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Fake Polls and Tabloid Coverage on Demand: The Dark Side of Sebastian Kurz

todayOctober 17, 2021 13

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VIENNA — It seemed like a miracle. For years, Austria’s conservative party had languished far behind its rivals. Then in May 2017, the polls spectacularly reversed, giving the conservatives newfound credibility that helped them convince voters that they had a real chance of winning. Five months later, in elections, they did.

The man credited with the miracle was Sebastian Kurz. Only 31, well-dressed and well-mannered, with slick hair and even slicker social media slogans, he became Austria’s youngest-ever chancellor and formed a government with the far right.

Elected the same year President Donald J. Trump took office, Mr. Kurz was quickly seen in Europe as the poster boy of an ascendant right for a new generation, a political Wunderkind who had salvaged conservatism by borrowing the far right’s agenda, buffing it up and bringing it into the mainstream.

It seemed too good to be true. And, it turns out, it was.

Prosecutors now say that many polls before that election were falsified and that Mr. Kurz and a small cabal of allies with cultlike devotion to him paid off one of Austria’s biggest tabloids to ensure favorable news coverage. Once in power, prosecutors say, he institutionalized the system, using taxpayers’ money to elevate the appearance of his own popularity and punish journalists and media outlets that criticized him.

“What voters saw wasn’t real,” said Helmut Brandstätter, a former newspaper editor turned lawmaker who was bullied by Mr. Kurz and pressured to leave his job. “It was a scheme to influence elections and undermine democracy.”

“The image of the perfect politician, it was all fake,” Mr. Brandstätter said. “The real Sebastian Kurz is someone far more sinister.”

Mr. Kurz, who stepped down as chancellor on Oct. 9, has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime, but he remains under investigation for bribery and embezzlement. His downfall has reverberated across Europe, where many of the traditional center-right parties he once inspired are now in crisis.

In a month when journalists won a Nobel Prize for holding governments to account, Austria’s scandal has put a spotlight on the conspicuously symbiotic relationship between populist, right-wing leaders and sympathetic parts of the news media.

Mr. Kurz, prosecutors say, bought off Austria’s third-largest tabloid with over a million euros in bribes — disguised as classified advertising.

“Kurz has used many of the same methods as other national populists,” said Natascha Strobl, the author of “Radicalized Conservatism,” a book about the shift to the right of traditional conservatives. “The corrupt collusion with friendly media and the attempt to silence critical journalists is part of the toolbox.”

Prosecutors call Mr. Kurz “the central figure” in an elaborate scheme to manipulate public opinion that included several members of his inner circle, as well as two pollsters and two owners of the tabloid Österreich.

The case against him reads like a political thriller. In 104 pages, obtained by The New York Times, prosecutors meticulously document a secret plan to manipulate public opinion in order to win power and then cement their hold.

The subterranean tool of buying rigged opinion polling and media coverage is outlined in remarkable detail in chat exchanges recovered from the cellphone of one of Mr. Kurz’s closest allies and friends, Thomas Schmid.

Mr. Schmid held a series of senior posts in the Finance Ministry and went hiking with Mr. Kurz. He was one of a handful of loyal supporters who called themselves the “praetorians,” after the elite guard of Roman emperors.

Their devotion was seemingly absolute. “YOU ARE MY HERO!” Mr. Schmid wrote to Mr. Kurz in one of their many exchanges, and in another, “I am one of your praetorians who doesn’t create problems but solves them.”

The problem Mr. Kurz had in 2016 was that he was not the leader of his conservative People’s Party. He was foreign minister in an unpopular coalition government led by the center-left Social Democrats. In order to become chancellor, he had to take over his own party first.

So he started scheming with the praetorians.

The plan they drew up was called “Operation Ballhausplatz” — after the chancellery’s address in Vienna. One document outlined from “preparation” to “takeover” how Mr. Kurz’s rival atop the conservative party could be undermined with polls saying that “everything is better” with Mr. Kurz at the helm.

“Given the reluctance inside the party, Sebastian Kurz had to pursue his plan covertly,” prosecutors write, noting that the plan would “incur considerable costs, and that also made a cover-up of the financing inevitable.”

Mr. Schmid, in the Finance Ministry, had access to money. He made sure Mr. Kurz’s media budget in the Foreign Ministry got a significant boost, and he found ways to invoice for the covert polling that did not show up in official accounts, prosecutors say.

The mechanism he devised was simple: With Mr. Kurz’s help, Mr. Schmid recruited the conservative family minister, who had previously run a polling institute.

One of her former associates with close links to the owners of Österreich was put in charge of the polling. Mr. Kurz’s allies dictated the questions to ask. They then selected favorable results and often tweaked them further in support of Mr. Kurz’s leadership bid. Österreich was told when and how to write them up in return for regular placements of classified ads.

