German conservatives accuse the publicly-funded German TV networks ARD and ZDF (and radio stations) of liberal bias. Which is a problem, since the mandate of these license-fee funded networks is to provide a fair and balanced representation (g) of the spectrum of opinion in Germany. The public has no choice but to support these networks — the most expensive public-broadcasting system in Europe — so they should represent the entire spectrum of mainstream public opinion.
But do they? A new study offers ammunition to the critics. The Reuters Institute and Oxford University recently conducted a comparative study of public broadcasters in eight European countries. The study was designed to determine who the audience for public broadcasters were, what sorts of programs they watch or listen to, and how the Internet was affecting news consumption. The study found that in almost all European countries, the audience for public service media (PSM) was older and more educated than the audience for competing private channels, which comes as no real surprise.
The study also decided to test whether audiences perceived a political bias in public programming. It found (pdf) that German public broadcasters had a more liberal audience, and were more distrusted by conservatives, than almost all other European public broadcasters:
Only in Greece was there a bigger left-right gap in trust in public service media. The BBC gets noticeably better marks across the board.
The study is confirmed by observation: German public television has an evident center-left bias. Nobody who watched it for any significant length of time doubts this. The bias emerges from two factors which interact with each other. First, most journalists travel within an educated urban center-left filter bubble. Second, they are driven by a conception of the journalist’s role as activist for the underdog.
The long hangover from National Socialism has infused every aspect of polite German society with a “never again” morality, which is not a bad thing in many respects. But in journalism, it fosters overt bias and sloppy reporting. Before reporting about controversial issues, the typical center-left German journalist decides who the underdog and who the oppressor is, then structures the story to ensure that even the dullest viewer knows which moral judgments the reporter wants them to make. The underdog’s story is presented without any critical questioning and, as often as not, with a big wet sloppy kiss of sentimentality.
This is why conservative, or even just independent-minded viewers, quickly give up on German public media news reporting on certain issues. It’s not just that the bias is grating, it also makes for dead boring journalism. As soon as you hear “nuclear”, “McDonald’s”, “capitalism”, “refugee”, “EU”, “climate”, “Trump”, “USA”, “death penalty”, “Africa”, “police”, “Saxony” or other trigger-words, you know exactly what’s coming. There are never any surprises. It’s not so much that the reporting is inaccurate — although it often is — or that the bias is morally suspect. It’s just tedious and condescending to the viewer.
Let me provide a concrete example of what German journalism does wrong, and the BBC does right. Recently, two controversial public figures were charged with breaking the law for political reasons. One of them is the German ship captain Carola Rackete, who violated an order from the Italian foreign ministry to keep out of Italian waters, and brought migrants whom she had rescued at sea to the Italian port of Lampedusa. She was charged with numerous crimes for doing so. Rackete, free on bond, went on a German public-television talk show to be interviewed by Dunya Hayali. This was the result:
For those of you not yet German-powered, I’ll summarize. The moderator asks Rackete why she brought the migrants to Italy, why she didn’t choose another port, what the situation was like on board, what she thinks drives people to leave Africa, and how she felt during the crisis. Rackete is permitted to go on and on and on justifying her actions and setting forth her point of view, often to bursts of applause from the audience. The only hint of critical questioning is when the interviewer asks Rackete whether she can understand Europeans who think accepting millions of Africans might be too much, to which Rackete replies: “No, actually not.”
Rackete’s views are extremely left-wing, far to the left of the average German, but she’s allowed to spin them in a crowd-pleasing way, without being asked about the consequences of her favored policies. (The idea that German public media would grant an extreme right figure so much uncontested airtime is unthinkable.) The interview is one softball after another. Seldom has a controversial public figure with extreme political views been given such a sensuous tongue-bath, at least in public.
Now let’s turn to another controversial public figure who broke the law for political reasons: Roger Hallam, leader of Extinction Rebellion, the group which goes around blocking streets and chaining themselves to buildings to protest climate change. (Rackete wore an Extinction Rebellion T-Shirt during her interview). Here he is being interviewed for BBC’s Hard Talk by Stephen Sackur:
Now that’s what I call journalism. Hallam is allowed to state his point of view, but is challenged by Sackur at every turn with relevant questions backed by independent research. The result is an informative exploration of the climate crisis, and of circumstances which do and do not justify civil disobedience. It makes the German interview look like a celebrity puff-piece, which it basically was. And a conservative or independent-minded BBC viewer could also enjoy the Hallam interview, because Sackur, unlike the German journalist, actually asks the questions that would immediately occur to viewers who were skeptical of, or disagreed with, Hallam’s political views.
The BBC is far from perfect, but it’s a far sight better than ARD and ZDF. Because it treats its viewers as competent adults who can make up their own minds.