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Corruption allegations shake German media

August 10, 2022

Big questions are again being asked about the future of Germany's public broadcasters after Patricia Schlesinger, director of Berlin's public broadcaster RBB, resigned over mismanagement charges.

Patricia Schlesinger
Patricia Schlesinger stepped down as RBB and as ARD directorImage: Paul Zinken/dpa/picture alliance

It's quite a catalog of allegations that have been leveled against Patricia Schlesinger. Until recently, she was both the director of the regional public broadcaster RBB (Rundfunk Berlin Brandenburg) and held the rotating chair of the ARD, Germany's vast and powerful nationwide network of nine regional broadcasters and Deutsche Welle.

The scandal has triggered a nationwide debate and fresh calls for changes to public broadcasting in Germany, which is financed mainly by a mandatory monthly broadcasting license fee to the tune of €18.36 (ca. $19) to be paid by each household.

Schlesinger stepped down after accusations that included a questionable use of funds, but also the controversial allocation of consultancy contracts. On Monday, August 14, the broadcasting council of the RBB officially initiated the termination of her contract. 

RBB building
RBB was founded in 2003 and is headquartered in PotsdamImage: Monika Skolimowska/dpa/picture alliance

Close connections

The allegations go back a number of weeks to when the German-language news portal Business Insider wrote about "inconsistencies" in the business dealings of Schlesinger and her husband, Gerhard Spörl.

It was a reference to a consultancy contract worth €100,000 ($103,000) for services rendered by Spörl to Messe Berlin — the German capital's trade fair organizers — and the fact that the CEO of the trade fair, Wolf-Dieter Wolf, was also head of the board of directors at Schlesinger's broadcaster, RBB. What's more, according to Business Insider, it was Wolf who gave his personal support so that Spörl would get the controversial contract.

In the subsequent weeks, these initial revelations were followed by others. To begin with, it was Business Insider leading the probe. But they were soon joined by other media outlets, and the probe began to focus on irregularities in construction projects involving the broadcaster.

coins on a license fee application form
All public broadcasters in Germany are financed by the broadcasting license feeImage: Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/dpa/picture alliance

A lavish lifestyle

In the course of July, Schlesinger herself — once a highly-regarded foreign correspondent for ARD — became the center of attention.

It emerged that at the financially-strapped RBB she had been awarded 16% on top of a salary that totaled €303,000, and a further bonus of €20,000. She also attracted attention by using the services of chauffeurs for an expensive rented company car and with extravagant dinners at her private apartment. When champagne was served, the tab was allegedly paid by her employers.

Earlier this month, the 61-year-old Schlesinger gave up her post as ARD director — a unprecedented move in the more than 70-year history of the broadcasting association. Three days later, she also stepped down as the head of RBB. And just two more days passed before it became clear that state prosecutors were looking into possible charges of embezzlement and taking personal advantage against her, her husband and Wolf, who has responded by stepping down from his position as head of the RBB board.

The focus shifted to include the furious debate that has already been taking place for years in Germany: the role and the funding of public broadcasters in the country, specifically the influential national ARD network and the ZDF TV channel.

Protester holding up a sign reading 'Lügen Presse' which translates as 'lying media'
Right-wing populist protesters regularly accuse established media of lyingImage: Daniel Kubirski/picture alliance

Pros and cons of public broadcasting

This bitter discussion over the rights and wrongs of publicly-funded networks has been fought for decades. The amount of political influence that these stations exercise is particularly controversial. It's a debate that has become more toxic as a result of the COVID pandemic and the mistrust felt by many opponents of vaccinations and pandemic restrictions, known as Querdenker (lateral thinkers) who violently oppose public media, which they accuse of pushing an agenda, distorting facts and whom they see as part of the "political establishment."

Private sector broadcasters have been entering the German market since the mid-1980s and pushed hard to boost their role as what they see as an alternative to public broadcasters.

At a time when private media have been facing cutbacks, and newspapers in particular are struggling to survive, many politicians argue that public broadcasters should also have their budgets reduced.

The same sort of thing is happening in France and the United Kingdom, where more and more politicians are questioning the very existence of strong and structured public-financed broadcasters.

Viewers watching Tagesschau on an old small TV set
The ARD's Tagesschau has long been Germany's most popular news programImage: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa/picture-alliance

The system of public broadcasters has a very special significance in Germany. After Nazi Germany was defeated in World War II, the Western Allies — the United States, France and the United Kingdom — set up new media structures in their respective occupation zones. They promoted the creation of free and independent reporting on the creation of democratic political structures. The model was the British concept of a license-fee-financed broadcasting station, which was not organized as a private enterprise but was independent of the government.

In 1950, the ARD was formed as a network of regional public broadcasters. In 1961, the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) was founded as a competitor to the ARD, which the conservative Chancellor Konrad Adenauer felt to be too critical of his government.

War, conflict and crises put a strain on free media — at a time when they are needed most

For years, regional broadcasters like RBB have pushed through one cost-cutting measure after the other, with many well-known programs being slashed, as well as the number of employees.

German public broadcasters each have a broadcasting council and board of directors who are tasked with overseeing content and also financial matters. Questions are now being asked as to why no one saw a reason to intervene at RBB.

In an interview with the ARD's flagship TV news show Tagesthemen, Stefan Niggemeier, one of Germany's most influential media journalists, spoke of the "immense" damage that the Schlesinger scandal had done. He also pointed out that the debate over Germany's public service media structures had been going on for a long time and was sure to continue.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C