Corruption allegations rock German public broadcasters | Germany | In-depth news and reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW

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It’s a whole catalog of allegations made against Patricia Schlesinger. Until recently, she was both the director of the regional public broadcaster RBB (Radio Berlin Brandenburg) and the rotating chairman of ARD, Germany’s vast and powerful national network of nine regional broadcasters and Deutsche Welle.

The scandal sparked a national debate and renewed calls for changes to public broadcasting in Germany, which is primarily funded by a mandatory monthly broadcasting fee of €18.36 (about $19) to be paid by each foyer.

Schlesinger resigned after accusations that included questionable use of funds, but also the controversial awarding of consultancy contracts.

RBB was founded in 2003 and is headquartered in Potsdam

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The allegations date back several weeks when the German-language news portal Business Intern wrote about “inconsistencies” in the business dealings of Schlesinger and her husband Gerhard Spörl.

This was a reference to a consultancy contract worth €100,000 ($103,000) for services rendered by Spörl to Messe Berlin – the organizers of the show in the German capital – and the fact that the The show’s CEO, Wolf-Dieter Wolf, also headed the board of Schlesinger’s broadcaster, RBB. Moreover, according to Business Internit was Wolf who provided personal support for Spörl to secure the controversial contract.

In the weeks that followed, these first revelations were followed by others. To begin with, it was Business Intern lead the probe. But they were soon joined by other outlets and the investigation began to focus on irregularities in construction projects involving the broadcaster.

coins on a royalty application form

All public broadcasters in Germany are financed by the license fee

A lavish lifestyle

During July, Schlesinger herself – once a popular foreign correspondent for ARD – became the center of attention.

It emerged that at the RBB, short of financial resources, she received 16% on top of a salary totaling €303,000. And an additional bonus of €20,000. She also attracted attention by using the services of chauffeurs for an expensive rental company car and with extravagant dinner parties at her private apartment. When the champagne was served, the bill would have been paid by his employers.

Earlier this month, 61-year-old Schlesinger stepped down as director of ARD – a move unprecedented in the broadcasting association’s more than 70-year history. Three days later, she also resigned as head of RBB. And just two days passed before it became clear that state prosecutors were investigating possible charges of embezzlement and personal benefit against her, her husband and Wolf, who responded by resigning. from his position as head of the RBB Board of Directors.

Attention has shifted to include the furious debate that has already been going on for years in Germany: the role and funding of public broadcasters in the country, in particular the influential national network ARD and television channel ZDF.

protester holding up a sign reading 'Lügen Presse' which translates to 'liar media'

Right-wing populist protesters routinely accuse established media of lying

The pros and cons of public broadcasting

This bitter discussion about the rights and wrongs of state-funded networks has been going on for decades. The political influence wielded by these stations is particularly controversial. It’s a debate that’s become more toxic in the wake of the COVID pandemic and the mistrust felt by many anti-vaxxers and opponents of restrictions, known as Querdenker (lateral thinkers) who vehemently oppose public media. , whom they accuse of pushing an agenda, distorting the facts and whom they consider part of the “political establishment”.

Private sector broadcasters have entered the German market since the mid-1980s and have worked to strengthen their role as what they see as an alternative to public broadcasters.

At a time when private media are facing budget cuts, and newspapers in particular are struggling to survive, many politicians argue that public broadcasters should also see their budgets slashed.

The same kind of thing is happening in France and the UK, where more and more politicians are questioning the very existence of strong and structured public broadcasters.

Viewers watch Tagesschau on an old, small television

ARD’s Tagesschau has long been Germany’s most popular news program

The public broadcaster system has a special significance in Germany. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, the Western Allies – the United States and the United Kingdom – set up new media structures in their respective zones of occupation. They promoted the creation of free and independent reporting on the creation of democratic political structures. The model was the British concept of a broadcasting station financed by license fees, which was not organized as a private company but has been independent of government. In 1950, ARD was incorporated as a network of regional public broadcasters. In 1961 the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) was founded as a competitor to the ARD, which conservative Chancellor Konrad Adenauer considered too critical of his government.

For years, regional broadcasters like RBB have imposed one cost-cutting measure after another, with many well-known programs, as well as number of employees.

Germany’s public broadcasters each have a broadcasting council and a board of directors that are responsible for overseeing content as well as financial matters. We now wonder why no one saw any reason to intervene at RBB.

In an interview with ARD’s flagship TV show Tagesthemen, Stefan Niggemeier, one of Germany’s most influential media journalists, spoke of the “tremendous” damage caused by the Schlesinger scandal. He also underlined that the debate on the structures of public service media in Germany had been going on for a long time and that he was sure that it would continue.

This article was originally written in German.

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

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