(By Ray D.)
Recently one of Germany's larger media firms announced that it planned to purchase a majority stake in ProSiebenSat1, Germany's second largest broadcasting corporation. So what? No big deal, just another corporate merger, right...?
Wrong. This isn't just any media firm: It's Axel Springer. And Axel Springer is the sort of company that touches a very raw nerve with certain groups of Germans. For starters, it is a firm that values a strong transatlantic partnership, supports the Israeli peoples' right to existence and is dedicated to fighting totalitarianism. But that is just the half of it. The firm, which owns newspapers like "Die Welt" and the best-selling tabloid "Bild," is also perceived as conservative. And to top it all off, the Chairman of Axel Springer is one Mathias Doepfner, a man who has mercilessly criticized the resurgent anti-American, anti-capitalist, pro-appeasement tendencies in German society.
So when Springer announced it wanted to expand its reach, a shrill cry went up from the ranks of the German left that democracy itself was being threatened by over-concentration of media. Particularly loud, fearful objections were registered at Stern and Der SPIEGEL. The SPD's Vice-Chairman for its parliamentary fraction, Ludwig Stiegler commented openly that, "This is a very alarming concentration of media power in a conservative publishing house." Stiegler added, "Springer shouldn't celebrate too soon. I am certain that the anti-trust authorities will take a very close look at the merger."
Germany's Real Media Hegemon: Bertelsmann
As is so often the case, the outcry was a highly selective one motivated in part by personal interests and political fears. Remember that Stern is Germany's most widely read weekly with 8 million readers and Der SPIEGEL is more or less tied for second-place with FOCUS with around 5 million. And it just so happens that Bertelsmann, far and away Germany's largest and most powerful media corporation (and Axel Springer's major competitor), owns a majority share in Stern and a 25.5% stake in Der SPIEGEL through its subsidiary Gruner & Jahr.
And let's just compare Germany's two largest media firms for a moment: Bertelsmann has a turnover of 17 billion Euros, a presence in 63 nations and a workforce of over 76,000 employees. Axel Springer has a turnover of 2.5 billion Euros, a presence in 27 countries and a workforce of 10,700. Should its merger succeed, Springer would still be much smaller than Bertelsmann. Yet we are supposed to be worried about the over-concentration of media power at Axel Springer? Is there something wrong with this picture?
The Wall Street Journal: "Axel Springer's Enemies"
No one has given a better account of the ongoing hypocrisy in German media and politics vis-a-vis Springer than the Wall Street Journal. Here are excerpts from an outstanding August 11 editorial that hit the nail right on the head:
"German democracy is under attack. At least that is what a flock of the media elite has been claiming since Axel Springer, Germany's largest newspaper publisher, said Friday it would buy ProSiebenSat.1, the country's second-largest broadcasting group. This "cannot be in the interest of democracy," said Michael Konken, the chairman of Germany's journalist association. Frank Werneke, a trade union leader, called for "the containment of media power across sectors."
These concerns would sound more sincere if they also had been voiced four years ago when Bertelsmann, the world's fourth-largest media company, took control of RTL Group, Germany's largest broadcaster. But back then, there were no such warnings about democracy's imminent decline. Bertelsmann's outlets are more to the liking of the German left.
Let's look at some of the facts. Although the acquisition will nearly double Springer's sales to about €4.2 billion, Bertelsmann still dwarfs its competitor, with global sales more than four times higher. Bertelsmann's German business alone still outpaces its rival with about €5 billion in sales. RTL is slightly more popular than ProSiebenSat.1 but neither broadcaster reaches 25% of the German audience -- the ceiling regulators have set for combined print and television companies. (...)
The principles Springer journalists are expected to support are freedom and democracy in Germany and efforts to bring the peoples of Europe closer together; reconciliation between Jews and Germans, which includes support for Israel's right to exist; the trans-Atlantic alliance and the liberal value community with the U.S.; the rejection of totalitarianism and the defense of Germany's free, social-market economy.
What sounds like a manifesto that any reasonable democrat in Germany should be able to sign is now being called a threat to the country's democracy. Without doubt, the company's commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship is what irks its opponents the most. Springer publications often criticize U.S. policies but its readers will not find the kind of hysterical anti-Americanism now so prevalent in much of Germany's media.
Consider the two weeklies Stern and Der Spiegel, both with circulations of over a million and links to Bertelsmann. Der Spiegel in particular is considered Germany's most high-brow and influential political magazine. To give a flavor of the kind of image these two publications spread of the U.S. and the Bush administration, one only has to look at some of their covers.
Last fall, when General Motors was considering layoffs at its German Opel unit (which in the end did not happen), Stern's front page showed a giant cowboy boot with the American flag on it about to step on a group of people grouped together to form the Opel logo. The headline was "The Wild-West Method." Another front page in March 2004 showed President George W. Bush in front of an American flag above what looks like a Middle Eastern city from which smoke is rising up. Headline: "How America lied to the world." The story was about the Iraq war, of course.
Before the U.S. election last November, Der Spiegel showed a caricature of President Bush dressed as a cowboy ready to shoot his opponent. The headline here was "Will America become democratic again?" Another front page in 2003 showed the American flag with little assault rifles and gas nozzles superimposed on the stars, headlined "Blood for oil. What Iraq is really about."
Television, particularly public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, whose news shows are still the most trusted, often echoes such themes. According to Media-Tenor, a media analysis center headquartered in Bonn, their Iraq coverage was at times even more negative than that of al-Jazeera.
Rather than stifling the political debate, Springer's expansion to the TV world is likely to introduce the kind of "plurality of opinions" its opponents claim he threatens. What Springer threatens is not the diversity of view but the uniformity of view and group think -- and that can only be healthy for Germany's democracy."
We at Medienkritik would like to think that the above was inspired to some degree by our work. Apparently the Journal's article caught the attention of Springer Chairman Mathias Doepfner, who made reference to it in a recent interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. We wanted to link to that interview, but for some reason SPIEGEL ONLINE has taken the unusual step of restricting access to the piece with a fee after only two days. So we will work on an English translation for you. Stay tuned for that...
(Emphasis ours throughout)