In a fancy TV studio boasting abstract graphics in red and orange, an Arabic-language talk show is being recorded. Host and guests are talking about Syria’s current situation and the role of the country’s opposition. The discussion becomes heated. Fortunately, the Lebanon-born female host Dima Tarhini is smart, eloquent, and firm enough to moderate the all-male debate by asking questions that viewers have posted online. When the recording ends and closing credits roll to a Middle Eastern-sounding pop tune, the director of the programme, sitting in the control room, leans back and applauds his team in German, “Gut gemacht!”. Well done!
Tarhini’s show On The Pulse is not produced in Doha or Beirut but in Berlin. It’s part of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Arabic language output that was launched in 2002 and is now being transmitted to 25 countries in the Middle East and North Africa including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Iraq. Tarhini, a former reporter for Al Jazeera and moderator for CNBC Arabiya, decided to move to Berlin because of the excellent reputation Deutsche Welle enjoys across the Arab world.
When asked to explain why Germany spent €271m in 2012 on an international channel that broadcasts worldwide but is rather unknown back home Christoph Lanz likes to pull out a map. It’s a comparison of the world in 1992 and in 2012. The former boasts only three logos of international broadcasters aiming not only at their country’s citizens, but abroad too: CNN, BBC World, and Deutsche Welle, Lanz’s own station. Ten years later there are 20 brands: Voice of America, TV Brasil, CCTV, Al Jazeera, Russia Today... “Fight for the Global Public” is the map’s caption. “We are a tool for public diplomacy,” says Lanz, who as global director oversees the station’s journalistic activities: “We are part of Germany’s soft power.”
Deutsche Welle (DW) was founded in 1953 when Germany was a pariah in terms of international affairs. The war was just over and Nazi crimes were still present in people’s minds. “Germany wasn’t even invited to compete in the World cup in 1950,” Lanz says, “and rightly so.” To improve the country’s image and to show its commitment democracy an international radio broadcast was started, called Deutsche Welle, or “German Airwaves”. In 1960 DW became an independent public body after a court ruled that broadcasting from Germany was part of the federal government’s foreign policy. In 1992 its television service began, too.
During the Cold War Deutsche Welle turned from a means to paint a more positive picture of Germany into a platform to spread western values. “That was a bipolar world. Today we live in a multipolar one,” says Lanz. “Nowadays almost all G20 countries broadcast their view of the world globally via tv channels.” Germany, he believes, must compete in this. The nation plays an increasingly significant role in the world, so “people in other countries expect us to care,” he says. “As long as you are in a conversation with each other there are fewer misunderstandings.”
Consequently, DW produces audio and online content in 30 languages while TV programmes are available in four: German, English, Arabic and Spanish. Editor-in-chief Dagmar Engel says her benchmarks are the BBC, CNN, France 24 and – with certain qualifications – Al Jazeera English. But she worries less about competitors broadcasting quality journalism than about what many at DW consider state-sponsored propaganda disguised as news journalism. Engel mentions Russia Today and CCTV. Deutsche Welle has not only the responsibility to explain the German lifestyle and European values to the world, Engel says, but also to provide a basic supply of independent news to countries where local outfits may not do so. One would expect her to cite a country such as Iran as an example. Instead she mentions many letters from US viewers who praise DW for its non-partisan reporting.
DW editors say they don’t feel they have to shed a particularly flattering light on their home country. They would probably not do a story about child poverty in Germany, says Christoph Lanz, not because it would be too negative but because in other parts of the world poverty is so much worse.
When MONOCLE visited, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was in Berlin and it was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Therefore these were the main topics DW reported about, just like any other German news channel might have. “The difference to national outlets is that we always ask ourselves: what will people from other parts of the world find interesting about this?” managing editor Alexandra von Nahmen says.
At the news desk, four teams of editors are working at her side, one for each language broadcasted. But explaining specifically German phenomena – say, nuclear phase-out – is a job that often falls to creative director Holger Zeh and his team of up to 45 designers. His department creates daily infographics that are probably more important at DW than at other stations because of the educational and international nature of its broadcasts. Time and again Zeh has had to fight back suggestions to simply use the national colours of black, red and gold. Last year he launched a complete redesign of DW, including a new logo. Fitting the long brand name onto layouts was challenging he says, as was optimising the website for 30 languages, including Arabic, which reads from right to left. Zeh is a perfectionist who gloats over finally using the DW corporate font in Arabic, too.
One floor beneath Zeh anchor Meike Krüger is in make-up, getting ready for her show Euromaxx. The culture and lifestyle programme gives travel tips for “Europe’s most beautiful cities” and profiles chefs, artists and designers. At first glance it is not exactly clear how such formats might help explain Germany to the world. But, as Krüger points out, DW is also about imparting a European point of view on things. And Euromaxx is part of what Lanz describes as the “oral vaccine principle” – making hard news easier to digest by wrapping it in softer formats.
Krüger has been a host of the show for 10 years now with viewers around the world and has developed a warm relationship with her audience. Many congratulated her on having her baby, she says, others thanked her for helping them learn German. “I just am who I am on the screen, without judgment, or valuation.” Maybe this glamorous long-legged blonde, a working mother talking about food, fun, and travel, is the best possible global ambassador for German values.