Donald Trump revoked a pesky CNN reporter's White House press pass this week. That kind of punitive action against the media would be unthinkable in Germany, where journalists invite the politicians to press conferences.
At Wednesday's marathon White House press conference, Donald Trump thundered at CNN journalist Jim Acosta: "You are a rude, terrible person." Acosta got under Trump's skin by asking critical questions. The result: The White House revoked Acosta's press accreditation, barring him from future press appointments.
The BPK: Where critical questions can't be avoided
The German chancellor also invites journalists to the Federal Chancellery. They need accreditation to attend and the administration decides who gets to pose questions. But there is also another institution that holds press conferences in Berlin and it is in the business of making sure that politicians cannot simply ignore critical questions: The Federal Press Conference, or BPK.
An association with 900 members
The BPK is located in an office building just a few hundred meters from the Chancellery. Its trademark blue conference hall is on the second floor. That is where journalists speak with politicians. What is special about the BPK is that it is a registered association. It has roughly 900 members, all of them journalists. The only condition for membership is that applicants must be professional members of the press who report on the federal government.
Journalists run the show
Speakers from the Chancellery and other government ministries come to the hall three times a week to discuss the administration's activities. The sessions are moderated by a BPK journalist. In other words: Government officials do not decide who gets to ask what questions, journalists do. And politicians promise to answer every one of those questions. Beyond those three regular sessions with government spokespeople, ministers themselves often make their way to the BPK, especially when they want to present important new legislation. Germany's political parties, labor unions and representatives from its churches are also regular guests. The only rule is that the journalists are always in charge.
Politicians and the BPK
That doesn't automatically mean that the Federal Press Conference is an El Dorado of media activity. Sessions with government spokespeople are often boring affairs attended by dwindling numbers of journalists. Often only a handful of reporters even bother to show up. Spokespeople give evasive answers and are not always well-informed. Even follow-up questions can fail to coax much new information out of them. And politicians have their own way of dealing with the BPK. The disdain that Green Party politician and former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer held for the BPK was legendary, and he was rarely seen in the conference hall. Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, shows up for more than an hour at least once a year. On those occasions the hall is filled to capacity.
A propaganda mouthpiece
One reason many journalists do not bother attending the question and answer sessions is that they are often broadcast live to media outlets across Berlin, so the press can follow what is being said right from their desks. That is extremely practical for reporting but it obviously does not contribute to a culture of lively discussion.
Interior Minister Seehofer has been forced to answer tough questions about his testy relationship with Merkel at the BPK
Another thing that perturbs journalists is the fact that colleagues from the Russian state channel RT have recently made a point of regularly attending the BPK. There they confront government representatives and politicians with abstruse conspiracy theories: Isn't Germany fighting alongside evil Western powers in Syria? Is the German government secretly supporting fascists in Eastern European countries and in Ukraine? Evasive and uninformative replies from stone-faced representatives are often the result of the ritual. The BPK recently made an appeal to domestic correspondents, asking them to show up in greater numbers as a way to counter the presence of RT. That is the only way to hedge their influence because they cannot formally be denied access. Like everyone else, RT reporters are Berlin-based journalists.
Images of prominent politicians descending the staircase to the foyer at the BPK are a common sight in Germany
A famous staircase
Still, the conference hall is often the site of lively discussion and a symbol for press freedom. For instance, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who has been locking horns with Chancellor Merkel over immigration policy for months — despite the alliance between their respective conservative parties — appeared at the BPK several times this year. And he had to face a number of uncomfortable questions directed at his own political actions during those sessions. It is at such moments that images typical for the BPK flash across German TV screens: Politicians ascending the long staircase that leads from the foyer to the conference hall and then descending it after having been grilled. But no matter how angry they may get with journalists, they simply don't have the power to rob them of their accreditation, unlike Donald Trump.