A Small Step for Austrian Media Accountability

February 4, 2011 • Ethics and Quality • by

For the first time since 2001, Austria joins the majority of European nations in implementing a Press Council.

Unfortunately, this particular Press Council faces the same problems that plagued its predecessor. In 1961 the Austrian Newspaper Association and the Union of Journalists established the first Austrian Press Council, yet over the decades to follow it failed to keep abreast with developments in the media world. From the beginning it met with several limitations. The Council’s 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 Councils’ 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 byproducts (including websites). However, participation among the Austrian news organizations is not obligatory. Membership organizations include 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 from 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 an increase of ombudspersons to advise potential plaintiffs on whether they should seek legal redress or submit a complaint to the Press Council.

On the downside, much criticism has been directed at the Press Council’s structure as well as its complaint proceedings. For starters, there are neither incentives nor sanctions encouraging media houses to abide by the Press Council’s regulations. At present, it remains unclear how many and which newspapers and magazines will accept the new Press Council. Additionally, the complaints senates are dominated by lawyers rather than by journalists. Plaintiffs are required to refrain from seeking legal redress, which may serve as 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, p.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.

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