The double resignation of Patricia Schlesinger, as ARD chairwoman and director of the RBB, points to a malaise that is greater than this special case: the public broadcaster (ÖRR) is in multiple crises. Many who work there refuse to admit it, but the storm caused by the behavior of their representatives is growing stronger. It would be wrong to only sense resentment or campaigns behind it. What happened? It began with a double crisis of relevance. First, the TV monopoly of the public service was cracked. That was in the 1980s, when private, commercial broadcasting began to compete with them. Then came the internet with dozens of platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. Donald Trump’s election campaign showed the power that can accrue to politicians who openly position themselves against traditional media in social networks.
Relevance was followed by the representation crisis. At least since the refugee autumn of 2015 and aggravated by the corona pandemic – two events that divided society and polarized discourse – it was becoming increasingly difficult for public broadcasters to adequately reflect the overall mood. Although the AfD is represented in the Bundestag, there is hardly a sympathizer to be found in the editorial offices of ARD and ZDF. Politically, the country has shifted more quickly to the right in recent years than in the media. Meanwhile, almost every guest selection for talk shows causes massive controversy. Who is allowed to speak? Are enough women, migrants, East Germans represented?
The crisis of representation was followed by the crisis of acceptance. A system that is lavishly financed with mandatory fees, popularly known as media tax, pays its stars horrific sums of money in order to allow them to engage in debates on justice that are as high in quotas as possible. About “Emmely”, for example, the cashier who was fired because of stolen deposit receipts. Such discrepancies evoke anger, followed by accusations of aloofness. ÖRR bashing has long ceased to be a hallmark of right-wing ideologues, but extends far into the middle. The basic impulse that gave rise to the state radio, which is remote from the state, is as understandable as it is justified today. It should be independent and non-partisan, reflect the social trends in their diversity, provide information, provide orientation, show connections. Anyone who has lived in a country without a functioning television and radio system of this kind and has experienced the manipulation possibilities of privately operating media moguls will always appreciate the neutral basic service provided by German public broadcasters over and over again.
They have to learn to live with the crisis of relevance and representation. Of course, the ÖRR can increase their acceptance. Politicians are elected and accountable to the taxpayer. Each stamp is accounted for. In terms of transparency and democracy, however, the public broadcasters are lagging behind. Salaries, fees and pensions should be visible in detail. And what would speak against citizens having a say in the staff and programme? Why don’t artistic directors and program managers respond to the votes of the users? This could unfold a competition of ideas in which the wishes and needs of the viewers are regularly reflected on. More Musikantenstadl, longer news, earlier start of the talk show? Everything can be openly discussed. The ÖRR must counteract their image of questionable decisions being made from above after opaque committee meetings with a radical democratization and transparency offensive. They owe it to themselves. Above all, they owe it to those who pay compulsory fees, also known as viewers.