In the public interest: Public broadcasting in Germany and Europe under review
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In the public interest: Public broadcasting in Germany and Europe under review

Photo: Roman Babkin/Shutterstock

If the Public Broadcasting System in Germany did not already exist, it would have to be invented right now. That is the first proposition of a public appeal launched by a group of German media studies scientists in September 2017. The public concept for broadcasting, the scientists argue, is a systematic constituent of how democracy functions.1

This appeal was directed at the Minister Presidents of the German States and specifically addressed current trends in Germany which question the basic legitimacy of public broadcasting or which – by means of economy drives – essentially aim to limit the media options open to public broadcasting. The two major public broadcasting stations – the ZDF (Second German Television Program) which broadcasts throughout Germany, and the ARD (Association of German Broadcasting Corporations of Germany), which broadcasts programs at state level and is responsible for a joint program – reacted to the de facto aspersions by publishing statements.

The statement underlined the important role public broadcasting played in creating a stable democracy in the aftermath of the Second World War up to the present day, emphasising their function in guaranteeing social cohesion. In them they described the functions and responsibilities of the public stations which, against the background of digitalised communication in Germany, they also reformulated.2

In the process ZDF and ARD promised to use digitalisation more consistently for cross-media research and production, to optimise work processes and to pay greater attention to the synergies between the various journalistic and technical fields of competence.

What sounds as if it is routine policy within broadcasting is in reality the tip of a long-term process that questions the concept of broadcasting under public control – in effect under the control of the general public and socially relevant groups. This scepticism comes from a variety of directions and stems from different levels of interest. These could be categorised as follows.

The competitive motive

The so-called “dual system”, which permits the licensing of commercial providers, did not come into existence in Germany until 1984. Since then, publicly funded and privately financed broadcasting, whether financed by private licensing or commercials, have co-existed in Germany. They are based on two seriously differing concepts:

Public broadcasting is subject to mandate. That means it is committed to serving the public interest and that its primary mission is to enable the general public to take part in democratic discourse by being exposed to a wide range of viewpoints and levels of opinion. Its mandate is to inform and entertain, and across the whole range of programs offered, it is intended to stand for and pass on social values, reflect the dynamics of debates about them and document the transformation they undergo. 

For many decades, the German Constitutional Court has emphasised the role that public broadcasting has played in serving the public welfare and has elaborated a series of seminal constitutional court rulings.3 All these rulings upheld the central role of the public broadcasting system against the cases fought by commercial competitors who broadcast with the aim of generating the greatest possible returns through the highest possible income from commercials offset against the lowest possible costs for program production. The viewers are divided here for a commercially-based economy into target groups and classified according to their future potential as “customers”.

Public broadcasting is far removed in terms of the public interest from such entrepreneurial competition. Its target audience is the public itself, the “citizen” and the difficult, almost unreachable aim of enabling the public to participate in current debate. The underlying conviction is that with the electronic media and their rapid and strong influence on listeners and viewers, quality and independence must be publicly financed and cannot be subjugated to the rule of quotas.

For many years, this co-existence between the broadcasting systems functioned as complementary and competitive strands until the further development of digital distribution systems and a new global market raised entirely new questions about mandate, costs, and dissemination.

The conceptual motive

In the mid-1990s, and as European countries became more close-knit and expressed the wish for trans-border communal broadcasting, German public broadcasting became increasingly under pressure within European politics. In Germany, broadcasting is part of “public education” in two senses: The public finances their broadcasting so that they can be politically informed and educated. In that respect, broadcasting is perceived as an instrument of and an educational factor in the formation of a national and European community through communication.

Thus broadcasting in Germany is understood as a cultural asset, comparable to science and education. Education in the German Federal Republic is a federal matter under the aegis of the states and is committed to cultural plurality. Since the legacy of experience under the dictatorship of the National Socialist regime with its propaganda broadcasting, never again was broadcasting to be under central state control.

Since then, media plurality as a further guarantee of democratic education has belonged to the conceptual framework of German media policies and constitutional reality. The European Union, by contrast, mainly defines broadcasting as an “economic asset” and a “(public) service”. This implies that the European economic market should be opened up to global media concerns as a market to invest in. Simultaneously, broadcasting as a conveyor of culture should support the cultural plurality of Europe.4

The so-called Amsterdam Treaty Protocol Addendum5 of 1996 documents that at their summit meeting the heads of state and government of all the member states of the European Union agreed on a legally binding protocol addendum to the EU contract underlining the special role of the public broadcasting system in individual European countries. The agreement confirms that the German federal states are responsible for the organisation and financing of public broadcasting in Germany and provisionally guarantees the financing of ARD broadcasting bodies and the ZDF (Second German Television Channel) from licensing fees in accordance with European law.

