For those unfamiliar with German domestic politics, the country’s media landscape is greatly dominated by taxpayer-funded media networks ARD and ZDF. Everyone in Germany has to pay to run these two behemoths through mandatory fees, a fact that conservatives have grown increasingly frustrated with since the apparent left-wing bias on both networks has grown stronger every year.
Now, a series of corruption scandals is opening the door for conservatives to go on the offensive. Under Angela Merkel, it is hard to imagine a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician willing to speak up against these powerful media empires. After all, talking about defunding them or canceling mandatory fees would have been portrayed as the type of “assault on the free media” that only the likes of Donald Trump could possibly imagine promoting. However, a lot has changed, especially after CDU was relegated to the opposition.
CDU Chairman Friedrich Merz has called for a comprehensive reform of the public broadcasters to address the perceived weakness and failures of “this part of our media” following the resignation of ARD Chairwoman and RBB Director Patricia Schlesinger. Schlesinger has been fingered in a corruption scandal in which prosecutors say she secured a lucrative job for her husband and billed taxpayers for her expensive taste in office furniture. There are also suspicions that she billed taxpayers for her luxurious trip to London during her tenure at ARD and RBB.
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In a guest article, Merz claimed the Schlesinger affair is having a serious impact on a public battered by inflation and an ongoing energy crisis. He writes that the public “is less and less willing to accept without objection the audacity with which individual representatives use this system” and “the one-sidedness with which parts of the public broadcasters report and comment.”
The Schlesinger scandal has the potential to “finally deprive public broadcasting in Germany of its legitimacy and public acceptance,” warned the CDU leader.
For years, the conservative Alternative for Germany (AfD) has called for reforms to the two media giants, citing their biased coverage, refusal to invite AfD on the influential political debate shows, and the tax burden they placed on German taxpayers. However, the far more powerful CDU is now only wading into the debate. Notably, during the federal election last year, these same political talk shows were accused of planting left-wing activists to “finish off” the CDU’s chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, who lost a close election. The channels have funded pro-transgender content aimed at children, constantly promote mass immigration, and attack nearly all aspects of conservatism, leading to extreme frustration, especially for the voting bloc in Germany forced to pay for content they actively oppose.
In a sign of how far the CDU has come in its position, Merz wrote in his guest post that it should be questioned whether the two networks should exist at all. However, at the very least, both networks need dramatic reform.
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To give public service broadcasting “broader acceptance among the population again,” Merz called for five concrete reform steps, first insisting that an oversight system must finally be established to make abuse more difficult.
“The real, structural problem lies in the lack of control,” wrote Merz, adding that broadcasters should work more transparently.
“The salaries of all those responsible must be disclosed, as must the payment flows to the numerous production companies. That also, and especially, applies to the moderators of the well-known talk shows and entertainment programs.”
Merz additionally pointed to the bias seen on these networks, writing that “responsible editors also express their one-sided sympathy in their programs and quite openly on their social media channels. With their type of journalism, they delegitimize the advantages of public radio and television and contribute to its loss of reputation, especially in that part of the population that no longer feels represented.”
In addition, Merz claimed that public broadcasting had no legitimacy to implement a gender language against the will of the vast majority of the population. “Neither individual speakers nor commentators and moderators have the right to deviate from the generally accepted rules of use of the German language,” he added.
The two networks are unlikely to go anywhere for the time being, but Merz’s guest post could mark a new sea change. Corruption scandals are eroding the lofty position the networks occupy in the public imagination. Conservatives in the United Kingdom have scored victories against a very biased left-wing BBC, but it took years of raising awareness among the public before any real action was possible.