Deutsche Welle rarely gets in the news, least of all for breaking any stories. If you’re Muslim with a background in journalism or simply and attractive woman though, working there comes with a high price. But if it’s not a news organisation, then what exactly is DW?
“What do I do if I have a breaking news story here in Beirut?” I asked tentatively to my German co-worker in the infamous ‘Planning’ department of Germany’s state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, over the telephone from Beirut.
“Pitch it at the weekly meeting” she replied.
At this point I had to muffle the speaker on the telephone so she wouldn’t be offended by my giggling. But more comedy was to quickly come, once I gathered myself.
“Sure, but what about if a car bomb goes off in my street, or someone is assassinated and I have the scoop?” I replied, corpsing like a schoolboy in front of the headmaster.
“Ah, vell, in zat case, I’m not sure” came the gob-smacking rum reply. It was, unfortunately, to be the first of many hilarious exchanges with my new client, DW, as a freelance correspondent for them in Beirut in 2015.
It was early days, but I had just been called by the CEO of DW and offered the chance to formally become a freelance correspondent for the broadcaster. Old school journalism is what he said he wanted. But in reality, what I discovered was a wholesale animosity if not total rejection of journalism itself as a discipline, when dealing with its staff, which were hell bent on transforming me into some kind of labour camp worker whose views were worthless and who should be paid more or less nothing into the bargain.
What I discovered quickly is that DW is the antithesis of journalism and so its workers have a natural, almost gastronomic if not excremental, reaction to it when presented with a hack on the ground wanting to file a story. Bullying, anti-Semitism and sexual harassment all inevitably become part of such an egregiously amateur news setup. It was part of the culture. Foul, in-your-face racism, fits easily into it and thrives.
Indeed, it was endemic, ugly racism which I had to deal with on a daily basis. It was clear that, not only was it a distinct handicap to be an experienced journalist with good stories – but to be British – made my task hundred times worse. It’s a sort of German cliché that the Brits like to indulge themselves with wartime jokes and phrases while demeaning the Germans; in reality, what I found at DW was that the complex of the British and being defeated by chaps in Spitfires talking about “downing 109s” and “Gerry” was actually not only alive and well. But it was positively kicking.
Dealing with colleagues at DW almost felt like being a British lawyer in the corridors of Nuremberg.
I was told by the deputy of the online team that the editor didn’t like the “look” of me as she indicated that my nationality was the issue. So, none of my stories could be filed directly to him as he was happy to block them and keep the war going. I found out later that the online team in Bonn has a long running dispute with its big brother in Berlin, which creates a nightmare logistically in itself, as Bonn wanted to declare its independence while costing the German tax payer millions in the process, through over-staffing, confusion and generally being at odds with one another.
But it wasn’t only the insecure online male editor. It was everywhere, which is why I sympathise with those of Africa, Arab or Indian ethnicity who are coming out now in droves and accusing the management of overseeing institutionalised racism and bullying, perhaps unmatched in European media today – and almost certainly directed by overweight Germans on permanent employment contracts against Muslim, African and Asian workers doing the same job but with no rights, on temporary work contracts.
The racist incidents itemised in the Guardian article are shocking. But I’m sure if I was based in the DW head office in Berlin I would have been victimised just for being British.
The rank amateurism and rancorous indulgence by many staff to really behave in such a manner was remarkable. From the very start, I had to deal with this German complex. After one week, the head of programming called me and shouted at me over the phone, in what was clearly a trap she had set for me. She wanted me to lose my cool and then give her the perfect reason to terminate everything there and then. She accused me of ridiculous traits, like being “difficult to work with” simply because I corrected the idiotic rationale of a colleague in Planning who argued that my idea about doing a piece about the UN’s financing crisis of Syrian refugees should not be done, as there was no crisis. He even had the UN report to prove it. (I later did the story as a written piece on the same subject which won the highest press award the UN gives journalists in 2016). With bottom quivering lip, she went on to hilariously accuse me of proposing “polemic” story ideas. I tried to explain to her that I was a journalist. That’s what I do. Stories tend to be controversial, you know. Then she accused me of using the name of the CEO to bully colleagues, when all I had done is mention it to explain that I was doing my first report as a trial for him. It was quite juvenile and perfectly obvious that she wanted me out. Finally, she gasped in desperation, “so…are you sure you want to work for us?!”
The unmistakable disappointment in her tone when I said yes was palpable. A freelance contract was to be made up and I was to come to Berlin as part of the formality. Was she a victim or a victor of the bullying? Did she have to endure sexual harassment and was one of the victims, revealed in a TRT report, who was sexually harassed by a senior member of management? The abused abuse.
But the Berlin inauguration was folly. The dirty tricks, which read as amusing tales now but were most certainly systematic racism and constructive dismissal, was just about to begin.
From that day on a series of traps were prepared for me to fall into, so as to justify terminating the arrangement. And of course I fell into them. Put simply, my life was made hell and the work landscape which was around me was designed specifically so that it was impossible to navigate. I was supposed to give up.
But I didn’t and the dirty tricks and craven behaviour just intensified. I was invited, finally, to Berlin where I was told by a colleague that the Head of News already hated me for being part of an initiative by the CEO, which he rejects. “And being British doesn’t help”, he added with a smile. The head of news, in fact, turned out to be an aging, grey Magoo cartoon caricature who, during a 20-minute meeting with the News Editor, stared at TV monitors and didn’t even look at me once or talk. Magoo did indeed hate me. He was a bumbling buffoon, who understood little about the internet and social media and even less about the Middle East and probably couldn’t be fired because of his age. Remarkably, after flying to Berlin on the pretext of signing a freelance contract, I was told by the head of news that a contract would not be possible. However, I would get an email address and a card.
