The narrowing spectrum

Representation and democracy in German public service broadcasting

Calls to reform Germany’s public service broadcasters have been intense following the ARD corruption affair in 2022. A culture of corporate democracy substitutes genuine representation, while rigid hierarchies invite abuses of power. Greater civic participation must be enabled at all levels.

The right to vote, to elect representatives, and to shape the political sphere and the formation of public opinion is the bedrock of present-day understandings of democracy – rule and participation derived from the power of the entirety of the people. A democratic society therefore requires its (public) media institutions to be more than the mediators of information between citizens and the state: they have a responsibility for holding representative politicians to account. They are necessary as ‘an independent watchdog and monitor of unchecked power, a tribune of the people, a defender of minorities, a fourth estate, and a public sphere’.1 A combination of voting, a division of powers and accountability is what makes our democracies function. And if accountability is threatened – through the influence of lobbyists and other elite players – the system falls out of balance and becomes at risk of collapse.

The independence of the media is therefore an essential indicator of liberalism: the media should operate as an autonomous democratic sector that helps fulfil the task of accountability through political communication. If elites are allowed too much influence over, or have privileged access to, public media institutions, there is a risk that they will be misused as disinformation machines and instruments of propaganda.

In the recent period, rapid technological innovation within communication systems has contributed to the development of a fragmented and polarised public sphere. One of the consequences of the rise of many-to-many communication channels in a digital sphere has been that the internet – contrary to the expectation that it would lead to limitless new freedoms – has been gradually captured by monopolising tech giants such as Meta, Twitter, Amazon and Google. These companies successfully isolate individuals in ‘filter bubbles’, through big data exploitation and manipulative algorithms. Public media institutions are essential to the counteracting of this takeover of public space by the new media conglomerates. Their existence is essential to protecting citizens from the narrowing of the spectrum of public opinion, and from the potential harms caused by private media monopolisation.

Facade of ARD-Hauptstadtstudio in Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons (image: Ansgar Koreng)

In the current era of ‘post-democracy’ or ‘democracy fatigue’ – in which we are more likely to engage in entertainment than in the complexities of politics – citizens are becoming disengaged from involvement in party membership, participation in political debates, interest in elected representatives, and voting.2 Feelings of frustration and powerlessness arising from ‘the otherness’ of decision-makers – who so often abandon their promises and put their own interests first – further contributes to the displacement of participatory understandings of democracy.3

A state independent public media system is therefore crucial for the perpetuation of diverse opinions within democracies. However, contemporary public media institutions are not adequately fulfilling their role in facilitating a basic requirement of the literal meaning of democracy – the rule of the people. They are distancing themselves from their audience, and thereby risking long-term mistrust, privatisation and instrumentalisation. Too often they reveal themselves to be anti-democratic, or at best as embodying a paradox, and as giving too much voice to a select minority of the population. The people often find it difficult to add their voices to the chorus of opinions which define media institutions’ actions.

In 2022, a corruption scandal at the top of the German regional broadcaster and ARD member rbb (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) exacerbated people’s reluctance to pay a household levy for public service broadcasting. The rbb director Patricia Schlesinger, who was also chair of ARD at the time, was accused of nepotism and is being investigated for embezzlement for personal gain and that of 27 other governing individual’s favour. Concentration of power at the top of public service broadcasters contribute to people’s feelings of powerlessness and their distancing from public institutions. The danger of abuse of power for financial gain, like in Schlesinger’s case, needs to be mitigated by means of flatter hierarchies.

Public service broadcasters in Europe are surrounded by neoliberal logics, which they may be pressurised to adapt to, in order to protect themselves from complete privatisation. But embracing neoliberal ideas – such as understanding viewers solely as consumers – only serves to further legitimate the privatisation of publicly financed institutions, as exemplified in the threat of privatisation that was until recently hanging over Channel 4 in the UK. It is therefore evident that a more radical reform of the deadlocked structures in public media institutions is needed, in order to substantially change citizens’ understandings of the role of public service broadcasting within a democratic society.

What should be the role of public service broadcasting in the face of the fractured digital sphere and the looming threat of monopolisation?4 What current structures need to change if they are to better serve public interests rather than succumb to market pressure? How can greater civic participation play a role in distinguishing public service media from private media?

