Germany is caught up in a fresh debate on whether politicians are trying to influence the media. In the current case, a politican tried stop a public broadcaster from reporting on an opposition party conference.
A new scandal is muddying the waters in Germany. Hans Michael Strepp, spokesman for the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Chancellor Merkel's conservatives, is said to have called up editors of the public broadcaster ZDF asking them not to cover the party conference of their political competitors, the Bavarian Social Democrats. An attempt to influence the public broadcaster? Strepp dismisses the allegations. All just a misunderstanding?
The exact details of the phone call remain unclear. But the call itself and the resignation of the spokesman clearly show that once again a politician has crossed a line – and apparently learned nothing from the examples of former German President Christian Wulff who had to resign because - among other things - he had tried to prevent the mass circulation daily Bild from publishing a less than flattering story about him. And since the Wulff incident, the media has become even more alert toward possible attempts to influence them.
A "clumsy" attempt
The CSU is trying hard to clear up the scandal - "in the coming weeks," as party chairman Horst Seehofer said. The press spokesman got himself out of the firing line for now by stepping down from his post. But that doesn't mean the discussion is over. "What the spokesman most likely has done, is absolutely not acceptable," Hendrik Zörner of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV) told Deutsche Welle. "This was a massive attempt to curb freedom of the press."
The attempt was "very clumsy," agreed Stephan Weichert, professor with the Macromedia University for Media and Communication in Hamburg. "Let's be straight here. There always have been and always will be attempts to influence the media. If we take a look behind the politics and media in Berlin, we see that there have always been alliances and collaboration." This has become somewhat normal, he added, with some being more sophisticated about it than others. "Both are very damaging for freedom of the press," he warned.
The current case though should not be overrated. While it is bad enough, it is not something that happens on a daily basis, said Zörner. Germany is a democracy where freedom of the press is firmly enshrined. The public understanding of freedom of the press has also improved over the years. "Since the Spiegel affair 50 years ago, there has been a broad public awareness condemning such attempts to influence the press." In October 1962, editors of the news magazine Spiegel had been accused of treason for reporting all too critically. The scandal in the end strengthened freedom of the press in the country.
Barbara Thomass, a Media expert and former member of the ZDF board of directors, sees something positive in the current case in Bavaria. "It reassures me that there is such a broad disgust in the public. It shows that this is a sensitive issue. And that's the good thing about this regrettable case."
ZDF is a public broadcaster - on the network's board are politicians from all the major political parties. So how can the independence of a broadcaster be maintained when politicians abuse their influence? The DJV has a clear answer: "We call for fewer politicians to be on the supervisory boards of public broadcasters," said Zörner. And it's something the DJV is fighting for not only since the current case came to light. "We have been doing this ever since the contract of former ZDF editor-in-chief, Nikolaus Bender, was not renewed due to pressure from the Hesse State Premier Roland Koch [in 2009]. Back then it was already clear that politicians every now and then try to intervene in the internal affairs of an independent broadcaster. That's just not acceptable."
Barbara Thomass is concerned about the current development of the media. "There are several studies suggesting that there is pressure and influence put on journalists, be it through more subtle methods, or as clumsy and open as in the current case. Journalists are experiencing such attempts quite often."