Silencing dissenting voices

Verbatim extracts from Oscar Bronner's speech at the Media Discussions in Alpbach on 3 September, 2000.

What else has changed during the last year? Oh, yes, we have a new government coalition. This was preceded by endlessly long talks in which the media played a special role. Never before has a coalition in the making been – almost without exception – so massively opposed as this time. I remember how, in enormous letters even, one mass-circulation newspaper printed an article about a mysterious "particular side" to prevent the formation of this government. We know the result. The "vestibule of power" is indeed far removed from the centre of power. What lessons can we learn from this?

Politicians can ignore the advance obedience of the most popular media if – yes, if they have a sufficiently strong will to act themselves. We can now see this happening. The bigger the medium, the more quickly it comes to terms with those in power so that it can imagine itself once again in their vestibule.

So now we have this government which is no longer totally new. It's not easy for me to restrict myself to media aspects with this issue. Let's try it with a question that has concerned me for a long time. How does it come about that a person who has equated Churchill with Hitler – to mention just one of many examples – is regarded as a pariah throughout the civilised world but in Austria is seen as a statesman? To what extent are we media people responsible for this difference in attitude? I do not just mean the reporting about this man. I mean the way in which, since 1945, journalism has handled the very complicated and contradictory history of Austria in the 20th century.

Not only the composition of the government has changed, but also the political climate. Consensus democracy at any price has given way to confrontational politics. For a certain period and to a certain extent it may be necessary because the lowest common denominator upon which agreement was sought over many years recently became very small. Fear of long overdue reforms appeared to be leading the country into a cul-de-sac and with each election, the old coalition was gradually being voted out.

It is clear that the statesmen of Europe have a different level of knowledge and consciousness. It is understandable that they did not want to let developments in Austria pass without comment, also with regard to similar developments in some other countries. However, it is astonishing that they could think of nothing better than the well-known sanctions.

Every first-year student of political science knows that external pressure welds a community together. The mistake with the so-called sanctions could, among other things, lie in the fact that countries which have been EU members for decades regard this community as home territory to a much greater extent than is the case in new arrivals such as Austria. This external pressure created a smoke screen which has made it more difficult to recognise the dangers of climatic change in Austrian politics.

These dangers are increased further when some of the actors do not regard the above-mentioned confrontational politics as a necessary evil but as an end in themselves and possibly even as an instrument of pleasure.

The ice of civilization, upon which we all dance, is very thin. The danger of it breaking can only be averted by self-restraint. We can already see threatening cracks.

For instance, when we look at the increasing brutalisation of political and journalistic discourse. No argument is too stupid, no insinuation is too low, no attack is too tasteless not to be used if someone thinks they will gain favour with some target group or can settle old scores.

Every state defines itself through laws and Austria has more than enough of them. However, the unwritten rules are at least as important and Austria has too few of these and is running the risk of losing the few which it has. In view of the Austrian political stereotype mentality, it was certainly necessary for confidence in the judiciary that the last ministers of justice were not close to any political party. However, theoretically there is no reason why a party member cannot fill this post. He must just take care to avoid any signs of party bias.

The current Minister of Justice does not belong to a political party. However, he was a party's lawyer for many years and especially the party leader's lawyer. And he has, in accordance with the regulations, temporarily put aside his licence to act as a lawyer. However, his office, which still bears his name, is continuing his work without interruption. Now, journalists critical of the party which nominated him are facing a blanket bombardment of legal actions. Some courage is required of the judiciary to dismiss these cases.

When this happens, many of these cases arrive on appeal before a judge who has been nominated for the supervisory board of the ORF (Austrian national broadcasting corporation) by the same party. The decisions are astonishing. The man who equated Churchill with Hitler previously lost cases about playing down the effects of National Socialism. For the past few months, he has been winning them, even though there is now more evidence. One has the impression that the system is intended to make both the judiciary and the media submissive.

There is obviously a method in this system.

The impression that this system has a method is increased when another high-ranking party official, in his role as supervisory board member of the ORF, publicly doubts the point of a certain daily news programme.

One is somehow reminded of the announcement of the man who equated Churchill with Hitler that once in power, order would be brought into editorial offices. History proves that announcements from politicians of this type should not be ridiculed but should be taken seriously.

When this man suggests in so many words at a press conference that opposition politicians should be prosecuted for carrying out opposition politics then one thing leads onto another. And when the Minister of Justice, sitting next to him, instead of crying out in disgust, describes the idea as worth taking up, we shouldn't wonder when for example "Der Spiegel" this week describes Austria as the "Urchin of Europe".