In Germany the development of greater civic participation could help differentiate and liberate public service broadcasters from the monopolising European private market.  Broadcasters could thereby ensure greater plurality, diversity, adaptability and media independence, so as to better serve those who pay the licence fee – household-levy-paying stakeholders.

The Media Reform Coalition (MRC) in the UK, which also sees public service broadcasting as central to democratic life, have set out the characteristics they see as necessary for the democratisation of the BBC: independence, accountability, accessibility, participation and democracy.5 These link closely with the challenges facing German public service broadcasting. Democratic reforms to the German system could not only secure the vital role of independent public media institutions in the country, but could also act as a model for public service broadcasting internationally.

An unmet need for participation and diversity

Media institutions both interact with, and are part of, the contemporary political landscape in European democracies; and both are confronting rapid changes in forms of political communication. The digital sphere has facilitated the rise of surveillance, monopoly, network, affective and communicative capitalism, and helped to undermine the notion of the democratic impartiality of news media through the increased attention it gives to populism and fake news. In combination with the associated developments of increased globalisation, private media monopolism and commercialisation, this has led to a greater polarisation and sensationalism in the news, and to what many see as a ‘post-truth society’, a development that could undermine the plurality that constitutes democracy’s bedrock. A crisis in public communication undermines public debate, and public service media suffer in the fallout.6

At the same time, a lack of trust in politicians, deriving from decades of passivity in the face of neoliberalism and increased levels of inequality, has been transferred to public media institutions. This process was accelerated during the Covid-19 crisis. In Germany, for example, pre-existing anti-democratic conspiracy-theory and anti-vaccination movements (know as the ‘Querdenker’) organised street protests, where attacks on journalists accumulated.7 These movements referred to Germany’s public media services as ‘the lying press’ – as actors of perceived institutional ‘authoritarian’ control – as part of their conspiracy-theory analysis.8 A significant increase in physical violence against public broadcasting journalists during the pandemic led to Germany dropping down the worldwide ranking for press freedom. The perception that power and control are being exerted by an untouchable elite helps nourish conspiracy theories; and the ensuing political action in turn influences political decision-making processes.

As participation in political parties has declined, polarising social movements have increased. Far-right activists in Germany have responded to the new political and media landscape by manipulating rather than involving people. The left’s response, on the other hand, has been to demand a more deliberative and participatory democracy.  Both stances are responses to an observable decline in the problem-solving capabilities of German democracy.

Recent crises have therefore not only fuelled the polarisation of the German public sphere; they have also increased politicisation and a concomitant interest in involvement in the decision-making process. This could be seen as pointing the way to some solutions to the problems of both politics and public service broadcasting. A number of German political scientists have been discussing and exploring ways of involving more citizens in democratic practices. For example, Patrizia Nanz has conducted successful experiments in participatory democracy at the local political level with civic councils, with the objective of reconstructing democracy from the bottom up.9 The citizens’ assembly also offers a potential model for promoting greater civic participation. This involves people being impartially and randomly selected to participate in assemblies, where they deliberate on important topics among themselves – with the additional participation of experts – with the aim of finding common ground for future actions. This could be a way to further integrate civic participation not only into politics, but also into our public media systems.

Mainstream media systems are not responding to this need for greater participation – not just in terms of maintaining a diversity of viewpoints, but also in terms of preserving a diversity of platforms. Even public service broadcasters that have access to alternative sources of funding are finding it difficult to maintain their resilience in the face of all the pressure that is piled on them to operate under market processes and disciplines, and to release or monetise their assets, as seen by the recent pressure on Channel 4 in the UK. Across Europe, legacy news media organisations in print and television are being merged into a handful of media conglomerates, while the more recent tech giants are also fusing into massive data mining networks, as seen in Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram.

Media fusion constitutes the most immediately obvious threat to the multiplicity of diverse opinion representation within a democracy. But other aspects of capitalism’s core principles are also unhelpful for the maintenance of a diverse public sphere. One focus of the tech giants has been the fabrication of easily replicable products, harnessing their profit potential through the establishment of a ‘single-use’ or ‘short-product-lifespan’ culture. For example, Apple systematically enforces smartphone updates aimed at harming the battery on their older models.10 Meanwhile, entertainment media production is being subjected to a standardisation process: stereotypes and clichés are presumed to be the most successful means of communication, and the harmful side effects of this approach – such as the establishment of stereotypes and the marginalisation of huge numbers of people – are disregarded. Through their strategic integration into society, current digital network oligopolies have created a dependency on their products in our everyday lives. Connectivity through the media on our smartphones has narrowed people’s horizons, and legitimised the growth of a culture of tolerating the status quo.

