The German Press Council Voluntary self-regulation of the media

Protection of the private and personal sphere
Protection of the private and personal sphere | Photo (detail): © Bernd Kasper / pixelio.de

Since 1956 the German Press Council has advised and supported the work of journalists. How does the self-regulation of the media work and how important is it today? An interview with Lutz Tillmanns, Executive Director of the German Press Council.

Mr Tillmanns, the German Press Council was founded in 1956 as an institution for voluntary self-regulation so to prevent the then-planned Federal Press Law. Since then, it brokers questions of journalistic ethics. What do you do exactly?

We have two functions essentially. For one, we defend the freedom of the press by accompanying proposed legislation on this issue in Berlin. Secondly, we look after the reputation of the press. Our central task is to provide guidelines and recommendations for journalistic work and to review complaints from the reading public.

Your most important instrument is the Press Code, which formulates the ethical principles for the conduct of journalists and publishers.

The Press Code was developed in the early 1970s. Its guidelines reflect professional experience, which is of course changing. It is a practice-oriented regulatory framework and so must always be updated.

Revision of the Press Code

Recently, in June 2013, number 8 of the code, which concerns the protection of the private and personal spheres, was revised. Why did this become necessary?

The Press Code was originally formulated for classical print media. We’ve been observing online journalism very closely in recent years and consider it now appropriate to revise the code accordingly. The process of amendment began with number 8: with the treatment of privacy in the use of social media and questions of personal rights in crime reporting. These issues have also been the subject of recent rulings by the Federal Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, which we wanted to take into account.

What further issues will be objects of amendment?

It will concern questions of classical online publications – forum posts and blogs – and questions of the integration of social networks. Take the example of forum posts. It makes a difference whether there are editors moderating forums or not, and how much they intervene. In addition, it’s now open how to handle the authentication of forum contributions. Here there are significant differences from print media, where letters are published only under the writer’s real name. In the case of digital letters, it will probably be a question of a nickname designation. Another question is how editors can make texts that come from outside – we call them “user-generated” – identifiable as such.

How is the Press Council financed?

We’re financed by the Federal Association of German Newspaper Publishers, the Association of German Magazine Publishers, the German Association of Journalists and the German Journalists Union. We also receive a subsidy from the federal government, which covers about a third of our budget. But the federal government has no right of co-determination.

Instruments of self-regulation

The Press Council relies on self-regulation. The worst thing that can happen for editors is to get a public reprimand …

Yes, and that’s a very effective instrument. A public reprimand is a form of scolding from colleagues. Of course, every publisher treats such a criticism differently. Some take it easily in stride, but others take it very, very seriously.

In principle, every citizen can make complaints to you about publications in the German press. What is the current number of complaints?

In 2013 there were about 1,400 complaints. It was about the same number in the last years. In comparison with the total journalistic production in Germany, this quite low.

Throughout history there have always been publications that straightaway produced a vast number of complaints – for instance, the publication in 2006 of the Mohammed cartoons in the magazine Die Welt and the Pope cover of the satirical magazine Titanic 2012. In 2013 there weren’t any such great debates. But can nevertheless think of a few examples for us?

Most complaints have to do with violations of the general duty to exercise due care and attention, with the imperative to tell the truth. A lot of complaints concern personal rights. They are followed in the ranking by complaints about the lack of separation between editorial content and advertising; and finally there are still cases about discrimination or sensationalistic reporting.

In early December 2013, for example, there was a public reprimand of the Leipziger Volkszeitung because a political commentary published there about neo-Nazis and leftist anti-Fascists spoke of “brown and red scum”. To call human beings “scum” constituted in the view of our grievance committee a violation of human dignity.