Dutch media-website TPO Online published an interview with the Dutch-German reporter Claudia Zimmermann. On 17 January 2016, Zimmermann was a guest on a radio show broadcasted by Omroep L1, a local radio station in Dutch Limburg. As a reporter who had worked for the German Public Broadcaster WDR in Aachen for 24 years, and living in Maastricht, The Netherlands, she was asked about the way the refugee crisis and New Year’s Eve in Cologne were reported on. In the broadcast, she was asked:
“Are you expected to report on migrants, on refugees in a certain way?
-Yes, we are of course, we are a public broadcaster, which means that we try, in every case, try to be positive in approaching the topic. In the beginning when Merkel’s Welcome culture was, very, well, good, then our stories were of course very positive, while at present it’s tilted a bit, so now there are more and more critical voices, also from the Public Broadcasters and of course from politics.Did you get that in writing?
An email explaining, this is the way to bring it?– Yes, not in principle, but we have, we are a Public Broadcasting company, which means there are multiple commissions, that regulate what our program looks like. And we are more or less appointed to do so in a more or less pro-government way.“
This is the opening to a heated discussion, where Zimmermann tries to explain the position of the WDR and ARD in Germany, but failing to completely explain her position. She is on record claiming that WDR is
“A voice for the government and not so much for the opposition.“
which seems almost inevitable, while she tries to explain the influence of various commissions in the structure of the German media landscape. In short:
“we have to try to be neutral in our news. (…) There was a political mission and we reported in a way supporting that mission.“
WDR’s reaction was to deny the ‘allegations’ Zimmermann had made against them, and to make her sign a disingenuous apology that reads:
“I have talked nonsense on this program. Under pressure from the fact that the talk-show was live on air, I have sold a bunch of rubbish. This is very painful for me. Because never in my time as a freelance journalist have I been asked to report tendentiously or write towards a specific outcome.“
Zimmermann now claims that she never made these allegations and that she was forced to sign the apology, after which she has received almost no new orders for her work. The point she makes, is that the problem lies much deeper. The entire structure of the German Public Broadcasting companies is aimed at keeping out unwanted news; they simply don’t order or don’t broadcast information that does not fit the narrative. The Old Continent has previously reported on the WDR anti-Semitism documentary and the painful way it was first rejected, then broadcast with highly critical commentary attached.
Zimmermann herself has similar experiences. After witnessing girls being harassed in the streets, and learning that this was a daily occurrence, she
“pitched it as a theme for WDR, but my colleagues said:’we won’t do it, because that helps Pegida.’ That was a WDR editor. And there were similar situations. At the watercooler, where colleagues talked to each other they said ‘my God, is all that happening?’, but it was never reported on.“
After the publication of the highly critical study by the Otto Brenner Foundation on media bias, Zimmermann sought the public eye again, giving an interview in which she declared:
“My journalistic career in Germany with the news stations and publishers has come to an end after this statement. (…) The large television stations like ARD and ZDF have long since been criticised as ‘State television’, and in my opinion this is true. The government is not reported on critically enough. That’s not because the journalists are bad. The system works from top to bottom. Chief editors or the studio managment make sure, that critical views are not even broadcast.“
The idea one gets, when Zimmermann describes the way in which German journalists function within German media, is one of fear and underhandedness.
“When I meet a former colleague in the street they tell me ‘I thought it’s very good that you said what you did, but I am really not allowed to talk to you.’ (…) Editors go to seminars in close-knit groups, only certain reporters are sent to Cologne, working closely together with a chief editorial staff. That’s why there are so few critical articles. (…) Comment and opions are taken for news. I can see that with Trump. Even if you’re not a Trump fan, a journalist is meant to report on the news, as neutraly as possible, and the population makes its own picture. And the AfD is hushed up. It is just a machine to make opinions.“