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A small step for Austrian Media Accountability, but not more

The new Austrian Press Council was officially inaugurated in the end of January. Its responsibilities stretch over newspapers and magazines as well as their news websites. Because of ongoing conflicts the old Press Council had been closed in 2001. Even now media experts criticize the structure and the complaint proceedings of the new institution. On the other hand the introduction of ombudspersons is seen as a positive signal. Our MediaAcT experts Daniela Kraus and Klaus Bichler analyze the chances of success of the new institution.

For the first time since 2001 and as one of the last European countries, Austria has implemented a Press Council. However, it is fraught with similar issues as the old one.

In 1961 the Austrian Newspaper Association and the Union of Journalists established the first Austrian Press Council, but during the next decades it failed to keep abreast with the developments of the media world. From the beginning it had several limitations, e.g. its powers to enforce the journalistic Code of Conduct were very restricted, its attributions were hardly known to the public and major players either did not accept or did not discuss the Press Council’s verdicts. These shortcomings, along with the conflict between the Austrian Newspaper Association and the Press Council, ultimately led to its dissolution.

The new Press Council’s responsibilities stretch over newspapers and magazines and their additional products (including their websites). However, participation is not obligatory. Membership organizations are the Austrian Newspaper Association, the Union of Journalists, Press Club Concordia, the Association of Editors-in-Chief, the Association of Regional Media of Austria and the Austrian Magazine and Special Interest Magazine Association. The General Assembly will consist of 14 representatives of the member organizations.

On the upside, member organizations’ subscriptions will be topped by state press subsidies worth 150.000 Euro (according to the 2004 Press Promotion Act § 12a.). Another positive aspect might be the increase of ombudspersons who are advising potential plaintiffs before submitting a complaint to the Press Council.

On the downside, a lot of critique is directed at the structure as well as at the complaint proceedings. Firstly, there are neither incentives nor sanctions for media houses to submit themselves to the Press Council’s regulations. Up to now, it is unclear how many and which newspapers and magazines will accept the new Press Council. Secondly, the complaints senates are dominated by lawyers rather than by journalists. Thirdly, plaintiffs are required to refrain from seeking legal redress, which might turn out to be a strong limitation to the Press Council’s effectiveness.

The neglect of several success metrics for media self-regulation in Austria, as pointed out by the Austrian MediaAct Team earlier (see Gottwald/Kaltenbrunner/Karmasin 2006: 135ff.), may restrict the Press Council’s powers to enforce the journalistic Code of Conduct.

But, as one of the commentators pointed out: Even a toothless tiger can use his claws.

For further information see:

Medienhaus Wien

Austrian Press Council

• Gottwald, Franzisca/Kaltenbrunner, Andy/Karmasin, Matthias (2006): Medienselbstregulierung

zwischen Ökonomie und Ethik. Erfolgsfaktoren für ein österreichisches Modell. Wien: Lit Verlag.

Authors: Daniela Kraus, Klaus Bichler, Photo: citronenrot OG

MediaAct News – February 03, 2011

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MediaAcT is a comparative research project on media accountability systems in EU member states as indicators for media pluralism in Europe.

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