Patricia Schlesinger – the end of the RBB director

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For the first time ever in over 70 years, an ARD presidency ends prematurely. A public broadcasting scandal is occupying Germany – and raising old questions again.

Resignation of RBB director Patricia Schlesinger

It's about champagne at home at the broadcaster's expense, about unusual consulting contracts, the company car, the salary. The director of the public service “Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg” – in short: RBB –  Patricia Schlesinger has resigned after weeks of criticism and growing pressure. The 61-year-old not only gave up this one position that she had held for six years. Since the beginning of 2022, she has also been the chairwoman of ARD, a merger of the nine state broadcasters in Germany and Deutsche Welle. The scandal surrounding Patricia Schlesinger, for example, is causing nationwide debates – and is fueling calls for changes in public broadcasting in Germany.

You know each other

Already on June 23 – long before the so-called “summer break”, which will appear in politics and the media from July – the news portal “Business Insider” reported for the first time on “inconsistencies” surrounding Schlesinger and her husband Gerhard Spörl. It was about a 100,000 euro consultant contract from Messe Berlin for Spörl – and the fact that the chairman of the supervisory board of Messe Berlin, Wolf-Dieter Wolf, is also the head of the administrative board of RBB. According to “Business Insider”, Wolf personally initiated the consultation with Spörl.

This first revelation was followed by more for weeks. First and foremost with “Business Insider”, then also in increasing numbers in other media. It's about unclear connections in construction projects of the station. But as the month of July progressed, it was more and more about Schlesinger as a person, who was valued in her earlier professional life as an ARD journalist and foreign correspondent.

The RBB headquarters in Berlin

At RBB, one of the financially weaker ARD broadcasters, she recently received a salary that was increased by 16 percent to €303,000 and a bonus of €20,000. She was driven by chauffeurs in a rented company car costing 145,000 euros – including a massage seat. Numerous other details about the equipment of her job, which caused outrage in view of the increasingly difficult economic situation in the country, followed. Also the description of evening meals in the private apartment, where there was champagne – and which the broadcaster financed as expenses.

The judiciary is investigating

On August 4, Schlesinger gave up the ARD chairmanship – that hadn't happened in ARD's more than 70 years. Three days later she also resigned from the position of RBB director. The debate about “possible and alleged misconduct on the part of the artistic director” distracts attention from the broadcaster's performance. She spoke of “personal allegations and defamation”. Less than two days later, it became known that the public prosecutor's office was investigating suspected infidelity and taking advantage of the 61-year-old, her husband and the head of the RBB board of directors, Wolf, who is now resigning from this office.

A “lateral thinker” demonstration in April 2021 in Frankfurt. It was to take place in front of the Hessischer Rundfunk. The police moved her to a park.

The scandal exacerbates a debate about public broadcasting (ÖRR) in Germany that has been smoldering for years, especially about ARD and ZDF, which was founded in 1961. It's about political distance or too much political closeness, but since the beginning of the so-called lateral thinker movement and the Corona protests, right-wing populist protesters have often aimed against the content orientation and fundamentally against the existence of these stations.

Private broadcasters, which have existed since the mid-1980s, have in some cases recently increased their commitment to news – also as a critical statement against the ÖRR. And in times when private media are struggling with cuts and newspapers in particular are financially stuck or have to give up, individual politicians from the bourgeois parties are also pushing for cuts in the ÖRR. Similar developments can be seen in France and the UK, where politics is moving away from the structure of strong, publicly funded media.

Free and independent

For historical reasons, “public service broadcasting” in Germany is of particular importance. After the totalitarian Nazi dictatorship and the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Western Allies – the USA, Great Britain and France – reorganized broadcasting in their respective zones. This should contribute to the development of a democratic public through free and independent reporting. The model was the British concept of fee-financed broadcasting, which was not organized as a private sector, but should be independent of the state. In 1950, the ARD grew out of this as a merger of the state institutions, and in 1961 the ZDF was added as a more centralized institution.

At Schlesinger and the RBB there are other factors as well. The broadcaster has been announcing savings rounds for years and is cutting broadcast formats and the number of employees. In all this time, there were no audible warning words from the decisive committees at the RBB, which are at the top of the ÖRR institutions. These are the – more important – Broadcasting Council as the content control body and the Board of Directors as the highest financial control body. The Broadcasting Council of the public media in Germany is made up primarily of representatives of social interest groups.

Media journalist Stefan Niggemeier

Such broadcasting councils are “staffed only with volunteers” and “not necessarily proven experts,” said Stefan Niggemeier, one of Germany's most respected media journalists, in an interview with ARD “Tagesthemen”.

The way Niggemeier, founder of the online magazine “übermedien”, expressed himself seemed like a balancing act. On the one hand he spoke of an “immense” damage for the ARD, on the other hand he expressly did not want to speak of “structural problems beyond the RBB” when asked about it. The debate about the current structure of the ARD has been going on in Germany for a long time – and was already happening before the Schlesinger scandal was unveiled.

What is striking: the RBB has been addressing this issue not just since Schlesinger's resignation from office, but for weeks in its usual program and even in special programs extremely critical of the actions of its top power. In any case, no embarrassing silence follows the criticism that the top committees acted late. And the debate about the future of ÖRR will continue.