How Austria’s Tabloids Helped the Far-Right Win the Election

by Bettina Figl

Austria’s recent election was a big success for the country’s Conservatives and the far-right. Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old foreign minister is tipped to become the country’s next Chancellor – in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). His rise, however, was only possible with the help of the media. Austria’s press, and the tabloids in particular, played a key role in the country’s move to the right.

This article written by Felix Simon and me was published on 7th of December 2017 on European Journalism Observatory (EJO). It can be read here.

How we ended up where we are: Austria’s political situation

For many observers Austria’s recent swerve to the right is not surprising. The country has long grappled with sizeable nationalist and ultra-conservative tendencies. The stigma usually associated with extreme nationalist parties in other European countries was never evident in the Alpine nation and this helped the far-right flourish. Turned into a potent populist party by their former leader Jörg Haider, the FPÖ – a party founded by Nazis – has been key in pushing the country’s political discourse further to the right in recent years.

These efforts appear to have paid off in the recent election. Exploiting a smouldering xenophobia and a deep-seated cultural and social angst of losing one’s “Heimat” and social benefits to immigrants, both the FPÖ under their leader Heinz-Christian Strache and Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party ÖVP led successful campaigns which thrived on jingoistic notions, and a fear of Islam and immigration.

The gamble worked: the ÖVP gained 31.5% of the vote, the FPÖ 26% – only narrowly losing out to the Social Democrats (SPÖ) who achieved 26.9% but suffered heavy losses which cost them the chancellory. Although the ÖVP and FPÖ are still negotiating over the terms of a coalition deal, there is little doubt that Austria’s future political fate will lie in the hands of a staunchly nationalist–conservative government.

The role of the media in Austria’s politics

While not the only factor, Austria’s media played a key role in bringing about the result.

Austria’s notorious tabloid press – most famously the Kronen Zeitung, Heute and Österreich – are powerful players in the national media landscape and read widely. Famous for their sensationalist framings and for publishing misleading or false information, they have long developed strong ties to Austria’s conservative and right-wing political scene – an alliance which partially helps explain the toxic political climate. During the election campaign, Sebastian Kurz, in particular, benefitted from the support of these tabloids who were besotted with (and helped create) his “trendy” and youthful image.

However, simply blaming the tabloid press for the triumph of Austrian right-wing populism would be short-sighted. For example, in the weeks before the election, nearly all media coverage focused on a Facebook smear-campaign against Sebastian Kurz, instigated by a former consultant to the re-election campaign of the centre-left Chancellor Christian Kern (SPÖ).

As the Washington Post’s Luisa Beck and Griff Witte have pointed out, the disclosure of this attempt to thwart Kurz’s hopes of becoming chancellor “rocked the normally sedate world of Austrian politics in the election’s final weeks, crowding out debate over the issues and clogging Austrian newspapers and news shows with endless discussion of who knew what, and when.” Some say that had the media focused on real issues, rather than directing all their attention towards the scandal, the country’s politics might have taken a different turn.

Another issue was the Austrian media’s toothlessness. For one, the aforementioned scandal was not exposed through investigative reporting but through the story being leaked to the press – from political opponents. Some commentators also noted that many Austrian journalists failed to ask critical questions during the campaign, making life easy for the parties and their candidates. For example, the right-wing FPÖ had markedly toned down their usually radical demeanour, most likely in order not to scare away more moderate voters. Yet, critical coverage of this tactic, and the FPÖ more generally, was largely absent.

In the end, it was the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung which published an investigative dossier on the neo-nazi past of the FPÖ’s candidate, “HC” Strache.

Austria: a difficult country for journalists

Then again, while Austria’s media certainly has to ask itself painful questions after the election, simply blaming the press would be unfair and blissfully ignorant of wider issues in the country which affect journalistic work.

Austria is not a country that can pride itself on supporting critical and investigative journalism. A Freedom of Information Act, as for instance in the UK or in Germany, is not enshrined in law. As a consequence, journalists depend on the goodwill of civil servants and other state officials in their quest to unearth  material. Interviews with politicians are generally reviewed and edited by PR managers. Finally, the media scene and the political world are strongly intertwined. For better or worse, potential scoops, access to information and people heavily depend on a journalist’s personal network – and his or her willingness to play along.

To accuse the Austrian media of solely being responsible for the election outcome would be overstated. Many other factors were at play, with the country’s press having a crucial but not decisive role. Yet, their failings during the election campaign cast a doubt on their ability to hold Austrian politicians and parties to account in future. As Austria prepares to take over the EU presidency in the second half of 2018 and with looming cuts to social benefits, cultural programmes and funding for the public service media, a strong and independent press is more needed than ever before. So far, however, it seems that this remains wishful thinking.