German public TV downplays EU presidential debate

  
Former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz. December 2012 [The Council of the European Union]
Top candidates Jean-Claude Juncker (European People's Party) and Martin Schulz (Socialists & Democrats ), will be featured in a one-on-one debate on 20 May, 2014. [The Council of the European Union]

The public broadcasting decision in Germany to feature the Europe-wide television debate between European top candidates on a “special interest channel” with little viewers has been sharply criticised by politicians, experts and tens of thousands of Internet users. EurActiv Germany reports.

German public television broadcasters ARD and ZDF have pushed the upcoming television debate among European top candidates to their political information channel Phoenix, whose audience share is smaller than the country's main broadcasters.

"The debate deserves prime time" on ARD or ZDF, demands an online petition already containing the signatures of 23,000 Internet users, among them prominent politicians, including Green-MEP Sven Giegold, European election liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt, and several Social Democrats.

The debate scheduled for 15 May ('TellEUROPE') will feature top candidates for the European elections from the EU's five main party groups.

"What happened to the obligation to information and education?", asked Nadja Hirsch, media policy spokeswoman for the FDP political group in the European Parliament. Finally there is a chance to show the importance of Europe and the differences between the parties, said Hirsch. "If ARD and ZDF do not reconsider this decision, the necessity of public broadcasting television is finished," she said.

Meanwhile the first television debate with European top candidates in English, was broadcasted on the channel euronews in partnership with the Dutch Maastricht University, the European Youth Forum and EurActiv, on Monday (28 April) evening.

>> Read: EU Commission candidates show their 'faces'

The event, generally seen as unexciting by observers, evoked considerable excitement on social networks. According to euronews, Twitter users from all over the world posted up to 10,000 tweets per minute using the hashtag #EUDebate2014.

German Cultural Council: European elections instead of Bundesliga

"It is incomprehensible how ARD and ZDF can push off this important program before the European elections to the special interest channel Phoenix and, instead, broadcast the Bundesliga and a family film," the German Cultural Council criticised.

According to Phoenix's own statistics, the channel has around 4 million viewers daily , a market share of 1.1%.

"Not least, do the crisis in Ukraine and the TTIP agreement currently in negotiation between the EU and the US demonstrate the huge significance of the European Parliament,” said the council’s managing director Olaf Zimmermann.

“The television debate among all top candidates from the [European] parties will be one of the most central occasions for decision making and information for voters," said Zimmermann.

ZDF and ARD: Juncker and Schulz are enough

But ZDF and ARD do not accept the arguments of protestors, claiming their broadcasting decision fits the audience the debate will appeal to.

"Phoenix is not a special interest channel, but rather an established, nationwide platform for the transmission of special events – and, by the way, the most successful information channel in Germany," contended a ZDF spokeswoman, speaking to EurActiv.de.

In addition, the ZDF and the ARD will run the televised debate on 8 May and 20 May 2014 with top candidates Jean-Claude Juncker from the European People's Party (EPP) and Martin Schulz from the European Socialists (PES).

"These politicians can most likely count on leading the two strongest political groups in the European Parliament, and therefore have a realistic chance after the European elections of filling the Commission presidency", explained ZDF chairman Thomas Bellut.

The German public broadcasters have decided to run the program analogous to broadcasting in other countries. France Television and the BBC are showing the debate on their corresponding parliament channels. In Italy, Spain and Austria the program will be run on news channels TVE, ORF and RAI respectively.

In addition, ARD will show a television debate on 21 May with the top candidates from the six biggest parties in Germany.

"The most important thing for us in our pre-election reporting is that candidates who are actually eligible for votes in Germany get a chance to speak. After all, German ballots will not feature candidates from the EPP and PES, but rather the CDU and the SPD", said ARD editor-in-chief Thomas Baumann.

But deputy national chair of JEF, Vincent Venus, is "dissatisfied" with the statements from public broadcasters.

"While it might be true that ARD and ZDF are giving this European election more coverage than previous elections, this is occurring almost exclusively with a national perspective," said Venus.

"Why is a round table discussion with German top candidates being shown, while the European one is transferred to the special interest channel Phoenix? The transnational debate deserves prime time," explained Venus.

German media have not seized the opportunity

For the first time since the Lisbon Treaty came into effect in 2009, European party groups have named Europe-wide top candidates who are contending for the office of the Commission presidency.

"Now would have been the time to portray the European election as a transnational, European event to the general public", said Cathleen Kantner, professor of International Relations and European Integration at the University of Stuttgart.

Apparently the editors-in-chief of German media still feared European politics is too boring for people, she said. But that theory is "constructed". In fact, European topics are polarising and exciting. They just have to be treated accordingly, said Kantner.

In her research, Kantner was able to prove that there is in fact a European public sphere. People, it seems, receive information on certain topics in similar cycles beyond national borders.

"The European elections are a chance to offer people the possibility to adopt their own position on European issues", said Kantner. "At the moment this chance is not being exploited to the extent that is possible."

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