its coverage of the FPÖ - and even more gushing in its enthusiasm for old and new Austrian Chancellor and ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz.

Political parties as loyal advertising customers

Austria's governments come and go - but the dominance of the tabloid press and its influence has remained intact ever since the post-war period - as has its close relationship with the political class. For decades, the Social Democratic government kept the tabloid media well-fed with purchases of expensive newspaper advertising space; the free paper Heute was even founded by entrepreneurs with close ties to the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ). The sale of advertising space to political parties and ministries is a key source of revenue for many Austrian media companies

Another distinctive feature of the Austrian media landscape is the dominance of large and closely interwoven publishing groups, whose main shareholders include the Raiffeisen Bank, the Dichand family (the Kronen Zeitung, Heute) and the Fellner family (Österreich), as well as several private foundations linked to the Catholic Church.

Independent media need their own niche

In this financially potent environment it is often difficult for independent media to gain a foothold in Austria's media landscape. Products like the monthly magazine Datum or the investigative journalism platform Dossier have only been able to carve out niches for themselves, despite the high-quality journalism they offer. The online magazine Addendum also occupies a niche, although thanks to the fact that it is funded by Red Bull billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz it isn’t burdened by financial problems.

The quality newspaper segment is dominated by the dailies Der Standard (centre-left) and Die Presse (liberal-conservative), the weekly paper Falter and the news magazine Profil. But none of these outlets wield as much influence as the tabloid press.

The online platforms of the quality media outlets now mostly use a combination of free and paid content. Der Standard, traditionally the pioneer in Austrian online journalism, doesn’t have a paywall, but with its "Pur-Abo" subscription it offers readers the option to consume its content without advertising or data tracking.

The television market is dominated by the broadcasting fee-financed public service broadcaster ORF. In 2019, its channels had a market share of 31.8 percent, while the private channels ATV and Puls 4 (which both belong to the ProSiebenSat1 Group), as well as Servus TV (owned by Dietrich Mateschitz) each had a market share of 3 to 3.5 percent. The former FPÖ politician Norbert Steger has been Chairman of the ORF Foundation Board since May 2018. He and his party colleagues have repeatedly attacked ORF, accusing it of lacking objectivity and calling for the abolition of broadcasting fees. Former FPÖ party leader Strache said in Ibiza: "We want to build a media landscape similar to Orbán’s".

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 18 (2020)

Last updated: April 2020

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