Where are they now?

Willkommenskultur

Selfie with refugee, autumn 2015

22 July 2017 | Alexander Grau | Cicero Magazin für Politische Kultur

Die Erfindung der Willkommenskultur

The Invention of Willkommenskultur [Culture of Welcome/Open Borders]

ciceroA study examines the role of the media during the migrant crisis. The alarming conclusion: the media appointed themselves as the mouthpiece of the political elite and ignored the people’s concerns. The consequences are disastrous, and not only for journalism.

Pictures from autumn 2015: happy people at Munich’s central station holding “Refugees Welcome” placards high, teddybears flying through the air, colourful balloons rising into the sky, the columns of refugees rapturously applauded.

Germany, so it seemed, was in the grip of collective welcome-hysteria. Particularly affected by this feeling were the leading media, who virtually rolled over to declare a Willkommenskultur public holiday — if not yet actually in force, then to be demanded.

Dissenters defamed

Also, the world of the so-called refugees, in reality migrants for the most part, was painted in soft tones: sometimes one had the impression that those arriving in Germany were only well-trained dentists and engineers, western-oriented husbands and fathers with their wives and children, a benediction for the German economy, a cultural enrichment of our work-a-day lives, and a necessary live-cell injection for our moribund pension-system.

Dissenting voices? Not a chance. Whoever opposed the general euphoria, whoever pointed out that it was predominantly poorly trained young men who were setting out for Germany, that overwhelmingly they were not refugees in the sense of the Geneva Refugee Convention, but economic migrants whose world-view would make integration into western, liberal societies arduous at the very least, was attacked as populist, racist, or coming from the extreme Right.

The result: already in December 2015, the Allensbach Institute for Opinion Research had pointed out in a study that the majority of Germans felt themselves to have been “informed” quite tendentiously about the refugee crisis. The overwhelming majority of media presenters reacted peevishly. Criticism of their news coverage was branded as Right-wing-populist. The feeling towards this one-sided coverage — was it just the ravings of resentful petits bourgeois sounding off about the “mainstream media”?

Open borders frenzy and the ‘jargon of consternation’

Definitely not. A study to be published next Monday by the Otto Brenner Foundation, which is close to the labour unions, documents how not only the leading German national newspapers, but also the local press, “spread the Willkommenskultur narrative from the perspective of positions taken in the [official] political discourse, borrowing its own euphemistic-rhetorical vocabulary to do so.”

That is very academically expressed. A simpler formulation would be the realisation that regional newspapers had also joined in the default open-borders brouhaha, and enthusiastically adopted the ‘enrichment’ jargon of the politico-spiritualistic opinion-makers. Negative reports were simply passed over, critical voices not heard. The leading media “remained for the most part fixated, in their opinion pieces, on the political elite”.

Well, to put it bluntly, hard cheese. The study was conducted under the leadership of the media researcher Michael Haller with the Hamburg Media School and the University of Leipzig. More than 30,000 media reports published between February 2015 and March 2016 in the major national dailies [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Welt and Bild], on internet portals [Spiegel, Focus, Tagesthemen.de], and in 85 local newspapers, were examined.

The concerns of the people were ignored

The most awkward result of the study can be summarised as follows: during this period, the media were hypnotised by the characteristic style of the political elite. People’s worries, fears and resistance were not acknowledged, unless with a didactic, contemptuous tone of voice. Instead, the Willkommenskultur was purveyed as self-evident moral obligation. The media turned themselves into the mouthpiece of the political elite; deviant opinions were no longer heard.

Negative reactions, particularly in the eastern Länder, were ring-fenced as coming from “the darklands” [Dunkeldeutschland]. The Willkommenskultur was urgently advertised as economically necessary and socially desirable. Parliamentary critics of refugee policy, especially deputies of the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland], were virtually omitted from the reporting.

Disastrous consequences

The consequences of this didactic journalism, as the study leaves no doubt, are disastrous — both for journalism and for society as a whole: “A considerable section of the population now believes that journalism has clearly been suborned into toeing the official line, and to that extent, into manipulating its reportage”. Fury seeks alternative outlets; society splits apart and becomes radicalised.

In this sense, the Otto Brenner Foundation’s study is an invaluable contribution to the winning back of democratic culture in our country, when it exposes stock-standard blinkered attitudes like, “whoever speaks of mainstream media is a far-Right radical”.

There is also the question whether this development could have been avoided. Doubts are in order, because a different handling of the refugee crisis presupposes different protagonists in the media and politics. ◼︎