Facing lawsuits, Austrian far-right leader regrets fake news claim

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s far-right leader and vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, has expressed regret at accusing state broadcaster ORF and its star news presenter of lying, but stopped short of apologizing now that both have taken him to court.

FILE PHOTO: Head of Austrian far-right Freedom Party (FPO) Heinz-Christian Strache addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

Strache led the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) to third place in last year’s parliamentary election. It is now the junior coalition partner to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives, making Austria the only western European country to have a far-right party in government.

The FPO has long accused ORF of left-wing bias but last month Strache stepped up his criticism, pledging to scrap the license fee that funds ORF and force it to report “objectively”.

He also posted a picture on Facebook of news anchor Armin Wolf with the inscription: “There is a place where lies become news. That place is ORF.”

President Alexander Van der Bellen has condemned the posting as unbefitting Austrian democracy.

In an interview with tabloid newspaper Oesterreich’s online news channel on Wednesday, Strache said: “It would have been better if I had not done it.”

But he added he stood by his fundamental criticism of ORF.

Wolf has filed a defamation suit with a criminal court in Vienna, saying no politician has accused him of lying before. The court has found there is a case to answer.

Strache has offered to settle the case out of court and apologize publicly but Wolf has declined. Strache has repeatedly defended the posting as a Mardi Gras prank since it included the one-word caption “Satire!”

Strache repeated that defense on Wednesday, and also unexpectedly heaped praise on Wolf, who is known for his muscular interviewing style.

“I also hold Armin Wolf in high regard ... Every interview with him is a delight,” Strache said, adding: “He treats everyone relatively equally and fairly and objectively.”

He did not comment directly on the civil case that ORF filed against him after Wolf’s -- an unprecedented move in Austria’s post-war democracy.

While Strache said some of ORF’s journalists were “excellent”, he said he still wanted to scrap the license fee and replace it with direct funding from the government that would come with “efficiency” requirements.

Asked if he wanted a referendum on the license fee, Strache said: “That is my wish.” He added, however, that much would depend on Kurz’s party, which has said little about its plans.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Gareth Jones