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Germany: Why the Schlesinger Scandal Stinks Like the Oder River

Arrogance, fraud and favoritism seem to be the ingredients of a scandal surrounding the RBB’s former Director Patricia Schlesinger that is rocking Germany’s public broadcasting service ARD. Its new director Tom Buhrow just pulled the emergency brake. Did he do so on time?

Berlin, August 21st, 2022 (The Berlin Spectator) — Depending on where exactly we are or what our ambitions look like, spending the summer in Germany can be quite boring. But there is a remedy. When we open the newspaper or click the link to our favorite online publication (hint!), we can read stories that make us forget about time and our surrounding. That way, the summer will finally be over before we know it.

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Target of Criticism

Right now, none of the big news stories are good. They all stink. The Oder river definitely stinks. So does the scandal that hit the Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) and the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ARD). The latter basically is the umbrella organization of most public service broadcasters, which also runs the major TV channel Das Erste, while the RBB is its broadcaster in Berlin and Brandenburg. It has a TV channel for the region in two versions and six radio stations along with their Internet presences.

The ARD and all of its affiliates have been the target of criticism. Radicals even want to get rid of public service broadcasting because they are being portrayed as what they are, radicals, in the ARD’s coverage. Conservatives and private broadcasters say most ARD reporters leaned left. The monthly fees an organization known as the Gebühreneinzugszentrale (GEZ) charges everyone in the country for the ARD, the ZDF, the country’s other public broadcaster, and Deutsche Welle, is being criticized too.

Educational Mandate

But the ARD plays an important role in the German democracy. It is supposed to monitor the government and the opposition, and report independently. Delivering culture is another task. So is entertainment. Besides, the ARD has an educational mandate as well. Today, Germany’s public broadcasting service, the equivalent of the BBC in Britain, also is a counterweight to commercial channels. In summary, it is safe to say that the ARD and the RBB, its version in Berlin and Brandenburg, are needed.

The latest scandal is more than just an issue that needs to be resolved. It also is a fit occasion the ARD’s opponents were furnished. Now, the scandal involving Patricia Schlesinger, the RBB’s former Director, is being used by radicals and other critics of the ARD. To them, what happened is proof that they have been right all along.

Lucrative Deal

Patricia Schlesinger is 61 years old. For six years, she had been the RBB’s Director, and she had headed the ARD for six months, when the Business Insider publication first reported about one aspect of the scandal on June 23rd, 2022. According to the paper, Mrs. Schlesinger’s husband Gerhard Spörl got a lucrative consultancy contract by the trade fair organizer Messe Berlin. Its chairman of the board, Wolf-Dieter Wolf, supposedly initiated the deal. The problem is that Wolf also was head of the RBB’s board of directors which means his task was to monitor Patricia Schlesinger’s activities.

Only days later, on July 4th, Business Insider published the next report about her. This time, it was about an expensive dinner at her home which was paid for by the RBB because she declared it as a working dinner. On July 5th, the Tagesspiegel daily reported Mrs. Schlesinger had threatened to sue both Business Insider and the source for the published information inside the RBB. Another two days later, she announced an internal investigation. On July 8th, the RBB’s legal department ordered Business Insider to refrain from using certain wordings in articles about Patricia Schlesinger. The publication refused to adhere to the injunction.

Shattered Confidence

At this point, the RBB’s staff council and the editors sent a letter to her, as the Welt daily reported. It said the accusations needed to be solved in order to rebuild the “shattered confidence”. On July 10th, Wolf-Dieter Wolf stepped down from his position at the RBB’s board of directors temporarily. A little more than a week alter, on July 19th, Patricia Schlesinger did not appear at a hearing in Potsdam. Brandenburg’s state parliament was going to question her on the allegations. At the same time, media reported about her latest raise and her annual salary in the amount of 303,000 Euro (304,121 U.S. Dollars or 257,087 Pounds Sterling).

Then, new issues popped up. In spite of strict compliance rules, Mrs. Schlesinger rented an expensive Audi A8 with massage seats and used both the vehicle and her drivers for private errands even though the ARD does not allow this kind of usage, as Business Insider reported. On August 2nd, the RBB passed on the ARD chair to the WDR in Cologne. On this day, Patricia Schlesinger stepped down from her post as the ARD’s Director. Tom Buhrow, who heads the WDR, took over.

Fresh Start

Bonus payments she received and the fact that her husband used ‘her’ Audi A8 to get to appointments at Messe Berlin were the next aspect Business Insider unveiled. The scandal smells fishier every day. According to the Bild tabloid, Schlesinger had her RBB office renovated for 650,000 Euro (602,220 Dollars or 509,082 Pounds). On August 7th, she stepped down from her post as Director of the RBB as well.

Yesterday, on August 20th, 2022, the ARD withdrew its confidence in the RBB. The directors of the other organization’s divisions do not believe the interim leadership is solving the Schlesinger case quickly enough. Tom Buhrow said there was doubt the affair was accounted for at an appropriate speed which was why the RBB needed a fresh start.

Fishy Details

From the beginning, the RBB’s editors at Info Radio and other media the organization runs have reported about the scandal openly on a daily basis. It remains to be seen what other fishy details will be uncovered and how big the damage is to the entire ARD. This case definitely stinks.

Related feature: German Television: Imbecility and Quality Overdose

Photo at top of page: Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 (see license)

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