The rise of online streaming platforms has made Netflix another digital giant – one which currently dominates the European market and has been accused of ‘platform imperialism’.11 Private broadcasters in Germany felt so threatened by the market domination of Netflix that the argument was put forward that a proposed merger of the two largest private broadcasting groups – RTL (Bertelsmann) and ProsiebenSat.1, should be considered – so that they could act as a ‘counterpart’ to the combined economic power of public broadcasters and the new streaming services. However, due to cartel regulations, and the refusal by ProsiebenSat.1 of a Bertelsmann buyout, this potential fusion of private broadcasters was averted.

Neoliberalism acts as a dominant force that constantly pressurises smaller entities, or those which have a non-profit element, and slowly devours them. This process can be seen in the part privatisation of the BBC’s fictional content production; in the outsourcing strategies of German public service broadcasters’ commissioned productions; and in people’s absolute dependence on tech giants as mediators for information.

This makes it all the more worrying that the traditional assumption that public service broadcasting content is ‘trustworthy, credible, accountable, and autonomous of market-based interests’ is increasingly declining, especially in times of political crises.12 Public service media have a crucial role to play as a trustworthy information resource that is capable of protecting its audiences against the potential harms arising from the modern tech giants of the digital sphere and the perception of a post-truth society. Higher levels of civic participation could help re-establish this much needed trust through creating reciprocal relationships between audiences and their media institutions.

The German public broadcasting system

In contrast to the BBC, which is a national corporation, and is regulated by Ofcom, Germany’s public service system is dispersed into eleven institutions, which are regulated by media treaties. Because of the instrumentalisation of the media during the Second World War, these decentralised public service media institutions were set up as bodies that are regulated and funded independently of the state. In order to prevent political interference, and to maintain a wide spectrum of opinions, the German public sphere is made up of a range of different public and private media institutions.

Policies regulating broadcasting – the configuration of the media landscape, and questions of democracy, state influence and independent funding – are set out in the Medienstaatsvertrag (MStV, Interstate Treaty on Broadcasting and Telemedia). According to this treaty, political actors do not have any formal role within German public service media’s production processes, but in spite of this there is a disproportionately high level of representation of politicians in the governing and broadcasting councils that oversee them. This appears to contradict the foundational notion that the institutions should be free from intervention by political interests.

Germany has nine decentralised regional stations, which are co-ordinated by the network body ARD – which is also known as the first German broadcaster, Das Erste or Channel 1 – and a later, ‘second’, station, ZDF, which is nationally organised. (ARD stands for Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunksender der Bundesrepublik Deutschland – Consortium of Public-Law Broadcasting Institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany [Public-law broadcasting refers to non-state public broadcasting]; ZDF stands for Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, Second German Broadcaster.) The nine regional institutions are self-organised and together constitute the body that runs ARD, ZDF, the national radio broadcaster DLR, as well as collaborative projects such as the youth channel funk of ARD and ZDF and the French-German cultural broadcaster arte.

All these stations are financed through a licensing fee, or ‘household levy’, to ensure independence from the state. However, it should be noted that the mandatory fixed monthly payment of €18.36 disregards household income (though there are a small number of exemptions for people on certain benefits), and therefore exacerbates the widening gap between the poor and the rich, since profitable business establishments pay the same amount as pensioners or students. This means that the household levy is seen as a ‘compulsory levy’ by people who feel disconnected from public service media products.

