ECB Headquarters Fort Apache, Frankfurt

Few journalists had access to Wednesday's violence-marred opening of the new European Central Bank headquarters in Germany's financial capital. It is a worrying sign as powerful institutions create their own media reality and shut out the public, the author argues.
Opening up a can of worms?

Warning! The writer of this column is a journalist. He thinks it's a good thing when journalists can pursue their profession, when they receive responses to their questions, when courts publish verdicts and governmental agencies fulfill their duty to provide information.

But in Germany, all this is no longer self-evident.

He finds it excessive when a former colleague such as Udo Ulfkotte, in a bestseller titled “Bought Journalists,” defames an entire profession and claims that newspapers are in the hands of shadowy powers such as NATO. Proof: He confesses that he allowed himself to be corrupted for years at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

With threadbare  revelations such as these, the man has become the hero to those who talk about a “lying press.” That has become self-evident in this country where there is widespread suspicion and for journalists this means “deauthorization.” 

Nothing stirs up governments, institutions and companies more than their sovereign right to their own brand and image. The fact that journalists and outside media often have their own perception disturbs the performance but, up to now, had to be endured as part of a democratic encounter with the public.

The digital world ― with all its social media and the chance to publish one's own magazine, website and app ― seems at first glance to have changed this structure. According to the new tendency, journalists can be dispensed with in the belief that: We simply make our own media by ourselves.

According to the new tendency, journalists can be dispensed with. Motto: We simply make our own media by ourselves.

This is the context for such procedures as at the European Central Bank (ECB), which officially opened its new headquarters in Frankfurt on Wednesday. The bold building has already become an architectural attraction, but also a symbol for pressuring the press.

The leadership of the institution considered it wise to accredit only a few representatives of news agencies and the television broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk. The rationale was security concerns, since “Blockupy” activists were also protesting at the same time. For this day, the ECB has turned into a fortification closed to old-style freedom of the press.

Responsible officials are missing the chance to communicate with those who have to write and broadcast in difficult situations such as this. It conveys the impression that the bank of banks, which has risen to the status of a sort of guarantor for the continuing existence of the euro zone, wants to diminish its profile particularly during this ceremony.

Thus it seemed like a remarkable insight that the highest-ranking guest at the opening, the state of Hesse's minister of economic affairs, Tarek Al-Wazir, requested in an emergency letter to the central bank's president, Mario Draghi, that at least a few more journalists be admitted.

The bank's ceremony of non-transparency will not bolster its renown. And the unfortunate festivities have nothing to do with professionalism with regard to public relations ― but instead with shifted standards in an era in which bosses feel called upon to engage in experiments in the area of communication.

Quite recently, Continental AG gave evidence of this trend when it spared the expense of its annual news conference and simply exposed its chief executive director and financial expert to the thundering blast of questions from the company's own press officer, who subsequently saluted the process as “clearly more efficient.” Independent journalists had been allowed to submit questions so as to enhance this event, which basically looked like internal company television.

For fans of staged happenings such as this, full control of images is the top priority, just as is achieved by soccer associations in televised broadcasts of games.

Nevertheless, the other DAX index companies don't intend to follow Continental's example. They point to the necessity of contact with journalists and of unconstrained conversations on such occasions ― in short, to open communication. A few are actually still willing to be surprised by questions from interested journalists.

The fact that company apps on the Internet for the most part have ridiculously low download figures and the recently initiated “newsrooms” of companies often tend to be information-turnover machines with dubious output is an unmistakable indication of the importance of the often-berated media. They are agencies of credibility, despite what Mr. Ulfkotte says. They operate with an obligation to closely examine information and rumors.

That is the difference from blogs, tweets and postings, where the truthfulness of content seldom corresponds to the degree of excitation in the debates being conducted.

Deauthorization? Authorization. Independent journalists make the difference in a democratic society. You just have to be willing to talk with them.


To contact the author: [email protected].