Citizens' assemblies as a model for media control

04. April 2024
Daniel Mies / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

On 3 April 2024, employees of the public broadcasters ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandradio published a manifesto for a reform of public broadcasting in Germany. In it, they propose, among other things, that its supervisory bodies be made up of randomly selected citizens.

"The new public broadcaster belongs to the contributors. Their majority involvement in the supervisory bodies is therefore a matter of course," the manifesto states. The representative composition of the supervisory bodies could, for example, be modelled on the composition of citizens' assemblies. Direct election, the principle of rotation or sortition are ways to represent society.

Principles of the programme mandate at risk

In general, the employees see the principles and the programme mandate in danger. They praise the principle of contribution-financed public service broadcasting as an essential pillar of our democracy and culture, but call for "public service broadcasting that takes its audience seriously, allows debate and reflects a broad spectrum of opinions without defaming".

ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandradio would have to "reflect more strongly on the values and principles laid down in the Interstate Media Treaty and act in accordance with them". Transparency and the greatest possible citizen participation should be at the centre of this. Only in this way could "public service broadcasting regain acceptance and fulfil its purpose in democratic discourse.

Participation of licence fee payers

The signatories call for a "return to programme content that complies with the principles laid down in the Interstate Media Treaty, such as diversity of opinion, plurality and balance"; the participation of contributors in media policy, financial and personnel decisions" and "a participation process that involves all relevant associations and initiatives that advocate changes in public service media".

The first signatories are permanent and freelance employees of public broadcasters. They write: "For fear of professional consequences, many of them left their signatures anonymously. This speaks for itself. Among the 100 published first signatories, we found support from personalities from culture, science and other areas of society." The signatories include Jürgen Fliege, Lisa Fitz, Christine Prayon, Gabriele Gysi, Henry Hübchen, Luc Jochimsen and Markus Stockhausen.

Control by broadcasting councils

All ARD stations and ZDF are controlled by broadcasting councils. It's member organisations are determined by the respective broadcasting treaty. The members of the Broadcasting Councils are appointed for four, five or six years, depending on the broadcaster, by the associations named in the Interstate Broadcasting Treaty.

The representatives of churches, trade unions, environmental, women's and youth associations etc. are to ensure that diversity of opinion is guaranteed, that the broadcasting mandate is fulfilled and that all socially relevant groups appear in the programmes. Members are also representatives of the Länder in the respective broadcasting area, and in the case of ZDF also representatives of the Federal Government.

The members of the Broadcasting Council decide on programme projects that cost more than 2.5 million euros. They decide on important personnel matters such as the Director-General. They vote on the business plan. And they continually check whether the broadcaster is fulfilling the mandate given to it by the federal states as the bodies responsible for media policy.

Lack of diversity

In a study by the New German Media Makers Network published in August 2022, the journalist and political scientist Fabian Goldmann examined all 542 members of the broadcasting councils of ARD, Deutschlandradio, Deutsche Welle and ZDF. He comes to the conclusion that neither the councils live up to their claim to represent the diversity of society nor that disadvantaged groups are sufficiently represented. Goldmann concludes that a fairer representation fails due to a lack of political will. To improve the situation, he proposes, among other things, rotating seats, sortition procedures and regular reapplications for some seats.

Helge Lindh, spokesperson on media policy for the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, demands that public broadcasting must now, in view of the RBB scandal, set itself high standards in terms of compliance and transparency in order to avoid such scandals in the future. He also wants the Bundestag to commission a citizens' assembly to reform ARD and ZDF. He could also imagine an enquiry commission with external experts.

Appointing radio and television councils by sortition

The communication scientist Leonard Novy suggests thinking "about whether the bodies such as broadcasting councils should not be filled by lot." An alliance of 31 associations and civil society initiatives, including the German Academy for Television and the Taxpayers' Association, proposed the same in an open letter to the Broadcasting Commission in May 2023. Expanded citizen participation is to ensure that the audience can participate in communication about the content and organisation of the offering. "Conceivable, for example, is the periodic convening of citizens' assemblies in programme planning and evaluation," the alliance says.

On 3 April 2024, employees of ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandradio published a manifesto for a new public service broadcaster. "The new public broadcaster belongs to the licence fee payers. Their majority involvement in the supervisory bodies is therefore a matter of course," it says. The representative composition of the supervisory bodies could, for example, be modelled on the composition of citizens' assemblies.

Already in 2019, ZDF Television Council member Prof. Dr. Leonhard Dobusch had suggested that "at least one third of the members of broadcasting councils should be appointed by lot". In the age of digital platforms, there is more need than ever for the creation of a public sphere that is not primarily shaped by commercial profit interests, as is the case on Facebook and YouTube, he wrote.

"Strong party-political roots"

During his time as a member of the ZDF Television Council from 2016 - 2020, the economist also witnessed that the party-political anchoring among many members beyond those officially close to the state was quite pronounced. "Especially when it comes to personnel decisions such as the election of the Intendanz or of board members, this 'shadow state bank' sometimes plays a rather inglorious role and helps a party-political line rather than the more competent person to gain a majority," criticises Dobusch.

Dobusch rejects the direct election of the members of the supervisory bodies of ARD and ZDF: "The election campaign to be expected then between different lists would ultimately lead to more rather than less party politics. After all, if lists were elected, how could their formation along political world views be prevented? In the worst case, the respective election winners would thus be put in a position to reconstruct public service media according to their party-political ideas."

Associations not representative of members

Journalist and mini public expert Timo Rieg criticises the dominance of organised interests in broadcasting councils and television councils: "Associations have good chances of participation. However, if you don't have an organised lobby, you're out." Moreover, representatives of those associations that do get a say are by no means representative of their members. "If you look at the compositions, academics dominate, above-average earners dominate. This is justified by the need for expertise: "You have to know your subject area very well and be able to communicate this," says Rieg, explaining the current situation.

This, however, would give you "councils of experts and shrewd lobbyists". They are indispensable for advisory input. But they are not "the sovereign", not "the general public". They are not "representative of society", as the NRW Media Commission claims. "Where 'society' is supposed to have a say or organise itself, 40 to 60 lobbyists create more distortion than representativeness," says Rieg.

Sample of the population

"Where 'society' is asked, we need about 1,000 people, as with any opinion poll, and these have to be picked at random. Then we have a sample of the population in which all the currently privileged groups are represented in their real proportions as well as all those who have so far been left out," the expert suggests.

Those randomly selected should deliberate in small groups instead of in a "giant plenum". This would give everyone a chance to speak, and there would be no window-dressing. What needs to be clarified will be discussed step by step in alternating small groups through a multi-stage process. "At the end, there is not only what the majority of the population thinks about a matter, but because of the method, usually a vote on a very broad basis," Rieg explains the meaning of his proposal.

"The results will differ"

The randomly selected people would have no other interest than to work out a decision that suits as many people as possible. "Afterwards, that is elementary, their mandate ends. There is no extension," the journalist explains. Rieg encourages people to try things out: "It is completely harmless to let citizens who have been randomly selected consult the same thing alongside existing structures. The results will differ, otherwise there would be no need for the effort. Whether they are better or worse, let 'society' decide."

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