The broadcasting councils that oversee each station are supposed to represent the full range of household-levy payers within the population, through representatives being sent by a range of ‘socially relevant’ organisations from specific sectors that are themselves decided by state political actors. The number of representatives from specific thematic areas is decided by each federal state, and this can lead to disproportionate representation of some groups at the expense of others. For instance, for the ZDF broadcasting council, Brandenburg allocates just one seat to represent the interests of senior citizens, family, women and youth, while Catholic and Protestant church representatives each get two seats. This leads to major inequalities of representation, which violate any notion of the proportional representation of different groups within the population: a wide audience, in all its complex diversity of overlapping interests, cannot be represented by individuals sent by specific organisations. Additionally, a detailed study by Uwe Hasebrink has revealed that most levy-payers in Germany are not part of an organisation, and that ‘the representatives in many cases are multi-operatives [joint leaders] of the groups and have lost their grassroot connections’ – and therefore are not in a position to act as mediators for civic integration.13

German public service broadcasters have also been heavily criticised for their lack of transparency, and for the increasing proportion of council members who are also leading politicians. This is why a recent legal judgement has enforced a transparency clause aimed at reducing political influence over broadcasting councils’ decisions. This followed allegations of political interference over the directorship of the ZDF by Hesse prime minister Roland Koch of the CDU, who was a ZDF governing council member. Two states ordered a judicial review of constitutional compliance over the issue of political representation in the broadcasters’ councils. The Federal Constitutional Court decided in favour of the complainants, which led to four main adjustments to the law: the limitation of political representation in ZDF’s councils to a third; the prohibition of membership of councils by senior political representatives; an obligation for more transparency of councils’ actions, to assist in civil society oversight; further diversification of all councils; and regular adjustments through organisational rotation, to avoid a ‘petrification’.14 

Despite this verdict, which led to modifications in all other eleven public broadcasting institutions, politicians still remain the largest group in every council. The Bavarian station BR, the national radio broadcaster DLR and the ZDF each has its full quota of one third of representatives being politicians, and the international broadcaster DW’s council actually exceeds the law, with 41 per cent.15

The attributes necessary for public broadcasting

So, what attributes are necessary for public service media if it is to survive in a post-truth environment, withstand politicisation and monopolisation, and be distinguishable from private media? Some of crucial attributes outlined by the MRC are briefly elaborated below.


Respect for and trust in the media is often measured in terms of its independence from the state, both politically and financially. Creative, workplace and fiscal autonomy is seen not only as ensuring immunity from political power and influence, but also as maintaining a space for criticism of the state and economically dominant groups, and the holding of the powerful to account. The importance of a separation between state and media can be seen in the current coverage of the war in Ukraine, where the Russian state has put in place legal penalties for the mention by any journalist of the word ‘war’, and only allows coverage that supports its own skewed interpretation of historical events. Pluralism, independent journalism and freedom from commercial and state pressure are dependent on the existence of autonomous media institutions, and for public sector broadcasting this needs to include participation by citizens in the election of governing bodies.16

Accessibility and accountability

Public sector broadcasters must be seen to be accessible, through the transparency and democracy of both their internal and external relationships. This includes taking into account people’s financial capacities and needs, and the establishment of a poly-directional and transparent relationship with its audiences.

As well as holding powerful interests to account, media institutions must in turn be held accountable, including for any misconduct. They ‘must be subject to effective regulatory mechanisms that are entirely independent of the industry and of government influence’, and be able ‘to uphold standards, process complaints, investigate gross misconduct and promote journalism of integrity’.17

In order to create a fully independent body for overseeing programmes and finances, the whole range of viewership must be represented in broadcasting and governing councils. Instead of relying on representatives of established organisations and political actors to represent the population, licence-fee-payers could be more fully represented. For example, they could be summoned through random sampling, in a similar way to a jury, as happens in the citizens’ assemblies model. This would make possible their active participation as stakeholders, who would not have a pre-set agenda, as organisations representing particular interests tend to do. As the experiments by Nanz in civic participation indicate (see note 9), after briefing or training on specific matters, citizens are fully able to participate in making important decisions at local political levels.

