Broadcasting affair: How the SPD intervened at SWR in Mainz

From the Mainz State Chancellery, the Rhineland-Palatinate SPD intervenes on the broadcaster SWR. At the center of the affair is a derailed state secretary. Will the case become a problem for Prime Minister Dreyer?

Attempts at intimidation, attacks on freedom of the press, demonstrations of power and threatening gestures – it is no small artillery that is being brought out in Mainz politics these days. The addressee of the criticism: the State Chancellery of Prime Minister Malu Dreyer (SPD) in Mainz. The trigger: of all people, the State Secretary, who is responsible for the broadcasting policy of the states in this very State Chancellery and therefore for relations with public broadcasting.

Now Mainz has it, now he has it too SWR his debate about the remoteness of the public media from the state – and the SPD one about abuse of power and understanding of democracy.

Short review: It is autumn 2009 when ZDF is in… Mainz is shaken by a bang: the board of directors of the Second German Television decides not to extend the contract of ZDF editor-in-chief Klaus Brender – on the initiative of the Hessian Prime Minister Roland Koch (CDU). In the end, the indignant outcry reaches Karlsruhe, constitutional lawyers speak of a “touchstone for broadcasting freedom”, the SPD indignantly criticizes the “party clique” in the supervisory bodies. The influence of the parties on public broadcasting must be reduced – that is the end result.

A good ten years later, the SPD in Rhineland-Palatinate now has its own “Brender affair”: State Secretary Heike complained at the beginning of May Raab in a letter to Südwestrundfunk in Mainz about the reporting by the Berlin SWR capital correspondent Georg Link. Link had said the sentence in a live broadcast on April 11, 2023 on the SWR Aktuell program: “It is probably unique in the country that a state minister who has to take political responsibility for the many deaths in this terrible Ahr disaster remains state chairman of his party .”

Explosive letter from the State Chancellery

The sentence was, of course, valid Roger Lewentz, the SPD Interior Minister who had to resign in October 2022 due to catastrophic mismanagement in dealing with the flood in the Ahr Valley. 136 people died that night in the meter-high floods, but Lewentz did not resign for that reason, but because his house had withheld explosive videos from the night of the flood from the investigative committee. When he resigned, Lewentz said he now takes “responsibility for the mistakes made in my area” – not a word about his own mistakes or even responsibility for the deaths on the night of the flood.

Resignation or flood deaths – the SPD Rhineland-Palatinate absolutely wanted to keep the clever campaign strategist Lewentz as state leader. Prime Minister Malu Dreyer personally enthused that he was “the best state chairman you could wish for.” That was on November 4th, and the state party conference in Mainz first gave Lewentz a thunderous applause and then re-elected him with 79 percent of the vote. There was no mention of the deaths in the Ahr Valley.

A day earlier, the FAZ had made public an explosive letter from the State Chancellery to the SWR: a letter of complaint to the state broadcaster director Ulla Fiebig at the SWR in Mainz. “Of course” it is “legitimate to raise such questions,” as the journalist Link did in his conversation, wrote Heike Raab. Link’s sentence about Lewentz and the Ahr dead is “objectively wrong” and the viewer is “misled by Mr. Link’s false statement of facts.”

In my opinion, a public broadcaster like SWR should not “carelessly make false allegations that construct a direct connection that does not exist,” Raab continued, adding: “I look forward to your answer with great anticipation Interested and will then decide whether we should also speak to the program committee.”

Protest note with letterhead from the State Chancellery

Heike Raab of all people: The 58-year-old has been State Secretary in the State Chancellery in Mainz since 2015 and is responsible for the central coordination of the media and digital affairs Broadcasting Commission of the States responsible. The chairwoman of the commission is Prime Minister Dreyer, Raab coordinates the media policy of the states and is also deputy chairwoman of the SWR administrative board, a member of the state broadcasting council and also deputy head of the SWR finance committee. Her protest note also bore the official letterhead of her government office in the State Chancellery.

The opposition in Rhineland-Palatinate speaks of a real scandal and an attack on freedom of the press, the CDU sees an attempt by the SPD to influence the SWR: “If a representative of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate is at the top of the SWR about undoubtedly journalistically clean contributions Complaining because they don’t like the reporting, it takes a deep look at the self-image and understanding of power of this state government,” complained CDU General Secretary Gordon Schnieder.

After 32 years in power, the “SPD system” is “full of arrogance and aloofness.” The officials take “a certain omnipotence and a claim to power for granted,” said Schnieder: “And that even when it comes to reporting on them – about freedom of the press!”

And at the Rhineland-Palatinate state press conference, the letter was also seen as a clear attempt at intimidation: the State Chancellery was addressing the highest level of the hierarchy in Mainz’s SWR and also bringing the program committee into play, which was to be seen as a “clear demonstration of power and threatening gesture”, that is it in a statement from the Association of State Correspondents in the Rhineland-Palatinate State Parliament.

