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Thursday, 25 October 2012

Public media or state media? Political influence on German broadcasting networks

Today, the spokesman of the Bavarian conservative party CSU (Christlich Soziale Union = Christian Social Union) resigned from his post after an incident that conspicuously reminded of state controlled media in authoritarian countries. Hans Michael Strepp, spokesman of the CSU since 2006, was accused for having called the public broadcasting channel ZDF and demanding not to broadcast a report about the party convention of the CSU’s political counterpart, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

To understand the dimension of this unusual step, we first have to understand the German media system. What we do have in Germany is a system of publically funded broadcasting networks. The two major public TV-networks – ARD and ZDF – are both, unlike the private networks, not only funded through public assets and fees, but also supervised by public institutions. Therefore, there is a notable number of high ranked German politicians who are also members to the governing bodies of these networks. The purpose of this political presence in German media is to ensure neutral, politically balanced, and above all sincere quality news and broadcasting coverage. To ensure even a wider public representation in the networks, some boards’ seats are also held by members of the federal states, and of the three major religious communities.

Since party members have a genuine interest in the broadcasting contents, they are keen to impose some “influence” to the broadcasting and journalism activities of the networks. Like this, the board is able to have an influence on the filling of important posts with “party loyal” journalists and editors. This has a profound effect on the neutrality of the networks, as critics have repeatedly stated for the past years.

The concept of media controlled by the government or by single parties is not new and it is a common conduct in authoritarian states – past and present ones. So far, the German media landscape remained relatively free from significant and exaggerated party intervention, even though their governing bodies are marked by massive party presence – especially by the Conservatives and the Social Democrats. But now, after this incident of attempted “media manipulation”, the opposition and smaller parties compared this act as an attempt to control media and bring all news coverage in accordance to party guidelines. The German Minister of Development and Economic Cooperation, Dirk Niebel from the Liberal Party (FDP), compared the political system of Bavaria with an authoritarian developing country. The Green Party even went a step further in its criticism by comparing the CSU as an absolutistic party.

Even more, the CSU as the ruling party in the federal state of Bavaria is facing a severe reputation loss and it might have a negative effect for next year’s regional elections. The CSU was hoping to regain its absolute majority in the Bavarian regional parliament, a majority the CSU has been used to for decades; and the polls have so far indicated an absolute majority. Now, with this media trouble starting up, the targeted absolute majority is in danger.

Also, the CSU is known for a more right wing bias in the German party system. Being only represented in the federal state of Bavaria, the CSU enjoys a unique reputation and is considered as the conservative back-bone of the conservative union (CDU/CSU) – also because the CSU in terms of ideology is more of a right wing party than the CDU as such. That gives the CSU and its leaders quite a weight in German politics, and Bavaria considers itself as the most powerful of all the 16 federal states – in economic, financial, and political terms. It also has a strong influence in the Federal Council (Bundesrat), the second legislative chamber of the German governmental system that represents the interests of the 16 federal states.

The question remains: did the former spokesman call the ZDF editors after having received an “order” by his party superiors, or did he act unilaterally?
Bavarian Prime Minister and chairman of the CSU, Horst Seehofer, claimed that he had not the slightest idea about Strepp’s call to ZDF until ZDF editors made an announcement that Strepp has intended to prevent a broadcast about the SPD’s party convention. Now, Seehofer describes this action as inexcusable and unacceptable. But no matter if Strepp has acted unilaterally or not, the damage for the CSU is immense, and the timing couldn’t be any worse – specifically in the view of the approaching election in Bavaria and the general parliamentary elections in Germany next year.

What happened these days in Germany – and most likely will go on covering the front pages – was a warning signal to German media as a whole and the general public, and a message: it is a message that media has to be kept free of any intervention through parties or any governmental institution. The time has come to reconsider the public media system in Germany, and it would be required to keep the governing bodies and the editorial structures free of any party influence – conservative, social democratic, liberal, etc. As long as political parties are represented in the board of directors and have an influence on the contents of broadcasting and news feeds, there won’t be a truly free media in Germany. Unfortunately, this system has been in existence since the end of World War 2 and has been regarded as a stabilization and monitoring tool. But in the long-term it caused a negative image about the public broadcasting networks for being too bureaucratic, too inefficient, and not independent enough. German media politics has proven itself to be old-fashioned and inflexible towards necessary changes, but now it has received a wake-up call.

Ironically, ZDF editors marked Strepp’s action as a severe breach of the freedom of the press and underline the necessity and importance of free media – knowing that the parties do have a significant weight in editorial work. Maybe this was a desperate call from some free thinking journalists.

However, everyone knowing Germany’s “enthusiasm” for fundamental changes won’t expect a complete U-turn, not even in media.

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