‘Anonymous grumbles and farts’: How a media firestorm has engulfed the Austrian Green party’s lead candidate

Lena Schilling, a 23-year-old a former climate activist, has found herself at the center of a weeks-long assault by the Austrian news media as the EU elections get under way.
Lena Schilling, the Austrian Green party’s lead candidate and a former climate activist, has found herself at the center of a weeks-long media storm.

By Valeriya Safronova

Valeriya Safronova is a Vienna-based reporter covering the arts, gender and news

06 Jun 2024

In the run-up to the European elections, a debate has been raging in Austria – over a 23-year-old candidate’s text messages.  

Lena Schilling, the Austrian Green party’s lead candidate and a former climate activist, has found herself at the center of a weeks-long media storm, after a news story in Der Standard – a leading national newspaper – accused her of texting a friend late last year that she “hated no one as much as the Greens.”  

Der Standard also quoted texts from January in which Schilling apparently wrote that she planned to toe the party line until she was elected the lead candidate in February, after which the Greens wouldn’t be able to “do anything anymore, muhahha.” Context added by other publications revealed a young woman ruminating and joking with friends about whether she truly belonged with the Greens as a leftist activist. 

Der Standard wrote that Schilling “is said to have discussed with several people” the idea of switching from the Greens to the Left group in the European Parliament if she were to win a seat in the upcoming elections. Schilling categorically denied this.   

“The whole election campaign has become about this one thing,” said Iris Bonavida, a politics reporter at Profil, an Austrian news magazine. “I hear a lot of people who struggle with the idea of voting for her now.”   

It’s unfortunate that in times of crucial decisions, we are talking about rumors and accusations.

In an earlier round of allegations, Der Standard had accused Schilling of having a “problematic relationship with the truth,” claiming that she invented allegations about others, gossiped, and was disliked by people in activist circles. 

In the wake Der Standard’s reporting, Schilling has been dubbed by the Austrian tabloids as “Lying Lena,” has had doubt cast over her mental health, and been asked repeatedly whether she will resign as the Greens’ lead candidate. German news magazine Der Spiegel has described the story as a cross between a “soap opera and ‘House of Cards’” and referred to Schilling as “Gossip Girl.”  

After Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen defended Schilling on May 14, Harald Vilimsky, an Austrian MEP (ID), called him a “sugar daddy.”  

“It’s unfortunate that in times of crucial decisions, we are talking about rumors and accusations,” Schilling told The Parliament in an email. She added that the explosion of coverage has led to a “fundamental debate” about how much of a politician’s private life can and should be made public.  

She also questioned whether the information was dredged up because she is a young woman competing against mostly older men. “These are important discussions, but they are being conducted at the wrong time,” Schilling wrote.  

Though the first Standard article, which focused on Schilling’s character, relied mostly on anonymous sources and ambiguous quotes, various media outlets in Austria picked up its main assertions and ran with them, thrusting Schilling under a harsh spotlight. Der Standard’s second round of allegations, featuring the texts, spread just as quickly, though the private messages were printed with little context. 

The wildfire of gossip left many observers perplexed about the scrutiny, while questioning what precisely Schilling had done wrong.  

“Overall, the whole thing is definitely weird,” says Jakob-Moritz Eberl, an election researcher at the University of Vienna. “If you just look at how difficult it is for journalists or political experts to wrap their heads around it, that shows how weird it is.”  

He adds: “Though the information tells us something about the candidate and her character and is, of course, information that could be relevant to voters, we seem to have put this on the same level as scandals in the past, which were about corruption, misuse of public funds, and selling out the government and media to foreign countries.” 

Despite the media’s fixation, the so-called Schilling affair has not had much of an impact on the Greens’ standing. In the Austrian Press Agency’s overview of the latest polls, the party was tied with the Neos in fourth place and expected to garner about 9 to 14 per cent when Austrians vote on Sunday, compared with roughly 12 per cent in November. The party is trailing the right-wing Freedom Party, which is leading the polls at around 30 per cent, as well as the center-left Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party.   

As some of the frenzy has died down and the dust has settled, the case has raised questions about journalistic ethics, the use of anonymous sources, and the boundaries between public and private in the lives of politicians.  

“We don’t have that many young people, especially young women, who go into politics,” said Ines Vukajlović, a member of Lower Austria’s state parliament and a Green candidate in the European Parliament elections. Vukajlović added that she finds it “worrying and a little bit scary” how deeply the reporting targeted Schilling’s private life. “The message that we as a society are sending is: ‘Don’t go into politics.’” 

The editor-in-chief of Der Standard has asserted that “every comma, every sentence has been legally checked and is provable.” But many sentiments in the story – such as “underage fellow activists expressed the feeling that Schilling had played them off against each other to cement her own power” – are difficult to prove.   

As the affair has unfolded, the response from the Green party leadership has only fanned the flames. Werner Kogler, the vice chancellor of Austria and the head of the Austrian Greens, has called Der Standard’s reporting “anonymous grumbles and farts.” And the party’s secretary general, Olga Voglauer, used one press conference to accuse the Social Democrats of spreading the rumours about Schilling. Both Kogler and Voglauer later apologized.  

Meanwhile, the Austrian Press Council, a regulatory body, has stepped in and scheduled a hearing for this month.  

Der Standard said they talked with more than 50 people and checked and rechecked, and they learned so much that they couldn’t not write this story,” says Profil’s Bonavida. “But a lot of journalists have still said the story wasn’t fit for print.” 

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