There also needs to be oversight and regulation of issues such as the involvement of third-party platforms with their potentially harmful algorithms; transparency of research; and investigation of complaints.18

Participation and democracy

Public service broadcasters in Germany often describe themselves as democratic, even though ordinary people – household-levy payers – cannot vote for the leadership of the stations, or for their representatives, and cannot themselves become representatives on governing councils – unless they are a long-standing and high-ranking member of a treaty listed organisation. Nor do they have the opportunity to actively shape, and participate in, media production processes. Instead, an elite group of political actors, media researchers and organisational articulators perpetuate a ‘corporatist democracy’, while governing and controlling a consumer population that is not allowed to elect its own representatives.19

In contrast to all this, many commentators argue that viewers should not only be adequately represented in the governing bodies, but should also have the legal right to be integrated into media production processes – to act as stakeholders of public service broadcasters instead of mere consumers.20 In a fully democratic media institution, all stakeholders would be integrated at all power distribution levels – executive, legislative and judiciary – and would have transparent access as well as adequate financial support. This would distinguish public service broadcasters from private media, and truly increase their public value. The MRC even imagines ‘a media commons’ that would contain the kinds of institutions and initiatives that we already have today, connected into a nationwide network.21

Increasing democratic participation in German public service broadcasting

The MRC’s highlighting of the need for accessibility, reflected below in the proposal for a socially equal funding model and increased transparency, is also discussed here, as a valuable additional criterion for assessing democratic participation.

Organisational forms

Online content network funk, founded in 2016, offers an interesting counterexample to the hierarchy of conventional media organisations. funk creates online-only content on social networks and third-party platforms and is aimed at 14 to 29-year-olds; they estimate that they reach 87 per cent of their target group.22 It is a successful collaborative project between ARD and ZDF, and involves its audiences through its high levels of online responsiveness. In contrast to the more traditional regional broadcasters and the editorial departments of ZDF, funk exerts ‘a weak hierarchy’ (Interview 9) or ‘a different system of teamwork’ (Interview 4):

We have adapted our structure to a management principle that originated in software development. It is called holacracy … Instead of a hierarchy, where levels build on each other, you are organised in circles that stand next to each other. We are making sure that everybody is working responsibly and independently, and that we empower and enable people to take responsibility for their duties, despite their not being required to perform traditional leadership roles. However, I have to say that, though we have a very flat hierarchy, we are still embedded in the public service broadcasting system. This means that we cannot disengage ourselves completely from hierarchy, but we adapted holacracy into our system. We still have a team leader and programme director (Interview 9).

Despite the paucity of research into holacracy in media organisation, the advantages for funk in their applied mixed working structure are apparent. They include fast and high levels of responsiveness; positive reinforcement through autonomous work in circles; effective team building; and people having positive feelings about their working environment, based on reciprocal motivation and close collaboration. The participatory mechanisms used by funk to create interactive, many-to-many, communication channels with its audience are outlined in the next section.

Audience voice in media production processes

funk’s infotainment and documentary formats are successful in attracting young audiences, and its participation strategies are a good example of the potential for the enhanced integration of public service audiences in the digital sphere. Media usage research on Generation Z indicates that they have clear preferences for online news and entertainment as opposed to linear television, and funk was created to serve this group through content that treated them as active participants. The network pursues a number of different audience engagement and participatory strategies, including through votes, prompts to elicit comments, responses to comments, and speedy replies to every message sent in. Other public service formats have started to adopt similar strategies, as in the ZDF nature and history documentary format Terra X, and tagesschau, the most popular ARD news channel, which uses social media platforms for explanatory background and additional information on current events.

However, these strategies are still in the early stages, and can be regarded as qualitative research, while the responsive elements within formats other than those coordinated by funk may well be a passing phase. The implementation of these forms of civic participation is currently only possible through the submission of new format ideas offered by funk, which is only able to consider participatory ideas through its holacratic structure (see above).

This makes it all the more concerning that public media service providers are becoming increasingly dependent on third-party platforms, particularly for reaching broader and young audiences. This intersection of public sector broadcasting with private and neoliberal-oriented social media platforms, which exploit data for advertising revenue, has been the subject of considerable critical dispute in debates about the independence of public media from advertisers and its responsibility towards its audience.

