Since the arrival of COVID-19 and its attendant mandates, German public broadcasters have often taken the moral high ground in their dealings with Germany’s citizens. Now, the renunciation practiced during the Corona crisis has carried over into calls for renunciation in the face of the current energy crisis.
Recent publicity airing German broadcasters’ dirty laundry has given the lie to their moralizing. We would be wise to recall the proverb from Animal Farm: all animals are equal, but some are more equal, for while public broadcasters were preaching moralism to the citizens, the directors were having a good time in the executive suites. Patricia Schlesinger, former director of Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) and chairwoman of the board of directors of Germany’s premier public broadcaster ARD, has been accused of embezzlement and personal enrichment. She has now officially been fired by the RBB. While many of her confidantes are attempting damage control, legitimate questions must be raised about the underlying system.
How it all began
A June report by Business Insider on possible shady dealings by Schlesinger and her husband (a former journalist at Der Spiegel) got the ball rolling. The story claimed that the chairman of RBB’s board of directors, Wolf-Dieter Wolf, secured lucrative contracts for Schlesinger’s husband as a consultant (e.g. for “media coaching” to the tune of €72,000), and approved a 16% salary increase for Schlesinger herself, bringing her annual salary to €303,000 in 2021. All of this happened at a time when RBB employees were increasingly being cut to save money, while at the same time viewers were being lectured on their moral responsibility to “sacrifice” in RBB’s programming. In return for Wolf’s support, however, Schlesinger made sure that three consultants with business ties to Wolf were hired for RBB’s construction projects, including the new broadcasting studio.
After publication, the report by Business Insider initiated inquiries that were fended off by Schlesinger, but only for a short while. Even the ZDF magazine Frontal 21 began to investigate. Accusations of unjust personal gain were followed by accusations of misappropriation of public funds.
For example, Schlesinger billed private dinners in her apartment as official meetings with RBB, thus having her luxury dinners paid for by the taxpayer. Between 2018 and 2022, the director apparently held nine business dinners, at an average cost of €69.20 for catering per person. RBB confirmed that Schlesinger’s husband was present at these business dinners. So also was the Berlin police chief, who announced in the course of the revelations that “it was in no way apparent to her that this meeting had a professional background.” On the contrary, the police chief described the dinner, billed through RBB, as a “housewarming of the new apartment with friends.”
Further details came to light in July when it became known that Schlesinger had received an Audi A8 with massage seats and a chauffeur as her company car, which not only stands in stark contrast to the sacrifice preached to the viewers in the wake of the energy crisis but also went beyond the norm compared to other directors of regional public broadcasters in Germany. According to former chauffeurs quoted by Business Insider, Schlesinger also used her car regularly for private errands.
The massage seats, Schlesinger said, “were not her idea.”
To make the matter more scandalous, Schlesinger received a special “government price,” a discount of nearly 70%, from Audi that was supposed to remain a secret, according to the contract. In return, Audi expected, according to one executive, “promotional value” from Schlesinger’s “presence in the arts and cultural circles.” The agreement is explosive, because of a 2014 RBB service directive stating that RBB employees “may not accept gratuitous benefits offered to them in relation to their work at RBB as a matter of principle.”
On August 5th, Schlesinger drew her first consequence from public pressure and resigned from her post as chairwoman of ARD. Although Schlesinger continued to insist that this was a defamation campaign against her, only two days later, on August 7th, she bowed to public (and probably also internal) pressure and also resigned from her position as director of RBB. RBB had launched an internal compliance investigation earlier.
But the revelations did not stop there: in 2021, the public found out that Schlesinger received a bonus of more than €20,000 from RBB—lest we forget: for running a public broadcaster—but no additional details on why that bonus was paid were given by the RBB. Similar bonuses are not customary in other regional broadcasting stations; furthermore, RBB is Germany’s lowest-rated state public broadcaster.
These revelations could not remain without consequences, of course, and are not resolved even with Schlesinger’s resignations. The Berlin public prosecutor’s office is meanwhile investigating not only Schlesinger but also her husband and Wolf-Dieter Wolf. In addition, an external law firm has been brought in to conduct the compliance investigation at RBB.
With her resignation from RBB, Schlesinger retains the opportunity to receive pension entitlements of €15,000 a month, but these depend on the outcome of the compliance investigation. Schlesinger however has lost her severance pay; the RBB board of directors decided to terminate Schlesinger without any further benefits on August 22nd.
But while further steps are now in the hands of lawyers, the accusations continue to expand. Business Insider followed up on its research and also accused Schlesinger’s successor, Hagen Brandstätter, of being partly responsible for the continued payment of salaries to employees who had left the company long ago. In part, these continued payments are friendship payments to former companions who had to leave for various dubious involvements, but they are also “hush money” to disagreeable employees who were considered “uncomfortable.” The main people responsible for this are, incidentally, legal director Susann Lange and the then-human resources director Sylvie Deléglise. After Schlesinger’s departure, Deléglise was promoted to administrative director, which means that both ladies now sit on the management board of RBB.
Fun fact: the two ladies, Lange and Deléglise have officially been married to each other, through a ceremony led by Protestant theologian Frederike von Kirchbach, who incidentally is also the chairwoman of the RBB Broadcasting Council. Although the two ladies have since separated, it remains conspicuous that Deléglise, as head of human resources, was involved in “working out the mechanics” of the bonus payments for directors, an instrument that previously benefited not only her partner but now also herself. The director bonus payments ensured that in 2020 alone, Schlesinger received nearly €60,000 in bonus payments on top of her salary, as the evaluation process determined that self-imposed targets had been significantly exceeded.
Everyone is equal, but apparently, the directors of German public broadcasters are more equal.