Last Friday turned out to be pretty sulky for the defenders of press freedom in Germany. At a first glance the problem does not seem that severe, especially in a european media landscape with “media tyrants” like Sarkozy and Berlusconi:
The working contract of Nikolaus Brender, chief editor of ZDF, was not prolonged after an open voting procedure in the executive council (Verwaltungsrat) and he will be asked to leave the broadcaster in 201o- a process familiar to many former chief editors and as such relative unspectacular.
The Brendner case, however, happened to be one of the most discuted topics in Germany in the last months and was often interpreted as a political violation of press freedom. The culprit: Roland Koch, Governor (Ministerpräsident) of Hessen and member of the ruling party CDU/CSU. In his view Brendner was not professional enough to manage ZDF’s news departement and was as such directly responsible for the rating loss in the last years. Media experts in the country described this accusation, however, as a mere disguise for Brendner’s political independence, which was perceived as inconvenient by the ruling party.
Although ZDF’s CEO (Intendant) Markus Schächter and the television council (Fernsehrat) of the broadcaster officially supported the extension of Brendner’s contract, it was the executive council that had the last word on it. And the voting did not produce any surprises- most members close to CDU/CSU followed the party’s imperative proposed by Koch and voted against.
Koch has won and Brendner has to go. His success, however was perceived by most media as a constitutional crime. Now critics focus on the personalised aspect of the story by condemning Koch’s ruthless manouvre and the misuse of his political influence for personal revenge. But the main question is rather an institutional one: How come a broadcasting organ like the executive Council, composed primarily of governors and politicians, decides on personal matters, using programme arguments? How qualified are its members to deal with such matters and how unbiased can these politicians be, when they have to take a decision on the leadership of a medium, directly responsible for their election results?
Why don’t they leave such controversial decisions to a more democratic and more competent organ like the television council?
Hopefully, Koch’s action will create some space in the public sphere for the discussion of such institutional changes, essential for a functionable media democracy.