It says something about the modern relationship between a city, its citizens and its political servants when the Bundeskanzler (the chancellor of Austria), seven of his ministers of state (including foreign, finance and health) the parliamentary president, all the opposition party heads, the mayor of Vienna (and his Taliban gimp the vice-mayor), most of the Viennese city government, the politically powerful heads of the states of Upper and Lower Austria, the archbishop of Vienna, captains of industry, business elites, cultural shakers, media chiefs and other reprobates seen on television or members of what one might cagily call “high society”, congregate at one of Vienna’s preeminent and stunning architectural icons – Prince Eugene’s momentous Belvedere Palace – to celebrate the tenth birthday of a free daily newspaper.
In the number one city there are two free Zeitungen of any note, or only one if I was being mean: ten year old Heute; and Österreich, written for ten year olds. Österreich (meaning Austria) is more comic than serious news journal. It doesn’t so much as inform but shout, adopting the triple axis of scare journalism with its big fonts, lots of pictures and colourful charts. It is in every sense a rag (known locally as the yellow press) awash with sensationalism, exaggeration and scare-mongering. Read it and, as you scan the pages, you can feel the will to live being sucked through your eye-sockets. Indeed, whenever I travel by public transport with the children, one of my favourite games is to pick up a discarded copy, usually stuffed down beside the seat, and wave it in their direction. The shrieks of terror as they recoil as if tormented by a pair of abandoned underpants is all you need to know.
Heute, on the other hand, but not much, is generally more restrained sporting the Bond inspired strap-line “Kein Morgen ohne Heute” (No tomorrow without today). It contrives to appear serious but superficial with an international section (WeltHeute), politics (PolitikHeute), the economy (WirtschaftsHeute) and national news (yes, OsterreichHeute). There is always a half-naked woman, sometimes topless, and occasionally a male model – the male model is generally topless but not a half-naked woman. There is sport, TV, quite a lot on Vienna and plenty of the usual guff framed around the suspiciously dubbed “Szene” which involves the kinds of people who are jurors in talent shows or previous contestants in talent shows.
Experts will know that it is a large part of tabloid mission to peddle fantasy. Yet you require an inventive fantasy, an imaginative vision that may not exist on this planet, to envisage both these publications as examples of quality print or online media. They are not at the vanguard of investigative journalism pushing the accountability of those charged with expediting our collective will. Neither are they respected journals with a peerless reputation for objective, well-sourced social, economic and political commentary (like this blog).
In truth, if truth were absolute, they are smudgy, oily, diminutive and gratis and no one of sane mind admits to reading them with anything but a sense of triviality and self-deprecating mortification. Yet they are far from impotent. Heute is effectively the unofficial mouthpiece for the city of Vienna, an arrangement orchestrated through advertising (keeps the presses rolling) and upbeat coverage about the Vienna project (keeps the people from revolting). Although it means the taxpayer effectively funds a private newspaper over which they have little editorial control. Nevertheless, in the case of Heute it is independent enough with sufficient clout and millionaire backing to give the capital of Austria and its rich regional partner – Lower Austria – a bit of an editorial fright now and again. And obviously insist they come to their party, pay homage and play musical statues.
So why is this important? And what does it say about the relationship between a city, its citizens and political wallahs we alluded to at the start? To understand with must revert to cliché* and where better than the gutter itself.
In celebration of its illustrious tenth decade cluttering up public space with their discarded copies, headlined by the rather over-optimistic words “Fest des Jahres”, Heute treated its readers to an eight-page photo spread the following morning (last Friday). Now I don’t know about you but the sight of a phalanx of sycophants, blaggers and flunkies all fake smiles and self-importance posing for the camera like love struck simpletons at a school prom is not really my concern, even if it caused me to open the window on the tram to alleviate my queasiness. Society is full of illusory elites desperate for illegitimacy, recognition and reassurance about their place in the wider world (usually a very small pond). It is a part of modern life and the number one city is not impervious which I accept with good grace and an internal promise to check the palms of their hands come the revolution. As such, we should not to be too quick to censure and intellectually sanction people / society for its collective insecurities, cultural foibles and celebrity obsessed miscreations. Certainly not in a capital city synonymous with historical melancholy and a humour so dark it has its own plot at the Zentralfreidhof.
