Austrian far-right leader pledges to take on public broadcaster

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s vice chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party pledged on Wednesday to force a shift in reporting standards at national broadcaster ORF, which he accuses of leftist bias, and to scrap the license fee that funds it.

FILE PHOTO: Austria's Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache addresses the media after a cabinet meeting in Vienna, Austria, January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Heinz-Christian Strache led the anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPO) to third place in a parliamentary election last year that was dominated by Europe’s migration crisis.

It is now a junior coalition partner to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (OVP), making Austria the only western European country where the far right is in power.

Since taking office in December, the government has announced cuts to benefits for refugees and for families with children in poorer countries, as well a push to hire more police.

In a speech to supporters, Strache touted those policies and singled out ORF for criticism, intensifying recent pressure on a favorite target. The government has pledged to reform ORF but left many details unclear.

“I can promise you one thing: I will ... do everything to ensure that ORF is reformed, finally becomes a public institution, finally reports objectively and in a neutral way, and that the coercive fee is done away with,” Strache said.

“That is one of my major goals in this government, and therefore I hope that I will be able to win over and convince the OVP ... I am thoroughly optimistic that it can and will happen.”

The FPO has long argued that ORF has a left-wing bias. The main board that oversees the organization’s work is mostly composed of political appointees, and the government nominates some of those board members directly. The current director general, Alexander Wrabetz, is a Social Democrat.

ORF is funded by a combination of advertising and a license fee similar to the one in Britain that funds the BBC.

Strache and other FPO figures recently condemned ORF for reporting on a meeting of transport ministers from Austria and neighboring countries without mentioning Austria’s transport minister and deputy FPO leader Norbert Hofer by name.

The bemusement at those attacks has extended to ORF’s main satirical TV show, which joked on Tuesday that the broadcaster should feel obliged to report Hofer’s every move.

Strache also prompted a feud with ORF’s star news presenter, Armin Wolf, with a Facebook posting on Tuesday that read, over a picture of Wolf: “There is a place where lies become news. That place is ORF.” Strache added a one-word caption: “Satire”.

Wolf, who is famed for his muscular interviewing style, has threatened to sue Strache, saying it is the first time a politician has accused him of lying. ORF chief Wrabetz demanded a clarification and apology.

ORF’s editors’ association said Strache’s posting was “a low” in his criticism of the broadcaster, adding: “Journalists are not political opponents ... There can be no objection to serious criticism of reporting. But personal attacks on journalists’ good reputation are inappropriate in a democracy.”

Strache said the posting was a prank to mark Mardi Gras, which is the peak of carnival season in German-speaking countries and is sometimes marked by absurd behavior.

“My contribution to Mardi Gras was clearly marked as satire,” Strache said.

Reporting by Francois Murphy