Natascha Kampusch: 400 interview requests - that was just the start

Newspapers and broadcasters in Austria and beyond were falling over themselves in pursuit of fresh angles on the incredible story of Natascha Kampusch. Tony Paterson reports
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The Independent Online

At one of the innumerable Vienna press conferences given by the posse of police officers, psychiatrists, lawyers and media advisors guarding the kidnapped Austrian teenager Natascha Kampusch, a florid-faced tabloid reporter felt moved to ask last week: "Is there any evidence that Natascha fled her captor because her relationship with him had turned into an unhappy romance?"

The suggestion, which was of course instantly denied, betrayed much about the nature of the enormous media pressure that surrounded the 18-year-old in the two weeks since she escaped the pit beneath the suburban garage she was held prisoner in by her abductor for eight years.

Media pressure and above all the still unanswered question as to whether Natascha was sexually molested or even had a sexual relationship with Wolfgang Priklopil, the 44-year-old communications technician who held her prisoner, was the factor that ultimately pushed her on to the television screen last week for an interview watched by millions across the globe.

For as soon as Natascha turned up looking emaciated and ghostly white in the front garden of one of Priklopil's neighbours on 23 August after finally escaping, stories about an alleged sexual relationship with her captor began to emerge.

Policewomen who had interviewed her insisted that it was "inevitable" that Priklopil had sexually molested her during her ordeal. "Natascha the sex slave" was just one of the headlines splashed across the front pages of the Austrian press.

Natascha was reunited with her parents for little more than 36 hours after her escape. By that time more than 400 newspapers, magazines and television stations worldwide had lodged requests for interviews with her. Police responded by moving her to a secret safe house, where she was placed under the care of two psychiatrists and a lawyer. Desperate to escape the press, Natascha was obliged to disguise herself with dark glasses and a headscarf when she went for her first ice-cream since the age of 10 with one of her psychiatrists last week.

The only available photograph of Natascha was taken before she was kidnapped in 1998 when she was 10. As a result newspapers resorted to publishing computerised impressions of what she might look like eight years later. With the media also forced to rely on secondary sources such as leaked statements by police, interviews with her parents and psychologists' speculation, it was perhaps inevitable that the sex stories continued.

"We were faced with an impossible situation," admitted Dietmar Ecker, Natascha's media adviser, last week. "My initial response was to protect her, but a number of tabloid newspaper executives told me if you do that we'll send in our photographers. She wouldn't have been able to move without being pounced on by the paparazzi."

The development which spurred Natascha into making what has since been described as her extraordinary "pact" with the media occurred five days later. In an attempt to quash the sex stories, Natascha took the advice of her psychiatrists and advisers by going on the offensive with an open letter to the media. It opened with the words: "Dear reporters, dear journalists, dear world, I want to make it clear that I will not answer now nor at any time, any intimate questions about my life with Priklopil."

After that it was merely a matter of days before Natascha was persuaded to take the ultimate step of giving an interview in person. What followed was a series of highly lucrative deals involving ORF, the Austrian state broadcasting corporation, RTL, its privately run German rival, the Austrian Kronen Zeitung mass circulation newspaper and the Austrian magazine News.

Both News and Kronen Zeitung were anxious to outbid the latest arrival on the Austrian newspaper market, the tabloid Oesterreich (Austria) which hit the streets for the first time during the middle of the Natascha story last week and had been scooping its rivals with exclusive interviews with the girl's parents.

The established papers managed to outbid the newcomer by offering Natascha a lump sum of between €250,000 and €300,000 (£170,000-£205,000), and an extraordinary deal which will pay for her education, provide her with a flat and the prospect of a job as a trainee journalist on either of the two publications.

ORF, the national Austrian broadcaster, secured exclusive rights for a television interview that was broadcast last Wednesday, with Germany's RTL following an hour later. ORF insisted that it did not pay for the exclusive, but agreed to sell the interview on Natascha's behalf to other outlets including RTL, which is believed to have paid €100,000.

Christoph Feuerstein, the journalist who conducted the ORF interview with a white-coated psychiatrist in attendance, insisted last week that all the proceeds would go into a "Natascha Kampusch fund" to provide her with a financially secure future. The total amount Natascha is expected to receive comes to more than €1m - €600,000 from interview rights and around €660,000 from Austria's criminal injuries compensation board.

For Dietmar Ecker, Natascha's media adviser, his client's decision to go public is a major coup. Until last week, the 42-year-old public relations specialist was known only in Austria for his role as an adviser to the country's Social Democratic Party and as the man who helped the BAWAG trade union bank deal with a management scandal.

"When I agreed to become Natascha's media adviser, four days after her escape, I never imagined that it would turn into a global story of such proportions," Ecker said. "I think we have found the right journalistic approach. It's one which will give Natascha a proper framework over the coming years."

He has found it difficult to explain why Natascha Kampusch has become such a global story: "I have had countless discussions with newspaper executives, psychologists and psychiatrists about this. I think it's a mixture of male fantasy, the basic fear about being buried alive in a hole like that, but also the fact that someone can emerge from that hole like a phoenix from the ashes."