In truth, what disturbs more than anything, even more than the inexorable revival of lederhosen, the music of Andreas Gablier or the recent fifth marriage of Richard Lugner, is the demoralising acquiescence of key Austrian politicos, all anxious and vain, dancing to the tune of the media big-band, keen to be seen circle-jerking with the very press which seeks to destroy or enthrone them. And a crap, malevolent press at that. In short, it is a crushing sight. Even on a Friday.
Yet these pictures are telling. They are an (un)easy and thunderous reminder that beyond the baroque elegance and chest-thumping rhetoric of life quality, meritocracy and the rest (some of it exceptional) that so much of Vienna – and Austria – is determined by political affiliation and a few kingmakers aided by a vacillating press. In other words a non–fictitious elite stinking of political affiliation which brings a dichotomy of stability (few new faces) but almost an impossibility to reform or challenge the status quo (due to no new faces). And it supersedes every facet of public life. Positions of influence in all public bodies, broadcasting, all levels of education, financial regulation, banks, courts, business agencies, the police, utility providers and public transport. In itself this is more than disheartening even without the glossy faces and bogus grins of the great, the good and the godforsaken beaming at me from a media source that is at best, as my children would say, a bit cacky.
In any case, it reminds me momentarily of the one policy from the former FPÖ head Jorg Haider which I had any real sympathy for. Back in the day, around the turn of the century, Jorgy promised to break the tradition of Proporz in Austria. This is a system where positions in business and public life were (are) carved up by the conservatives and social democrats, effectively excluding anyone without a party-pass-book. The only problem was that when the FPÖ came to power as part of the ruling collation with the conservatives in 2000 and 2003, they turfed out all the socialist bozos and re-coloured all the positions with their own cronies. So clearly they hadn’t thought it through.
[Interior scene that may or not be a gay club]
Jorg Haider: “So, central to our campaign is the inequity and undemocratic nature of Proporz?”
FPÖ advisor (tanned and well-groomed): “Ja!”
Jorg Haider: “And when we come to power we kick out all the commies and replace them with our own boys?”
FPÖ advisor (tanned and well-groomed): “Ja!”
Jorg Haider: “Es ist Ausgezeichnet!”
That said I once got quite a lot of work for innocently declaring I was a member of the Chamber of Commerce (Conservative) in Vienna. So I am culpable although I only did so because I thought it would look good on my business letters and was not, at the time, aware of any possible repercussions. Nevertheless, one of the keys to success in my business is to be a political chameleon (elastic ethics and ability to never take sides is also a bonus). Not that anyone is truly interested in what you think.
Anyway, I look at these pictures as I traverse a city that continues to beguile even in the throes of middle age where convention dictates I should be grumpy and ask myself, so what? Is it really relevant or important that politicians – even some of the progressive ones – display such a fervent yearning to be seen sipping from the poisoned chalice of legitimacy even when the conveyor of such approval is tendered by a wee newspaper? Perhaps. But it is a useful reminder that much of modern politics, like your presence on social media, is about vanity first and fear second.
But who cares? As long as Marihilferstrasse gets some nice new paving stones and we get to vote on the colour of the new underground line (turquoise if you are interested) then why should it matter? Vienna has the Eurovision song contest in 2015. More babies were born in 2012 than in any year since 1969 (I have done my bit and can looking forward to my pension). By 2029, five years earlier than forecast, the population of the number one city will once again hit two million (the last time was before the break up of the Empire). Vienna is growing. Vienna is booming. Vienna is open for business, except on Sundays and public holidays.
But the lesson is damming: join a party if you want to progress in business or public life in Vienna. Either that or you had better make friends at Heute and hope they show your best side! Cheek to cheek.
*We are often told a “picture speaks a thousand words”. This would be true if evolution had not deemed it necessary to evolve spoken language. Linguists are unsure about the specific timeline for this and why but there is a body of evidence suggesting that spoken language first developed in Steinzeit Wien when it became clear cave paintings could not satisfactorily communicate whinging.
© R J Barratt 2014