However, the protocol addendum is also a concession to England and Germany with their strong public broadcasting systems. As regards the concept, the political theory they stand for and media law, both see a public broadcasting system as a pre-requisite for, a constituent part of and having a function in a liberal democracy. At the time, both the Protestant and the Catholic churches in Germany and Europe subscribed to this decision, mindful that the stable presence and transparency of churches and religion are part of the mandate of the public broadcasting system and that, as a result, church institutions are an integral part of the program and the broadcasting organisation.

This does not mean that such a special case of authorization should be seen as a provisional arrangement that can be maintained unnoticed and unquestioned for decades. The political test of strength looming on the horizon of media forces such as Facebook and Google, which rule the media market in Europe, has yet to be fought out. And thus the arena has been thrown open to all the political forces in Europe that aim to weaken or liquidate a broadcasting system which rests on a political construction based on community (social polity) and shared public values.

This can be seen by looking at the public broadcasting systems in Poland or Hungary. New media laws there serving to protect party-political access to personnel, program and control are also destroying independence and journalistic freedom and are forcing the program to “step into line” politically.6 In contrast, there are also young political forces who are flying the flag of a new Europe with public broadcasting as the journalistic model pinned to their standard.7

The public warning issued by Facebook co-founder Sean Parker pointing out the disruptive effects and logic of these digital platforms, harmful to both democracy and social solidarity, is impressive proof of the fact that platforms such as Facebook, despite their guise of grassroots democracy, cannot be a substitute for journalistically professional, independent and multi-faceted reporting in the interest of a democratic culture.8

The journalistic motive – infinite means of dissemination

In comparison with the public statutory broadcasting stations, digitalisation has now brought a further sleeping giant onto the stage. Whereas big publishing houses had already introduced local, regional and supra-regional windows into private broadcasting, thus establishing themselves as competitors to public broadcasting within the dual system, digital forms of dissemination have increased the competition exponentially. With their additional and expanding information in broadcast programs, the broadcasting stations, so the publishing houses claimed, entered into competition with the printed press. Newspaper publishers now finally admitted that the broadcasters constituted competition in the world of news reporting. Whereas the other side of the coin was that publishers, for their part, were now able to provide products similar to broadcasts complete with accompanying images and film material as well as streaming-services as a result of the gradual fusion of platforms.

Since then, there has been one lawsuit after another between publishers and broadcasting stations. Forms of dissemination and press, or as the case may be broadcasting content, need to be re-defined and delimited, and the tone of voice determining the communication between publishing houses and the representatives of public “systems” has acquired a sharp, polemical edge.

The head of the publishers’ association and director of the Springer consortium, Matthias Döpfner, compares journalistic conditions in Germany with “North Korea” and he speaks condemningly of the “system” by referring to the public system as “State Broadcasting”, thus insinuating that political parties and government representatives have direct ways of intervening in broadcasting with a view to intentional manipulation.9

But the truth is that the publishers – in particular the supra-regional and regional quality press – could – in the sense of public interest – have numerous common interests. It is indeed in the interest of the general public that the informational sources of credibility should mutually support each other as various research associations are already doing.10 They have managed to consolidate time-consuming, complex international research11 and in the interest of the general public to inform the populace meticulously on matters such as, for example, mass tax evasion.

Precisely in this age of “alternative truths”, of “social bots” and “fake news”, which attempt to torpedo the level of informed discourse12 with attempts at manipulation, what will win the day for the public is its ability to support the kind of journalism which is committed to information and the public interest as a whole and which is financed by the general public. In particular this is because, over the last few years, in addition to the competitive, conceptual and journalistic reasons for doubting the validity of public broadcasting, politically motivated strategies attempting to destabilise it have also entered the scene. They defame public broadcasting as the “liar press” and, aided by increasing political means of exerting influence, attempt to undermine it once and for all.

Political motivation – right-wing populism

In March 2018, the Swiss electorate was due to decide in a referendum whether to get rid of or to keep their highly reputed public broadcasting system. The movers behind this referendum are so-called “free thinkers”, liberals and right-wing populists who aim, at one blow, to dispense with the public funding of broadcasting through the tax-payer. They accuse the public media of producing “bog standard left-wing mainstream bla-bla”. By destroying the system, they hope to establish free competition by means of which the financially strong media groups can win over majority opinion by exerting their influence. The media market would then be freely accessible for globally active media entrepreneurs such as Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls who, in the process of the whole debate over whether Britain should remain in or leave the European Union, launched a successful journalistic attack on the European system of solidarity.

The Swiss referendum took place under the name “No Billag” (i.e. free of charge or no fees) and it took place on 4 March 2018. The result was a large majority (more than 70%) in favour of retaining the current public broadcasting system. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the question of the legitimation of this type of broadcasting system will continue to be asked in all the European countries.

What really hurts from a German point of view is this development in many European countries, because it lends journalistic force to anti-European voices and, despite all the sensible, stronger arguments in favour of Europe, serves national interests the dominant public vote on a platter.

