Maja Sojref and Sarah Glatte explore the growing public disillusionment with the mainstream press in Germany.
Every year, an independent panel of German linguists chooses “the un-word of the year” – a euphemistic word or term prominent in German public discourse which violates the principles of human dignity or democracy. In 2014, the award went to the term Lügenpresse – “lying press”. The expression was first popularised by Nazi propaganda to undermine opposing views and critics of the Nazi regime. For a long time, it has therefore been predominantly associated with the slogans of rightwing extremist groups. Yet in recent years, “lying press” rhetoric has made an astonishing comeback to the German mainstream, propelled by the rise of the anti-immigrant movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) as well as of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Using “lying press” slogans, supporters of these groups allege that mainstream media outlets in Germany report on critical issues such as the Ukraine conflict, Eurozone bailouts or the migrant crisis in biased ways. They claim that the popular press has been conspiring with the government to reinforce its official line on such issues by omitting undesirable information and by drowning out the very real experiences and concerns of German citizens. This accusation was levelled prominently by critics of the media coverage of the Cologne attacks which took place on 31 December 2015. According to police reports, around 1,000 men, believed to be largely of North African and Middle Eastern origin, had gathered near Cologne’s main station on New Year’s Eve and had sexually assaulted and mugged women in large numbers. By the end of January 2016 a total of 1,054 complaints had been made to the police. Since in the immediate aftermath of these events, the incidents received no significant press coverage, some felt vindicated in their belief that the media danced to the tune of the government’s “open-door” migrant policy. In 2015, more than one million new migrants had arrived in Germany. As the Spiegel reported, those suspecting a political agenda behind the lack of coverage of the Cologne attacks criticised both mainstream media and politicians for playing down or concealing “the extent of crimes committed by refugees and migrants”.
In such a climate, the ease with which misinformation and slander disseminates in the virtual sphere can exacerbate distrust and antagonism. A report by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) argues that many of those who go online searching for what they deem to be more truthful media reports, are quickly drawn to populist websites which claim to offer “an alternative public sphere” (Gegenöffentlichkeit). More often than not, these websites are rife with Islamophobia and other forms of hate speech. One such German website, for example, talks about “western propaganda”, repeatedly associates migrants and asylum seekers with criminality, and states that “Muslims cannot be integrated in Europe”. For readers of the quoted website, these headlines blend in among articles with less agitating titles and less controversial subjects. It is through channels like these that extremist content has begun to gain traction among a broader audience, including democratic rightwing milieus and parts of the middle-class, as the BfV report concludes.
Indeed, suspicion of the mainstream media in Germany appears to have extended its reach beyond the calls and banners of PEGIDA protesters. A number of opinion polls conducted over the past years suggest that the majority of Germans place little trust in either public or privately owned media outlets. A 2015 representative survey by the nation-wide weekly Die Zeit for example, found that 50 per cent of respondents did not trust the German press coverage on refugee policy, as compared to 56 per cent on the Euro crisis and even 66 per cent on the subject of Ukraine. A similar poll conducted by Huffington Post Germany showed that 51 per cent of those surveyed were partly or completely unsatisfied with German press coverage of the refugee crisis. In this atmosphere of suspicion, the revival of the term “lying press” in Germany may be a symptom of a more general crisis of confidence among a significant number of citizens in mainstream media.
In light of the country’s history, particularly the atrocities committed against religious and ethnic minorities during the second world war, there has long been an understanding among German journalists that politically sensitive issues should be discussed with care. In his book on “Free Speech”, Timothy Garton Ash argues that among the public, this kind of self-censorship has created a “pressure of the publicly unspoken” which can and has been exploited by uninformed and misleading narratives such as those propagated by Thilo Sarrazin in his 2010 bestselling book Germany Abolishes Itself about Muslim immigrants in Germany. Following criticism from politicians and mainstream media, Sarrazin argued that, “in today’s Germany, it’s no longer possible to speak your mind”. The popular support for Sarrazin’s ideas and calls of a “lying press” represent two different symptoms of the same widening gap between German popular sentiments and mainstream press coverage.
Yet, there are many reasons why the state of the German media landscape is not as dire as its critics would like us to believe. In its 2015 report, Freedom House ranked Germany among the top countries in terms of press freedom, ahead of the USA, France, or the United Kingdom. Moreover, the response of many German media outlets to charges of bias and misinformation has been one of openness, dialogue, and engagement. In one such attempt, Götz Hamann of Die Zeit acknowledges the mistakes journalists have made in recent years: for instance, in their uncritical coverage of the 2003 Iraq war or their failure to foresee the 2008 financial crisis. Crucially, print and broadcast media across the country have invested in reaching out to their critics and in improving the quality of their investigative journalism. However, as Hamann points out, none of these measures have succeeded in effectively countering charges of a “lying press”.
In a mature democracy such as Germany, increasing public suspicion of free mainstream media should be a cause for great concern. To alleviate this climate of distrust, it will require more concerted efforts not only from print, broadcast, and social media, but also from political parties and grassroots groups. They all must continue to re-engage with those who rightly or wrongly feel unrepresented or misinformed by the media and indeed by the political establishment more generally. This process forms part of a wider challenge, which is presented by the upsurge in far-right political groups in Germany itself, as manifested in the electoral successes of the AfD in regional elections in early 2016.
At the same time, however, it is important not to conflate those who question the objectivity and impartiality of certain media reports in reasoned ways with those who stir up populist sentiments by condemning “mainstream media” as a whole. Pluralist debate will suffer should the former group be equated with the latter or indeed be enticed by the rhetoric of self-proclaimed anti-establishment parties and populist far-right groups.
Sarah Glatte is an associate editor of Free Speech Debate and Maja Sojref is studying for an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St Cross College, Oxford.