A Man For All Seasons

Private Eye is a British satirical magazine with lots of cartoons and some serious and distinguished journalism. In the current edition, the letter from … Our Own Correspondent column on page 18 comes from Vienna.

Private Eye

In truth, the column bothers me. It bothers me because I am not sure what the central message is mostly because it is full of supposition, hearsay, fantasy, jumbled facts, wild assertions, some entirely feasible, but not unique to Austria, and some just downright daft. It reminds me a little of the letters I used to write accompanying my CV when applying for jobs.

But most off all it bothers me because of the underlying narrative which alludes to certain characteristics of being an Austrian, as if these traits are somehow embedded in the deep social, moral and psychologically psyche of people I call friends and family. In these post-Asterix times of political correctness, inclusivity and cultural diversity, such pandering to lazy stereotypes, without first asking me, is unforgivable. So what is piquing my sensitive self?

The article begins with reference to one Gerhard Randa. If you have never heard of him don’t worry, although this may explain why Austrians started the year “with a curiously typical lack of interest that banker Gerhard Randa is finally to be investigated over allegations that he masterminded the spread of Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheme to the world”. I say this because most of the people I have spoken to about this lack of interest have also never heard of Gerhard Randa, least of all about any investigation (try right now to name the head of a large bank from more than a decade ago. In fact try to name a contemporary one). In any case I am not sure what a typical lack of interest might be, but it is January and it is ball season.

The article goes on: Gerhard Randa was “one of the country’s most powerful financial figures” (true); his bank owned 80% of firms on the Vienna stock exchange (not true); “Randa kept an iron control over the nation with his jobs carousel” (true but only the revolving door of politics and business not the nation); Randa was the accomplice of Lee Harvey Oswald (not true); Randa faked the moon landing (possibly true).

What it tells you, if nothing else, is that the story is mostly a non-story. Yet it serves as a feeble lead into what follows, namely turning a blind eye to corruption and the powerful. In any case, the allegation that he was somehow complicit with Madoff (see pyramid scheme, gullible investors and coke fuelled orgies – or was that Hollywood? I always get those two mixed up) is like claiming that as I teach British English, I am part of a global conspiracy to impose received pronunciation on the people of the world and then make them eat Marmite. Well, I might be.

The article then links financial wrong-doing (or stupidity) to political corruption (and the indifference this generated) citing first the case of disgraced former Austrian MEP Ernst “grease my palms” Strasser. In short, Strasser was caught with his financial pants down claiming he could influence policy for money. This was not disputed (in other countries this is called lobbying). But the mistake made by the media in rushing to convict Strasser was that such behaviour is only illegal if the money leads to a provable direct connection with a specific change in legislation (lobbying). And this didn’t actually happen which is why he was let ultimately let off the hook by a “technicality”. Clearly the actions of Strasser are the actions of reprehensible little toad (as is lobbying in all its forms and machinations) and he deserves to go in the stocks in front of St. Stephans to reassess his perspective on public opinion. But an example of a cynical attempt to protect politicians, as if this is something peculiar to Austria? Ich denke nicht.

I like a corruption scandal like the next man. It is why I read Private Eye. And although it often depresses the soul, it is sometimes necessary to peek into the dark recesses of the human condition if only to enable you to emerge the other side eager still to strive for fairness and justice for all. Well, not me, I prefer to sit on my arse and watch the darts, but you know what I mean. But then we get:

 “Austrians have managed to hide corruption in politics by giving MPs control of the prosecutors … who [the politicians] then issue orders on which politically sensitive cases will go ahead.”

This is partly true. The independence of the judiciary is questionable and judges are instructed, more or less, on which cases to proceed (all very Orwellian, your Honour). But is it specific to the Alpine republic? Unlikely. And as such the assertion, like the argument of the pub bore, lacks any qualification, balance and reason. But the inference is quite clear: that Austrians couldn’t care less. There is a culture of cover up and secret deals to protect the great and the good, everything is orchestrated behind closed doors, things are hushed up and heads, and some stomachs, are turned. And if a politician is caught with his fingers in the till, then they are quietly shipped off to Brussels and quietly forgotten, or their pension rights are suspended (the ultimate Austrian humiliation).