Integrated civic participation through conversational engagement with audiences, and the exchange of ideas with viewers, would not only significantly improve public sector broadcasting’s product diversity; it would also go some way towards countering public criticism based on perceptions about post-truth media, and scepticism about publicly funded institutions. Given that communication with editors in public sector broadcasting is currently very difficult, or, in most institutions, impossible, responsiveness to, and exchange with, media users is likely to constitute the main blueprint for imagining a viewer-focused, adaptive and modern public service broadcasting institution. Only this kind of public broadcaster will be able to respond to the increasing demand for participation, and to establish reciprocal trust regarding its intentions – and its main function of holding the state to account. The editorial offices within broadcasting institutions would do well to learn from funk’s practices in establishing an exchange channel that randomly selects public participants through the creation of their own platforms. In today’s ‘polymedia’ environment, people are used to creating media content as a form of ‘mass-self-communication’ – or even as a form of ‘immaterial labour’ for non-media fields, organisations or clubs.23 It is therefore more feasible than ever before to actively engage audiences in media production, either on social media channels or in a format that actively integrates audience production.


While the media’s failure to reflect society’s diversity has been a major issue for some time, the situation in the public sector’s broadcasting and governing councils – which are supposed to be representative external bodies that oversee the broadcasters’ actions – is truly alarming. A recent study of representation in all twelve broadcasting councils by Neue Deutsche Medienmacher*innen (NdM, New German Media Makers), is entitled ‘What society is this supposed to represent?’.24 Two key issues stand out in the report: the councils’ record in the representation of diversity, and the overwhelming influence of (political) elites.

The study’s analysis of the groups that are empowered to send representatives to the councils highlights the over-representation of established groups – such as churches, business associations and trade unions – which, as they point out, has an adverse effect on the diversity of the councils. Representatives from these groups, when added to the largest group, political representatives (27.1 per cent), total 57.5 per cent of representatives in all twelve broadcasting councils.25 This inevitably leads to the marginalisation of other ‘socially relevant groups’. For example, ‘farmers (less than 1 per cent of the population) have the same number of seats as people with migrant backgrounds (more than 27.1 per cent of the population)’ (pp11-12). Youth, women, people with migrant backgrounds, people with disabilities, LGTBQIA+ community members and Muslims remain heavily underrepresented. The average age of members – 57.8 years – is another important issue (p15). The governing councils mirror the composition of the groups that send representatives: people from politics, trade unions, business groups and research dominate most councils.

It is evident that the current representation model through organisations of apparently socially relevant groups should be replaced by a more democratic system. Nanz’s experiments on integrating civilian councils into local politics suggest a number of ways to achieve this. For example, participants in the broadcasting councils could receive training for their role, in order to be better able to make broadcasting-relevant decisions; and the expense allowance could be adjusted to reflect the actual number of working hours that need to be put into the role. Furthermore, the current workload is very heavy, which means either that representatives should in future be guaranteed leave of absence from their other jobs, or that the work needs to be dispersed among a greater number of members. In order to address the inadequacy of the current selection procedure, broadcasting council members should be recruited through a random sampling from the entirety of licence-fee-payers (though people could have the choice not to participate) (Interview 1). This could take the form of a ‘citizens media assembly’ – or, in MRC’s terms, it could be seen as part of a ‘media commons’. The composition of the broadcasting councils should also routinely, and regularly, rotate, as a means of gaining the greatest possible interest representation. This process would offer a much stronger and more independent control mechanism for holding broadcasters to account than inviting established organisations and privileged groups to come forward,

Public serving accessibility: funding and transparency

The MRC argues that it is crucial for public serving media institutions to be accessible to the public. This refers to the need for a broader democratic model for the way the institutions are run, based on a stakeholder participation model that takes into account all the factors that enable citizens to take part; but also to the need for the institutions to be open in their communications, and to allow insight into their actions, procedures and projects. And it also refers to the need for public broadcasters’ license fees to be affordable.

Interview participants were divided on the question of funding, and whether the system should vary its fees according to income. Some argued that ‘everyone receives the same media offer and access, so it is justifiable that everyone pays the same amount’ (Interview 6). However, the equal amount paid by every household exacerbates the gap that already exists between the rich and the poor. One intervieweepointed out that many people pay for subscriptions to private channels like Netflix or Spotify, and that people in receipt of certain benefits are already exempt from paying. (This case would be made stronger if the exemption included a greater number of people.)

In the light of all the difficulties facing low-paid workers, especially during the current period of accumulating crises and inflation, there is a case for public media institutions being asked to provide an example in terms of serving citizens’ needs through a greater consideration of their financial position. Despite the ensuing necessary bureaucratic restructuring, some interviewees therefore agreed with the idea of a gradation of the fee paid per household. All interviewees emphasised the importance of a public financing system that was independent from the state, and the need to have a counter-balance to the ‘free, unregulated and private’ market that narrows the spectrum of opinion representation in society.

