One could forgive German chancellor Helmut Kohl if he is having an identity crisis.
In a growing dispute over public TV, Kohl has been compared to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and accused of being a Boris Yeltsin crony.
In response to the latter, Kohl lashed out at a publicly funded TV program that dared to satirize him. He seized the opportunity Feb. 1 to throw his weight behind a conservative attack on the country’s public television broadcasting system.
Kohl was in high dudgeon after current affairs magazine “Monitor” spoofed him as one of Boris Yeltsin’s “sauna mates,” unwilling to press the Russian leader on human rights abuses in Chechnya. The program aired on the nation’s main pubcaster, ARD.
Kohl criticized the program in an open letter as “a low point in tastelessness.” More importantly, Kohl called into question ARD’s very existence, joining a debate touched off in November when Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber publicly advocated shuttering the main pubcaster.
Meanwhile, an opposition leader Feb. 2 dubbed Kohl “Berlus-Kohl” as tempers flared in the continuing acrimonious debate. Greens Parliamentary leader Joschka Fischer twisted the name of Berlusconi, who owns three of Italy’s six television stations, in accusing Kohl of playing politics with German broadcasting.
However, Kohl is not alone in his feelings about public TV. Another conservative politician, Saxony state premier Kurt Biedenkopf, recently joined the call for the abolition of ARD and a reduction in regional pubcasters from 11 to six or seven.
Germany’s dual system of public television funds the main channel ARD, its sister network ZDF and a federation of 11 regional pubcasters, which collectively control ARD.
But the endorsement by Kohl of an overhaul of ARD has raised the stakes in a broad and increasingly bitter debate on how to reform media law.
Kohl and his conservative allies have complained for years that the left-leaning regional stations WDR and NDR dwarf the more conservative ARD stations in southern Germany.
And Kohl’s preference for the more conservative commercial stations that have proliferated during his 12 years in power was clear during last year’s general election campaign.
Sat 1, a station owned by Bavarian media mogul Leo Kirch, ran several long Kohl interviews with friendly conservative journalists.
WDR director Friedrich Nowottny said the conservatives had laid the plans for an offensive against WDR weeks ago.
“What gets the chancellor mad is that there is a broadcaster here, namely WDR, that has the nerve to have its own opinions and publishes opinions that are not identical with the chancellor’s,” he said.
The U.S. Public Broadcasting Service is in the midst of a similar battle as the target of budget cutters on Capitol Hill.
Reuters contributed to this report.