German Public Broadcaster Hit By Scandal as Director Resigns, Police Probe Embezzlement Allegations

German public broadcaster RBB has been rocked by a scandal surrounding its former director, Patricia Schlesinger, who is accused of embezzlement and misuse of her position as head of the Berlin-based media group, which is financed by German taxpayers.

Schlesinger resigned from her post on Sunday. On Monday, Berlin’s public prosecutor confirmed it had opened an investigation into accusations Schlesinger embezzled RBB funds to support her lifestyle, including getting the network to pay for lavish dinners at her home and financing her private use of a luxury company car. Wolf-Dieter Wolf, chairman of the board at RBB, who has been linked with some of the accusations leveled at Schlesinger, also tendered his resignation on Sunday. Both deny the charges against them.

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Schlesinger, who was on a $308,000 (€307,000) annual salary at RBB, is accused of using the German public broadcaster to bankroll a lavish lifestyle for herself and her ex-husband, the Spiegel journalist Gerhard Spörl. Among the allegations, many of which have been revealed in explicit detail in the German media, are that Schlesinger regularly hosted exclusive dinners at her home for prominent guests, getting RBB to pick up the bill, and that she pushed through a $662,000 (€650,000) luxury renovation of her office – all while cutting jobs and programming costs at her network.

As head of Berlin-based RBB, a position she has held since 2016, Schlesinger is a prominent figure on the German media scene. RBB is one of the nine regional public broadcasters that make up ARD, Germany’s joint pubweb network which, with an annual budget of $7 billion (€6.9 billion) and more than 22 thousand employees, is the world’s largest public broadcaster. RBB is also one of the main sponsors of the Berlin International Film Festival.

The scandal around Schlesinger comes at a difficult time for public broadcasters in Germany, and across Europe. German pubwebs are set to renegotiate their license fee — the per-capita tax levied on all German households to finance public broadcasters ARD and ZDF — with the German government this fall. The RBB case has already led to calls to cut the pubwebs’ budgets.

Across the border in France, parliament recently scrapped their TV licensing fee as part of an effort by the French government to help those struggling with inflation and an increased cost of living. The move leaves French public broadcasters with a $3.8 billion (€3.7 billion) hole in their budgets, a gap the government says it will fill by transferring other tax funds “euro for euro” to the public networks. That measure, however, is only guaranteed through to the end of 2024, after which the government will have to come up with a different way to fund its pubwebs.

In the UK, the Conservative government is pushing ahead with plans to privatize Channel 4, a publicly-owned, commercially-financed broadcaster The move has been sharply criticized. Channel 4 is seen as a pioneering network of such ground-breaking shows as Russell T. Davies’ Queer as Folk and the first two seasons of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror.

The network last year recorded record revenues of $1.45 billion (£1.2 billion) with a $121 million (£100 million) surplus.

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