Linsinger on the Vorhofer Prize: “End Pre-Democratic Information Feudalism”

Dear Mr Federal President,

Dear guests,

Confidence in democracy, measured by the “Sora” Institute, is at a record low: 60 percent are convinced that the political system “does not work well”. The results on journalism are just as devastating: as many as one-fifth of Austrians believe media can be bought.

Many people’s reputation here in the House is in the basement, politicians: inside and journalists: inside are at the bottom of the rankings of credible professions. Media and politics have serious credibility issues and we should in no way shrug our shoulders at the bad motto “once your reputation is ruined, you can live it quite rudely”. The crisis of democracy and the crisis of the media state and reinforce each other.

The corruption series is partly to blame for the fall in reputation: Since the first chats of Thomas Schmid, the man with the talent for iconic formulations, became known in March 2021, the confused public has gained an insight into the engine room of democracy. In dark nooks and crannies that are otherwise never lit, where it smells of lube and is even more unspoken than expected: cynical, bold, rude, always about posts, power, intrigue. The judiciary is investigating, the corruption investigation committee is looking for political responsibility – but where is the treatment of some media involvement, which also appears in the chats?

“Who pays the creator,” Thomas Schmid wrote in one of his powerful messages. This includes two: Paying Policies – and Purchasable Media. In addition, the notorious message control that everyone, in hindsight, has always wanted to oppose, also includes two: Politicians who control messages – and media that report well. A self-critical elucidation of this supporting role is lacking.

Why did some media play along? Also from a misunderstanding of roles: Our task is to observe, we research, analyze, classify. This is our place. We are not teammates, activists, fan girls or fan boys. Proximity to political power can be seductive for some media, but the price is loss of credibility.

Moments after ex-media star Sebastian Kurz was burned out, it seemed like the shock was deep enough to make serious changes. Because the chats deal with what far too many have tacitly accepted for too long: the relationship between politics and journalism has always been ambivalent, burdened by too much closeness by too many, an extreme form of embedded journalism – the relationship has finally slipped since politics and the media have also combined business interests. It is no coincidence that from Vienna to Bregenz there are reports of advertising conditions, they are excesses of the system.

How many places should Austria slip into the press freedom rankings, in relation to how many chancellors and provincial governors must the public prosecutor for economic affairs and corruption investigate before the advertising swamps are drained? The bad habit that has gotten out of hand, handing out insane millions in government ads without quality criteria – at the expense of taxpayers – and thus generously subsidizing especially the tabloids, distorts the already dysfunctional media market.

In contrast, official press funding, linked to quality criteria, is ridiculously low. When it was introduced in the 1970s, it was higher than party support – now party support has galloped away and is more than three times as high. Politicians prefer to give raises to parties rather than to annoying critical media. The consequence: the media is forced to save, the newsrooms are shrinking – politicians, on the other hand, can easily use taxpayers’ money. The PR and press departments of the chancellery, ministries and state governments are hugely inflated, larger than most newsrooms. The fourth force lags behind.

The government intends to present a restructuring of media funding and advertising policy before the end of the year. Will she succeed in draining advertising swamp?

Does she have any interest in ending the “who pays creator” policy? Those who pay, at least, are sometimes treated more carefully: in fact, it is part of the task of the media to control the powerful, because only power opens up the possibility of abuse of power. In Austria, the situation is reversed: the powerful are courted from the boulevard with servile shelf headings – they are kicked down for it.

Anyone who has become accustomed to anniversary reporting can do nothing with critical, independent journalism. “profile” has been critical, independent, investigative journalism since its inception – not only, journalists also research other media in Austria, are uncomfortable and persistent, rummage through files, ask critical questions, weigh arguments and facts.

Quality journalism can not afford to be bought. Quality journalism costs money. Quality journalism can not be bought. Yes, what quality means can be measured, studies on it collect dust in drawers. High time to get them out.

In order to drain swamps, pre-democratic information feudalism must also be stopped, in order to provide dominance knowledge at will, arbitrarily as an act of mercy. Ex-Chancellor Werner Faymann promised a law on freedom of information, which all governments have done since then, but unfortunately something always got in the way. Already now the Freedom Act is being blocked with apologies. Transparency is the best weapon against corruption, and it has also been clear since the chats: Taxpayers should have paid for the bone-scraping tool or abstrated animal experiments – but should never have found out about it. Transparency makes such nonsense difficult.

Politics needs a transparency offensive, journalism a quality offensive. The cynical Woody Allen is credited with the quote: “Politics is showbusiness for ugly people.” Of course, Woody Allen is unfit as moral authority, he is only partially right with the sentence. But: The present with war, energy crisis, inflation, pandemic is too serious for populist show politics. It is also too serious for political journalism, which reports as breathless celebrity journalism, which politicians have beautiful hair, who quarrel with whom in coalition marriage and similar frippery.

More seriousness, more transparency, more quality, drained advertising swamps, more courage in self-criticism: This is how the media can regain trust.

Finally: modern journalism is teamwork. I would like to thank my wonderful profile colleagues for lively discussions, suggestions and cooperation.

And I thank the jury for the award, it’s my honor and my mission.

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