Of course, it is not the fact that these cases are mentioned or even singled out. But the choice of words and sentiment attest to something that politically motivated criminal or civil cases in Austria are quietly mothballed as if this is something exclusive to Austria. And it is this allusion that bothers me. More so because protection of politically sensitive individuals has been a feature of democratic societies since democracy was invented (the alternative was execution or banishment).

But our writer is not finished, citing a culture of “looking the other way”, particularly in relation to criminals – linking this to the over-protection of a criminal’s rights – and concluding such behaviour is hangover from the extermination of Jews. This is exemplified by the right of suspects to remain anonymous and “wanted posters are issued with the faces pixelated”, we are informed. The pixellation is true but only after the identity of a suspect has been established by the police. Why? In short, it is about basic rights and presumption of innocence which attempts to minimise pre-judgement and undue influence on any ensuing court case. You may not agree with such an approach and you may be from the ‘ask no questions, lock ‘em up, throw way the key and switch off the WI-FI’ school of retributive justice. But remember, a suspect is only a suspect where assumption of innocence, prior to a verdict, is a common feature of all advanced, democratic states. Crazy and liberal I agree, but universal.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. Take Josef Fritzl, mentioned in the article, or “Mr F as he was known here to protect his privacy”. His identity was well-known. But in the article this isn’t the problem. It is the fact that his neighbours didn’t notice anything and this being Austria “even incestuous kidnappers are entitled to secrecy and we shouldn’t ask too many questions.” Now, if I remember correctly, Fritzl got life and they really did throw away the key. Moreover, I can’t remember one single abduction, imprisonment, incest (most recently in the United States) or serial killer case where neighbours played any role in alerting authorities to alleged crimes. Seemingly, turning a blind eye is a universal trait. People see what they want to see which is mostly nothing (Viennese drivers understand this implicitly). But if you want an example of institutionalised “Crime? What crime?” then look no further than the inquiry into to Jimmy Saville and the venerable BBC in the UK. And he wasn’t the only one.

Which leads us to a culture of “anonymous denunciation” (to the police) as the writer terms it. Paradoxically, this has EVERYTHING to do with not turning a blind eye, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story. That said it does exist. I have been on the receiving end of it and it is infuriating and petty (strategic revenge is essential). But I have experienced it everywhere because I am anti-social and a public menace.

Nevertheless, there are some important points. Firstly, since man started coveting his neighbour’s wife and stash of nuts, diverse societies of all shapes and sizes have displayed a pre-disposition to denunciation (we call them informers). I come from Britain, a large family, and I was ratting on my brothers the moment I could speak (and I doubt there is not a person amongst us that has never, at some point, been a grass in some form or another). In addition, other countries – like the UK – are equally geared up for covert censure. They have “benefit cheat” or “crime-watch” hotlines where people can effectively pass on information incognito. In fact, in serious criminal cases, the identities of some witnesses are deliberately kept under wraps to protect against reprisals or intimidation. But tragically still, in spite of all this, the writer fails to mention that since the start of the year “whistleblower” legislation has been a part of EU law. So it seems that Austria is way ahead of the pack anyway. But of course, this evident Austrian predilection to inform on neighbours is what drove in part the horrors of the Holocaust (according to a quote used in the article). This fondness for anonymous allegation obviously didn’t exist before the Holocaust, but still. All that matters is it is seemingly rampant today and buried deep in the Austrian soul.

You would think that a writer who highlights and denounces some of the deficiencies of a nation (especially “anonymous denunciation”) would reveal themselves. But no. It seems anonymity is not an exclusive trait of the Austrian neighbour. With this in mind, my neighbour has seemingly parked his car two inches over our driveway. Time to phone the Stasi.

© RJ Barratt 2014

Ps – update on delightful Ernst Strasser (see above) ex Austrian interior minister, EU parliamentarian and lobbyist. You remember. Caught on camera by the Sunday Times  with his fingers in the envelope marked “cash for influence” only for him to claim he was attempting a “sting” on the newspaper. The Austrian supreme court changed their mind this year and in October 2014 his conviction for corruption was upheld and he was sentenced to three years in the slammer.

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