Who are more powerful politicians or journalists?

Politics & Communication

It has been more than 15 years since I and a colleague from the "Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger" interviewed a social democratic minister in the then red-green cabinet. The conversation was not particularly productive. However, we tried to make the most of it while editing. And then we waited. Yes, we waited a long time to get nervous - until the text finally arrived half an hour before the editorial deadline, and we couldn't believe our eyes when we saw it. Because the minister, her press office or both had left no stone unturned. They had rewritten almost every answer, so that apart from political punches, not much was left. Not to mention newsworthiness.

We could, should have, refused this version of the interview. But it was too late. The colleagues in the editorial team had shoveled so much space in the layout for the interview that they could not have filled it with anything else at such short notice. And so things took their course. The text slipped - undeservedly - into the paper. The minister had won. Perhaps she had even deliberately waited until the last minute, that is, played for time. We do not know it.

Now, not all top politicians act in this way. In the advancing online age it is anyway the case that gaps like on paper do not exist in the net, which is why online editorial offices are not forced to fill them hectically. But the episode proves what the former Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière (CDU) writes in his recently published book "Regieren": "Overall, the relationship between ministers" - he could have written: politicians - "and journalists is complicated It is best to deal with it when everyone is aware of their role and there is no abuse. "

First of all, unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries, there is an authorization practice for verbal interviews in Germany. It is nowhere codified. It has developed historically and has as many advantages as disadvantages. The downside is undoubtedly a lack of authenticity and directness. The advantage is that interviewers and interviewees can fine-tune the text. After all, not all MPs and ministers are ready for the press - and neither are all journalists. Authorization is in the interests of those involved and consumers alike. Editors can also submit questions if something important has changed between the time of the interview and its publication. This is not least in the sense of weekly newspapers and magazines. Just the fact that a completely new text is created in the process of authorization and everything authentic escapes is not in the inventor's sense.

It has long been common for politicians not only to authorize interviews, but also quotes in current debates or set pieces of portraits - as far as these set pieces were uttered as sentences in a one-to-one conversation, e.g. Admittedly, the sentences in current debates are rarely spoken by politicians themselves. They are formulated and conveyed in their offices and sometimes made available to other editorial offices, usually with the indication that they are no longer exclusive. There is nothing wrong with any of this. Only the authorization of complete texts should be taboo for editors. It would be synonymous with self-censorship - and the end of freedom of the press.

Theoretically, the use of information from background discussions is taboo. However, every now and then something seeps through - with sometimes serious consequences. In February 2008, the SPD chairman at the time, Kurt Beck, hinted in a small circle and with a view to the confused political situation in Hesse that he could imagine cooperation with the left there - a damned hot potato at the time, because the SPD - Top woman Andrea Ypsilanti had announced something different. The present Hamburg SPD top candidate for the approaching state election, Michael Naumann, was wrongly suspected of considering such a thing in the Hanseatic city. Naumann lost the election. Beck was henceforth a problem case.

The more powerful the medium, the more likely it is to dictate conditions

What happens every now and then: that politicians want to know exactly what it is about before interviews. Sometimes this is granted, sometimes not. I can remember that the spokeswoman for a federal agency actually asked her boss six weeks in advance (!). We then withdrew the request. For reasons of journalistic self-respect, anything else would not have come into consideration.

In general, as in real life, most relationships between politicians and journalists are a matter of trust - although a matter of trust does not mean companionship. But in actual cooperation it makes a considerable difference whether the participants know each other or whether they don't know each other. Furthermore, what de Maizière paraphrased with the words: "Journalists find ministers (read: politicians) sympathetic or unsympathetic. And the same applies vice versa." And finally, a more left-liberal newspaper has better access to politicians from the SPD, the Greens or the Left than a more conservative newspaper - while "Bild", "Welt" and "FAZ" can usually do better with the Union. So what?

Another rule of thumb is: the more influential and therefore more powerful the medium, the more likely it can dictate the terms of communication. Politicians can best bridge the gap by being influential and powerful themselves. Conversely, politicians are also more likely to have more leverage. The Chancellor, for example, likes to use her power by giving an interview to newspapers whenever a state election is pending in their area. Also means: no choice, no interview.

Mechanisms of this kind based on overly human, ideological and power-political considerations apply in local editorial offices in the same way as in Berlin's government district, and they are unproblematic as long as there is pluralism in the media and between media. In addition, it is no different in other areas of professional life, for example between doctors and patients. A doctor will not deal with a patient who is pleasant to him and has known for a long time as he would with a person sitting in his waiting room for the first time. It's just normal.

There is, however, one important difference: While there is nothing to prevent the doctor and patient from becoming friends, politicians and journalists should avoid doing this as much as possible. The politician for reasons of self-protection and in order not to be disappointed by critical reports. The journalist, so that he can do his job right and "take a bite" when it is necessary. Complacency journalists don't take anyone seriously anyway, not even those they want to please in the end. And journalists who have succumbed to Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's charm or who have been on the "Schulz Train" for a while should be more skeptical since then. Politicians should know: all hype is coming to an end. Often the end is not nice.

Something has changed between politicians and journalists

In fact, friendships between politicians and journalists are therefore rather rare - and wherever they exist, they break up again and again when an affair or a scandal occurs or the course of time otherwise changes. The "refugee crisis" and the strengthening of the AfD have apparently made things seem fragile. In any case, I have found some politicians in positions in the course of which I would not have suspected them - and sometimes found that disappointing. The best thing for everyone is when the relationship between the two sides is tense. Something is fishy where tension is permanently absent.

Anyone who speaks to foreign correspondents who are accredited in Germany soon realizes that German capital correspondents are relatively privileged. MEPs and ministers are by no means as accessible everywhere as they are here. Journalists do not have access to press conferences or conduct interviews everywhere. In Germany, yes.

In the meantime, of course, something crucial has changed between politicians and journalists. The former CDU member of the Bundestag, Christoph Bergner, once said the appropriate sentence in his small office to send a press release in Berlin that it was something like "throwing a message in a bottle into the Spree". The man is right. Or rather, he was right. Because a politician who wants to be heard today no longer writes a press release. He sends a tweet. And if he wants to get rid of more than can fit in 280 characters, he links to his Facebook account on Twitter, where the number of characters is unlimited.

It goes without saying that it increases the weight of his statements and usually also the range when a politician can get his message out of a well-known newspaper - in Berlin the ugly phrase "play a topic" has become commonplace for this. But he is no longer necessarily dependent on traditional media. He can also correct the traditional media via Facebook and Twitter or even attack them. Consumers can follow this process live and actively intervene if necessary. That is new. And it forces everyone into a learning process.

It is not always easy to escape the charm of a politician. I had one of my most memorable experiences in May 2017 with today's Greens chairman Robert Habeck. As always, casually dressed, he was standing in the run-up to the Schleswig-Holstein state elections at the weekly market in Elmshorn, handing out flyers near an old people's home. And what should I say? The old women coming along the way, who did not pay any attention to the slick and ironed FDP election campaigners a few meters further, adored Habeck, without exception. Yes, there was a dash of eroticism in the game, and it wasn't the eroticism of power. "You ordered that, didn't you?" I asked. "It's always like that," replied Habeck.

Despite all the professional distance, it sounded pretty convincing.