Public broadcasting came into being precisely as an alternative to broadcasting as a nationalist instrument of propaganda which, as Hitler’s and Goebbels’ megaphone, drove people in the so-called Third Reich to ruin, destruction, and criminality.

“The aims of this allied broadcasting policy were to create a free democratic and peace-loving Germany as a respectful and self-respecting member of a family of nations, an institution to further the human ideals of truth and tolerance, justice, freedom and respect for the rights of the individual.13

To bring this about, broadcasting was to be independent and never again able to be abused as an instrument by any particular parties, world views, philosophies or religions. The plurality of the socially relevant groups should control broadcasting and ensure it retained close ties with the general public.

Precisely at times in which social cohesion is crumbling, at times of strategic disinformation and provocative attempts at giving national socialism a positive slant, and when national ideologies are being fanned back into life, people in Germany and Europe need this instrument of social cohesion and integration. The contamination of communication agencies poisons a society at its very roots. Modern societies that aim to function in their diversity need a communications structure which is reliable, trustworthy, incorruptible, and resilient to social disruption. 


Working Group of the Public Broadcasting Stations in Germany (2017), ARD Report to the German States.pdf (Last accessed: 30.01.18)

Bethge, Herbert/Weber-Dürler, Beatrice (1998). Intervention in a fundamental right. A public framework for the regulation of information.

BVerfG = German Federal Constitutional Law (1986): 4. Broadcasting Court Decision/ Lower Saxony.

Democracy in Motion (2017): Building a Common Future.

Glässgen, Heinz (2016): In the Public Interest: The Task and Legitimation of Public Broadcasting

Habermas, Jürgen (1981): The Theory of Communicative Action.

Höhns, Martina (1997): Church, European Union and Media Policies.

Commission to Investigate Concentration in the Media. (2016): Television

Conference for the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States (1997): Prototype of the Amsterdam Agreement.

Protocol on the system of public broadcasting in the Member States THE HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES, CONSIDERING that the system of public broadcasting in the Member States is directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society and to the need to preserve media pluralism, HAVE AGREED UPON the following interpretative provisions, which shall be annexed to the Treaty establishing the European Community, The provisions of the Treaty establishing the European Community shall be without prejudice to the competence of Member States to provide for the funding of public service broadcasting insofar as such funding is granted to broadcasting organisations for the fulfilment of the public service remit as conferred, defined and organised by each Member State, and insofar as such funding does not affect trading conditions and competition in the Community to an extent which would be contrary to the common interest, while the realisation of the remit of that public service shall be taken into account.

Muth, Max (2017): Co-founder Sean Parker shoots at Facebook

NDR (04.08.2017): Research Cooperation between the North and West German Broadcasting Stations and the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Newspaper).

Simon, Krisztian (09.02.2016): Take a look, but no arrogance, please.

Spiegel (09.2017) Propagandist Masterpiece. cf. Süddeutsche Zeitung (09.05.2016): Panama Papers. The Secrets of Dirty Money.

On the Future of the Public Media. 10 Central Propositions (2017)

Second German Television (2017): ZDF´s Declaration of Self-Commitment.


1. cf. On the future of public statutory Media, 1917.

2. cf. Commission and Optimisation of Structures 2017; cf. ZDF´s Declaration of Personal Commitment 2017. In 2016 the two German public broadcasting organisations (ARD and ZDF) jointly shared a viewer quota of 45,2%. Their annual budget is approx. 8 billion Euros. cf. KEK 2017; cf. Tagesspiegel 2016.

3. The German Constitutional Court declared in its verdicts that public broadcasting should guarantee the basic provision of information and be party-politically neutral. In addition, it should guarantee continued program and technical development. cf. BVerfG 1986.

4. cf. Höhns 1997; cf. Bethge/ Weber-Dürler 1998.

5. cf. Prototype of the Amsterdam Treaty 1997, p. 109. See full text in addendum.

6. cf. Simon 2016.

7. cf. Democracy in Motion 2017.

8. cf. Muth 2017.

9. cf. Spiegel 2017.

10. cf. NDR 2017. (North German Broadcasting Station).

11. The Research Association of NDR, WDR and the Süddeutsche Zeitung collaborated with the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) in evaluating the Panama Papers. Cf. Süddeutsche Zeitung 2016.

12. cf. Habermas 1981.

13. Glässgen 2016, p.14.


Johanna Haberer is a journalist and theologian, ordained pastor and Professor for Christian Media Studies at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany. She is a freelance contributor to Public Service Broadcasting and is a member of one of the Public Service Broadcasting Commissions. In her function as Broadcasting Advisor to the Council of Protestant Churches in Germany she has always propagated the concept of a broadcasting system financed by the general public and consequently owned by the general public. For the last 30 years Johanna Haberer has contributed numerous pastoral radio articles and has produced  or been responsible for a large number of programs in public television broadcasting. One of her main research focuses is theological and political reflection on the future of a credible and authentic form of journalism that keeps the public interest in mind at a time of information overflow in the digital age.


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