Kohl fails to see joke in row over TV satire

Never use a diplomatic nutcracker when a giant sledgehammer will do. That seems to be Bonn's policy when it comes to media criticism.

A brief political satire, broadcast on the television channel ARD - more-or-less equivalent to BBC1 - has brought public threats from Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Separately, two regional prime ministers have issued a joint appeal arguing for the channel's abolition.

A leading current affairs programme ended with a two-minute sketch in which Mr Kohl telephones his "old sauna friend" Boris Yeltsin. The Chancellor asks President Yeltsin to make life easier for him: "Public opinion here in Germany thinks I should tell you it's not OK - you know, all the killing and the human rights. Must there be so many bodies lying about?" At the end, Helmut asks Boris "not to be cross" about an official press release which will pretend they had a tough talk. Mr Yeltsin sends greetings to Mr Kohl's wife, Hannelore, before muttering to himself, as he hangs up: "What a fool!"

The Monitor programme satire was mild by the standards of, say, Spitting Image. But Mr Kohl was having none of it. He talked of "loss of journalistic quality", and a "low point in tastelessness", in a programme lacking "any sense of decency and dignity".

Most remarkably of all, he used the sketch as a stick with which to beat ARD. In an open letter to the regionally based channel's head, he declared: "One asks how far the continued existence of the ARD can be justified." In the circumstances, it would bedifficult to explain "to the citizen who is forced to pay licence fees for the existence of the ARD" why he should do so.

Mr Kohl's comments reflect an unhappiness in high places with German public broadcasting. The new "private broadcasters" - financed by advertising and with programmes concentrating on entertainment - have become increasingly important in recent years.

Kurt Biedenkopf, prime minister of the east German state of Saxony, and Edmund Stoiber, prime minister of Bavaria, suggested at the weekend that ARD should be abolished in its present form - to reduce bureaucracy and overspending. The Social Democrats, however, have not been alone in suggesting a government desire to bring ARD under closer political control - "Chancellor's television", in one critic's phrase - may also play an important role.

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