There were some early hiccups.

In June 2016, when Wolfgang and Helmuth Fellner, brothers whose family owns Österreich, failed to deliver an article about a favorable poll for Mr. Kurz, Mr. Schmid went ballistic: “We are really mad!!!! Mega mad.”

“I understand completely,” Wolfgang Fellner wrote back, “am now doing a full double page about the poll Wednesday. Okay?”

In December the same year, Mr. Schmid relayed some better news to Mr. Kurz in a chat message. Another poll had just hit the headlines showing the conservatives at a record low 18 percent, further undercutting Mr. Kurz’s rival.

“Thank you! Good poll,” Mr. Kurz replied.

Over time, the system was perfected. In January 2017, Österreich published not just a poll but an interview with the pollster, Sabine Beinschab, and used one of her quotes as the headline: The conservatives would “benefit from switching to Kurz.”

It was a line that had been fed to her by the praetorians.

“I told Beinschab yesterday what to say in the interview,” Johannes Frischmann, the spokesman of the finance minister and another member of Mr. Kurz’s inner circle, reported back to Mr. Schmid, who replied with a clapping emoji.

“I’ve never gone as far as we’re going,” Mr. Schmid wrote. “Brilliant investment. Fellner is a capitalist. If you pay, things get done. I love it.”

By early May, the conservative leader had resigned and Mr. Kurz was swiftly designated his successor. Almost immediately his party took off in the polls, and in the space of three weeks, catapulted Mr. Kurz into lead position.

It was around this time that Mr. Kurz also actively sought out meetings to pressure more critical journalists. In June 2017, he had dinner with Mr. Brandstätter, then the editor in chief of Kurier, one of the broadsheet newspapers.

“Why don’t you like me?” Mr. Kurz had asked repeatedly, Mr. Brandstätter recalled in an interview.

“You have to decide whether you are my friend or my enemy,” Mr. Kurz had said.

Mr. Kurz comfortably won the election in October 2017. He had run his campaign on immigration limits and Austrian identity, giving a youthful veneer to much of the agenda of the far right — and then inviting it into the government.

In the 17 months that followed, he turned a blind eye to the many racist and antisemitic transgressions of his coalition partners. When journalists, like Mr. Brandstätter, reported on them, they got phone calls from Mr. Kurz or a member of his expansive communications team.

“I got these calls all the time,” Mr. Brandstätter recalled. “Then he called the owners and then the owners called me.”

A year after Mr. Kurz took office, his newspaper leaned on Mr. Brandstätter to move out of his job and become publisher instead, a role with no editorial control. He is now a lawmaker for the libertarian Neos party.

Meanwhile, prosecutors say, Mr. Schmid continued to pay for polls and placed government ads with Österreich in return for favorable coverage. From mid-2016 until the first quarter of 2018, prosecutors said, the value of those ads came to at least 1.1 million euros, or about $1.3 million.

Then in May 2019, one of Austria’s biggest postwar scandals broke. An old video surfaced showing the most senior minister of the far-right Freedom Party in Mr. Kurz’s coalition promising government contracts to a would-be Russian investor in return for securing favorable coverage in a well-known Austrian tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung.

It turned out to be a setup. But the video made plain what the far right was prepared to do. What Austrians did not know was that their conservative chancellor was actually doing it.

The investigation into the video would eventually put prosecutors on the trail of Mr. Kurz and his praetorians.

After the video scandal blew up, Mr. Kurz swiftly ended his coalition with the far right.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “What is grave and problematic is the idea of abusing power, of using Austrian taxpayers’ money and of course the understanding of the media landscape in our country.”

Mr. Kurz won re-election and this time entered a coalition with the progressive Greens, a change that offered him the chance to take out the stain of his association with the far right.

What did not change, however, was Mr. Kurz’s elaborate system of message control.

Last June, after the Austrian magazine News wrote a critical article about Mr. Kurz’s conservatives, the Finance Ministry canceled all of its classified ads — not just in News, but across all 15 titles owned by the VGN publishing group.

The loss was around 200,000 euros, said Horst Pirker, VGN’s chief executive.

“All governments tried to get the important media onside,” Mr. Pirker explained in an interview. “But Kurz took it to a new dimension.”

Mr. Kurz, who remains the conservative party leader, is still hoping to return as chancellor. He has lashed out at the justice system, accusing prosecutors of being politically motivated. Lawmakers loyal to him speak of “red cells” and “leftist networks,” a sort of “deep state” fighting conservatism.

“It’s straight out of the illiberal playbook,” said Peter Pilz, the author of “The Kurz Regime,” a recently published book. “He is badly damaged and unlikely to recover. But if he does, we should all worry.”

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