The SWR reacted coolly: they had “carefully examined” the complaint about the switching conversation, but the correspondent’s statement was in the completely legitimate area of ​​”a journalistic-evaluative classification and assessment,” replied station director Ulla Fiebig. “Admittedly, this expression of opinion is very pointed in its statement,” but it must be “allowed to critically question and interpret circumstances and motives through journalistic processing.” Link did that, Fiebig further emphasizes – and adds the sentence: “As far as we can tell, he only used the formulation in this one moment.”

Raab defends her actions

The letter is dated May 2nd, but the conversation took place on April 11th – so why did Raab only use the stationery weeks later? Raab recently defended herself in the Mainz state parliament’s media committee that she was “addressed from within her constituency”: “Someone” told her: “Take a look at this,” and then she watched the program in the media library.

“In terms of content, I still stand by what I said and my criticism today,” emphasized Raab in her defense speech. She has been campaigning for freedom of broadcasting for over 20 years, and the independence of the media is a valuable asset for her: “That For me, the ban on political and economic influence on media content is a basic requirement and a value in democracy,” emphasized the State Secretary.

She sent the letter “after very careful consideration”; after all, it was “everyone’s right” and “a normal process, a The opposition then reproached her with the fact that Raab was not an “everyman”: “A state secretary who writes to the SWR with such a letterhead is not an everyman – she consciously acts as a representative of the government,” AfD MP Joachim Paul complained: The state secretary had tried to “demand certain reporting from the SWR, her letter makes the absence of the state absurd.”

“Do you seriously believe that a letter with the letterhead from your public function would be viewed as a completely normal program complaint or a completely normal letter?” CDU state leader Christian Baldauf also asked, and remarked smugly: “You haven’t found any other letterhead for four days ?” Where is the “neutrality and sensitive separation between office, mandate and complaint?” The media in Rhineland-Palatinate now openly wrote about the “too close ties” between the State Chancellery and the SWR. “How do they come up with that?”

In fact, the relationships between Malu Dreyer’s SPD and the management levels in SWR have been a constant topic in the Rhineland-Palatinate media landscape for years – at least since Andrea Bähner, a long-time senior editor at SWR, became government spokeswoman in 2016. It is said behind closed doors in Mainz that Bähner’s connection to his ex-colleagues remains close to this day, and calls to the station are anything but a rarity.

“God knows that it is no secret that the management level in the SWR has long had to defend itself from a targeted stranglehold by the red state chancellery,” wrote the editor-in-chief of the Koblenz Rhein-Zeitung, Lars Hennemann, in a comment: “’L’ état c’est nous’, we are the state – such a deformed and deforming attitude arises when a party, no matter which one, is in government for too long.”

Was Lewentz the client?

The opposition suspects that the secret whistleblower for the complaint was probably none other than party leader Lewentz. In fact, Raab sent a copy of her complaint letter “immediately” to Roger Lewentz. Why? “Because he is personally affected,” Raab stated. The CDU wanted to know whether she had been “in communication with Roger Lewentz” about her letter – Raab evaded it.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Mr. Lewentz was the client,” Paul also suspected. The State Chancellery wanted to influence “that the reporting should be done in such a way that his career and his comeback can be saved.” There was no serious objection to this from the ranks of the Mainz traffic light coalition; the SPD representatives simply insisted that program criticism “from outside” was not unusual and was “part of a free media landscape.”

“That’s completely out of the ordinary,” Baldauf concluded: “Ms. Raab couldn’t prove that Mr. Lewentz wasn’t the client.” Raab is incorrigible and has shown no awareness of injustice; she can no longer be kept in office. “This was a clear attempt to intimidate the press, Heike Raab must resign,” he demanded.

The matter is not over: “We will continue to ask questions until the state government implements the ÖR’s remoteness from the state by withdrawing Heike Raab,” said Baldauf star. The question is now coming into focus as to the extent to which the State Chancellery and therefore Prime Minister Dreyer personally knew about the process. A letter from the CDU parliamentary group to Dreyer with questions about the process has so far remained unanswered.

The opposition doesn’t want to let that slide: the CDU and Free Voters have now requested a special session of the Rhineland-Palatinate state parliament for next week. Dreyer has completely disappeared since the beginning of the affair, complains Schnieder, who is also the parliamentary group leader in the Mainz state parliament: “Through her silence, Ms. Dreyer takes ownership of the actions of her representatives.”

Especially since Raab has now had to correct her information: In the media committee, the state secretary claimed that she had written her letter at the end of April “from her home office”, but it is now clear: the letter also went through the official offices of the state chancellery, where it was scanned for the files and marked with the date “May 2nd”.

“There was systematic lying here,” Schnieder complains about Raab the press, parliament, the members of the SWR committees “and, last but not least, the entire public” were deceived – Dreyer must dismiss her media representative immediately.

And a committee of inquiry into the Raab case is no longer out of the question – the AfD is already calling for such a committee to be set up.

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