Something is wrong if a lobby group tasked with promoting “discussion at all political levels” and with defending the “freedom of art, publication and information” calls for banning political talk shows. Yet that is exactly what the so-called German Culture Council, or Kulturrat, proposed last week.
In an interview and a press release, the head of the group, Olaf Zimmermann, said that the two main public broadcasters, Das Erste (Channel One) and ZDF, should suspend their talk shows for a year to “rework their concepts.” Mr. Zimmermann, a former art dealer who has seats on several federal organizations, said the many discussions about refugees and Islam had helped the Alternative for Germany, a far-right, anti-immigration party, to win seats in the German parliament last year. Imposing a one-year break on political chat shows might help integration in Germany, Mr. Zimmermann said.
He implied the talk shows address the wrong topics or deal with them improperly. “Last night, the talk show on Channel One seriously addressed the issue of giving handshakes as a supposed expression of German culture,” Mr. Zimmermann said about last week’s airing of Maischberger.
His idea is an old one and has a name: censorship. And in this case it would backfire. Banning debate will only be grist for the mills of conspiracy theorists who claim that mainstream-lamestream media do not feature ordinary people and the problems they face. If anything, removing these debates from public TV could push even more people away these relatively considered trustworthy sources of information. German broadcasters, whether public or private, are known for their in-depth and varied coverage of news and views.
Filling the vacuum
The experience of the Netherlands during the 1990s, when I lived there, may offer some lessons. Back then, the main Dutch public broadcasters also avoided sensitive topics involving immigrants and integration. And they did so with similar motivations to Mr. Zimmermann’s: They did not want to give bigots a bullhorn. So political correctness kept most centrist politicians and pundits from debating these issues, lest they be labeled xenophobes or a racists.
But that only allowed a colorful populist to fill the vacuum and take ownership of the issue. His name was Pim Fortuyn. He was a gay columnist who had a butler and drove a Jaguar. He soared to popularity as a politician in 2001, with statements such as: “No Muslim will ever come in again” and “Islam is backward.” An environmental activist murdered him in 2002. But his legacy lives on.
By breaking taboos, Fortuyn showed the centrist parties how important immigration and integration issues were to Dutch voters, and persuaded the mainstream to seek answers to these problems.
The Dutch experience suggests that in Germany, silencing talk shows won’t solve immigration problems — whether perceived or real. Nor would it dampen support for the AfD. If anything, Mr. Zimmermann’s idea would strengthen the populists, because their leaders, such as Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, will keep making hay out of these topics in public. And they don’t need a talk show to do so.
Their political opponents in the moderate center, however, could benefit from the platforms. TV talk shows are a good stage to expose bigotry and shine a light on better ideas.
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