The head of Germany’s BBC equivalent has been forced to resign after being accused of using public funds to fund her lavish tastes including a bespoke office refurbishment equipped with massage chairs.
Veteran journalist Patricia Schlesinger resigned from her role as head of ARD, the German version of the BBC after she was accused of going on “spending orgies”. The row has led to calls for Germany’s compulsory TV licence fee to be dropped.
According to Business Insider, Ms Schlesinger billed her employer for parties she threw at her home, rode around in a chauffeur-driven Audi worth €145,000 (£122,000), and oversaw lucrative consultancy contracts handed to her husband.
Further allegations made in the top-selling Bild Zeitung listed €650,000 (£547,000) of refurbishments Ms Schlesinger ordered for her office, including Italian parquet flooring and two massage chairs.
The allegations have enraged opponents of the licence fee because Schlesinger was responsible for pushing a price hike to the fee last year after, insisting the broadcaster was having to scrimp and save in order to survive.
Germany’s two public broadcasters, ARD and ZDF, are the best financed in the world with a combined annual budget of over €8 billion (£6.7 billion).
Failure for a household to pay the compulsory €18 (£15) licence fee can result in a prison sentence, with one man becoming a cause célèbre for refuseniks when he spent 101 days in prison last year.
The levy is supposed to be spent on impartial reporting and the broadcasters’ budgets are, on paper, subject to strict parliamentary oversight.
Ms Schlesinger, who was until Sunday the most powerful woman in German media, denied the allegations in her resignation letter, claiming she was the victim of a “defamation campaign”.
She also resigned from her role at Berlin broadcaster RBB which has asked a law firm to assess whether her spending was legal.
Critics say though that the scandal is symptomatic of wider rot within Germany’s public broadcasting houses, which, they say, look down upon the German public.
Recent reform to the way public broadcasters are financed in France has led to calls for similar changes in Germany.
“The luxury boss of ARD is symbolic of a broken system,” thundered Bild editor-in-chief Johannes Boie. “Instead of reporting neutrally, ARD treats viewers like children, silences uncomfortable truths and is biased to the Left.”
Claiming that most Germans now reject the compulsory fee, Boie said that “Germany could get by with just one public broadcaster”.
But advocates of the licence fee refer to it as a “democracy levy” and say that it acts as a bulwark against polarisation and fake news.
“Bild is now beating the drum for a world without public broadcasters where it can spread its Right-wing infotainment. We can look to the US to see where that ends,” wrote Sebastian Schöbel, anARD journalist, on Twitter.
Polling shows that Germans place a high level of trust in their public broadcasters but also don’t like being forced to pay for their content.
Discussions around the size of the fee are highly politically charged.
The centre-right CDU was forced to U-turn on an attempt to block a hike in the cost of the licence fee last year after the other mainstream parties said that the conservatives were in cahoots with the Right-wing AfD, which strictly rejects the licence fee.
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