The question of transparency has long been a disputed issue, but things have improved with the extension of the digital sphere, and with the judicial verdict on the ZDF case, which specifically stated that all council processes need to be accessible to the public. The ZDF’s media centre has now made large amounts of information available online – for example on structures, contact names and financial issues – including information on some salaries. An abundance of documents are also now easily accessible on the ZDF’s website, while the four broadcasting council plenaries that take place each year are now livestreamed. The regional stations, and the ARD (Channel 1), however, are still in need of improvement, due to their lack of information and transparency regarding structures, contact names or council meetings.

Transparency has improved somewhat in recent years, but there is still a long way to go before all public sector media can describe themselves as easily accessible institutions serving their audiences’ capabilities.


The further integration of audience voices in German broadcasting system could help democratise the system through making their organisational form less hierarchical (executive level); through increased audience voice in production processes (legislative level); and through representation on governing councils (judiciary level). Alongside the basic right to vote, these constitute the bedrock of our present understanding of democracies. The MRC’s criteria for the fulfilment of public sector broadcasting responsibility: independence, accountability, accessibility and participation. In a post-democratic era, a period in which citizens have become disenchanted with representative politics, swiftly responsive public media institutions, which serve the viewers’ needs and interests, while protecting them from potential harm, could become role models in the fight for democracy and political engagement.

Though in a strong and relatively trusted position compared with other media systems in Europe – German public sector broadcasting still includes anti-democratic practices that in the longer-term could harm its reputation and undermine its relatively strong position. Right-wing movements inflicted damage on public media institutions’ credibility during the Covid-19 pandemic by addressing them as ‘the lying press’, and the lack of participatory elements could further contribute to distancing and alienating them from their audiences. By starting to recognise viewers as citizens and not just merely as consumers, public service broadcasters could embrace the current increased demand for participation in the German public sphere. In doing so they could create a platform for the wide range of interests formed by the diversity that exists within the German population; this would help defend the plurality of opinion that is currently under threat from worldwide media processes of privatisation and monopolisation.

However, Germany’s public sector broadcasting institutions currently lack basic participatory elements. Citizens don’t have the ability to be elected as leaders, or to vote for leaders – who currently hold too many decision-making powers. Nor are viewers integrated into media production processes, which, in the age of prosumerism and social media, is something that audiences value; additionally, digital forms can allow people to create content that is relevant to their interests.

The representation of diversity in the broadcasting and governing councils is a central question in any discussion of civic participation. The councils are responsible for holding media institutions to account – on politics, and on their distance from state and other elite actors that have influence over these supposedly state-distant and independent institutions. The current composition of broadcasting councils is a long way from its proclaimed aim of mirroring society and this results in the marginalisation of other ‘socially relevant’ groups. In order to fully serve citizens rather than establishment organisations, recruitment through random sampling selection, inspired by the methods of citizens’ assemblies, should replace the organisational representation of the current model.

The accessibility of public sector broadcasting would also be facilitated through a greater transparency in internal processes and improved external communication strategies; while a citizen-serving institution should take into consideration the financial capabilities of its stakeholders.


Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman, ‘Fake Democracy, Bad News’, in Leo Panitch and Gregory Albo (eds), Rethinking Democracy, Merlin Press, London 2017, pp130-149.

Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge 2004; Arjun Appadurai, ‘Democracy fatigue’, in Heinrich Geiselberger (ed), The Great Regression, Polity Press, Cambridge 2017, pp1-12.

See Lisa Blackman and Valerie Walkerdine, Mass Hysteria: Critical psychology and media studies, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2001.

Aeron Davis, Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany, Media, Democracy and Social Change, Sage, London 2020.

Deborah Grayson, ‘Manifesto for a People’s Media: Creating a Media Commons’, Media Reform Coalition 2021:

Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou, Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy: Mapping the Politics of Falsehood, Routledge, New York 2020.