The day spent at DW head office was an eye-opener. It didn’t feel like a news organisation, more a public office or military unit with a lot of TVs. Or even an intel agency. Senior figures like Magoo didn’t feel like journalists, more like useless old colonels who had no battle experience – or like decrepit leftovers from a government ministerial reshuffle who didn’t make the list for the old people’s home. The head of programming didn’t want to see me. The CEO was out. All I did all day is watch three middle-aged women in the planning department in 1950s attire have intensive meetings in their glassed office every two hours where, standing, each stared at one another without talking, like dummies unable to speak, while in the background a huge monitor plays a documentary (about Auschwitz) and an Arab journalist surfed the internet in the corner, in the dark, in silence.
I’m ashamed to say that the arbitrary atmosphere did make me think of the old war movies I used to watch with my grandmother when I was a child. During the talk with the news editor and his head of news, I looked at Magoo and imagined him in a Nazi uniform telling a train driver packed full of Jews to get a move on. Was he the DW worker who regularly said “Fucking Muslims”, reported by a whistleblower to TRT?
It was all a trap. All I had to do was lose my patience or complain and I would fall into it.
A few days later in Beirut I received word that even what I was promised by the mute Head of News in that meeting – business cards and an email address – were to be taken back. He hadn’t changed his mind. He just lied in the first place to humour me while I was in Berlin. From that point, I noticed that none of my emails about stories had got taken seriously – until I had a unique opportunity to go to Northern Yemen – but which was rejected on the ground of it costing too much. The amateurs thought that a journalist could get into Sanaa during the heaviest bombing campaign with a couple thousand bucks. Perhaps they thought there was Easyjet flight from Beirut and that my travel insurance would cover a live round to the chest area. What a fucking joke I remember saying to myself when I hung up.
The Obsession with Russia Today
And then the email came telling me to change the specific details of my ‘bio’ on an RT French article which carried out the cardinal, if not Röhm Purge, crime of not specifying that I was a “freelance” correspondent of DW rather than, say, a regular salaried one. It seemed a pathetic, churlish obsession of the senior management with even a legal colleague constantly weighing in with emails harassing me, which felt threatening.
A few days later, news from New York came that the UN was to award me the highest press award that it grants to foreign correspondents for my Deutsche Welle article on Syrian refugees and the financial crisis, (which was rejected as a news package but I managed to force through as a written piece).
Much to my surprise, no emails or calls came from DW management, so I naturally assumed that this huge media outfit gets press awards all the time.
Even more to my surprise was just a few days after was the call from the head of programs took great delight in calling me and telling me that I was out for the bio issue, she claimed. But I suspect the award blew a fuse in the Berlin office. How dare this British freelancer call himself a ‘correspondent’ and then…not only work as one for us, but get an award! The sheer nerve of this Englander.
The lack of support from the CEO was equally remarkable, and corresponds entirely with the allegations in the TRT report than management did everything it could to avoid taking them seriously.
Peter Limbourg appears to have no control over the assiduous levels of racism and various inter-departmental disputes reigning supreme over the actual work of journalism, so it is little surprise he is able to counter them, or the bullying or sexual harassment which led one female colleague to leave. Indeed many journalists in the newsroom would moan to me that the lack of any real news was embarrassing and demotivating, with one pointing to a report made in Pakistan about a man who catches rats in a small town constantly broadcast in a week, in favour for offerings from various non-German freelancers around the world. The quality of journalism by their own German hacks in the field would be enough, no doubt to have any Arab or African freelancer working for them, fired on the spot. A report made in 2016 just before the referendum in the UK claimed, amazingly, that “70 percent of the British public wanted to remain in the UK”.
Presumably, it didn’t win any press awards. And yes, it was made by a German staffer.
DW has been called a “swamp” by its own colleagues, festooned in scores of complaints of appalling incidents of racism against its non-German staff. As a Brit who suffered from constructive dismissal by DW management, after losing thousands of euros of my own money buying video equipment and paying for full journalist accreditation (and residency) in Lebanon which ran to 5000 euros in total, I can say with absolute certainty that these complaints have to be taken seriously by the German parliament. Given how badly I was treated as a Brit, I hate to think how non-Caucasian, workers from Asia and the Middle East must be treated.
“Swamp”? More of a cesspit of racism and workers rights abuse. How Peter Limbourg will come out of it smelling of roses is unclear. Someone needs to do a mock version of the Bunker Scene on YouTube with the central character shouting about how we have to stop fondling women and getting the Arabs to go fetch cigarettes for us, with English subtitles. Probably “fu***g Muslims” would also be added to the scene.
To think that this state broadcaster is some kind of modern day Konzentrationslager labour camp for brown-skinned workers, who have to suffer daily abuse is unthinkable and the German parliament needs to launch a full independent enquiry immediately. But that is about as likely as a staffer winning a press award, or DW breaking a news story in the Middle East. DW is just out of control and a news outfit, which hands out dozens of press awards, while not receiving any in return, but is fast getting a reputation as being a vortex of the kind of racism that we associate with WWII, needs new management entirely.