Heidi Schulze, Julian Hohner, Simon Greipl, Maximillian Girgnhuber, Isabell Desta and Diana Rieger, ‘Far-right conspiracy groups on fringe platforms: a longitudinal analysis of radicalization dynamics on Telegram’, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, DOI:

dpa/ZDF, ‘DJV [German Journalists Union] kritisiert “Lügenpresse”-Rufe’ (DJV criticises calls about a ‘lying press’), ZDF heute, 4 January 2022: (‘The lying press’ was a term of abuse widely levelled at the liberal press during the Nazi era.)

See ARD news channel tagesschau’s video, ‘Bürgerräte und Mitbestimmung: Wie demokratisch bist Du? – Das Experiment’ (Civic councils and participation: How democratic are you? – The experiment), YouTube, 13 September 2021: This is about an experiment the programme makers adapted from Nanz (and she is interviewed in the video).

Alex Hern, ‘Claim for £750m against Apple launched over alleged battery “throttling”’, Guardian, 16 June 2022:

Eli M. Noam, ’Overcoming Market Power in Online Video Platforms’, in Martin Moore and Damian Tambini (eds), Regulating Big Tech: Policy Responses to Digital Dominance, Oxford University Press 2021, pp55-73; Stuart Davis, ‘What is Netflix imperialism? Interrogating the monopoly aspirations of the “World’s largest television network”’, Information, Communication & Society, 2021, pp1-16, DOI:

Aya Yadlin and Oranit Klein Shagrir, ‘“One Big Fake News”: Misinformation at the Intersection of User-Based and Legacy Media’, International Journal of Communication, Vol 15, 2021, pp2528–2546.

Uwe Hasebrink, ‘The role of the audience within media governance: The neglected dimension of media literacy’, Media Studies, Vol 3 No 6, 2012, pp58-73.

Paul Kirchhoff, Transparenz des öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunks (Transparency of Public Service Broadcasters), Nomos, Baden-Baden 2017.

See Christine Horz, ‘The public: consumers or citizens? Participatory initiatives and the reform of public service media regulation in Germany’, Comunicação e Sociedade, Vol 30, 2016, pp349-66, DOI: 10.17231/comsoc.30(2016).2502.

NdM, ‘75 Jahre öffentlich-rechtliche Rundfunkräte: Welche Gesellschaft soll das abbilden? – Mangelnde Vielfalt in Rundfunkräten und was dagegen hilft’ (75 years of public broadcasting councils: What society should this represent? – Deficient diversity in broadcasting councils and what to do about it)’, Neue deutsche Medienmacher[innen] e.V, 1 August 2022:

Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman, Justin Schlosberg and Lina Dencik, The Media Manifesto, Polity Press, Cambridge 2020, p110.

See Deborah Grayson, ‘Manifesto for a People’s Media: Creating a Media Commons’, Media Reform Coalition 2021: https://

See Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini, ‘Western Media Systems in Comparative Perspective’, in James Curran and David Hesmondhalgh (eds), Media and Society (6th edition), Bloomsbury, London 2019

See Uwe Hasebrink, Anja Herzog and Christiane Eilders, ‘Media users’ participation in Europe from a civil society perspective’, in Paolo Baldi and Uwe Hasebrink (eds), Broadcasters and Citizens in Europe – Trends in Media Accountability and Viewer Participation, Itellect Ltd, Bristol and Chicago 2007.

Grayson, ‘Manifesto’, p33.

funk, ‘Das ist funk’ (This is funk),

See Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller, ‘Polymedia: Towards a new theory of digital media in interpersonal communication’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 16 No 2, 2013, pp169-87, DOI:; Manuel Castells, ‘Communication Power: Mass Communication, Mass Self-Communication and Power Relationships in the Network Society’, in James Curran and David Hesmondhalgh (eds), Media and Society, 6th Edition, Bloomsbury, New York and London 2019; Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘Immaterial Labor’, in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1996.

NdM, ‘75 Jahre öffentlich-rechtliche Rundfunkräte: Welche Gesellschaft soll das abbilden? – Mangelnde Vielfalt in Rundfunkräten und was dagegen hilft’ (75 years of public broadcasting councils: What society is this supposed to represent? – Deficient diversity in broadcasting councils and what to do about it)’, Neue deutsche Medienmacher[innen] e.V, 1st August 2022,


Published 7 July 2023
Original in English
First published by Soundings 82 (2023)

© Annika Weiss / Soundings



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