Samstag, 19. März 2016

Getting your face on TV is hot stuff in Germany . So why does it leave me ice cold?

One skill I teach in my Business English classes is how to write a letter of complaint. To introduce the subject  I ask students if there's anything they particularly like to complain about in Germany. Participants generally look at each other, nod their heads and answer in chorus "Everything!". At first I thought they were just joking, until I realised that making a complaint in Germany is no laughing matter.

You see, when it comes to complaining no one manages to get quite so fired up as the Germans. If something’s worth complaining about you can bet your last cent there's a nice long word for it in German. Take Schienenersatzverkehr – replacement bus service – for example. Unlike in England, however, where defect trains suddenly terminate in the middle of nowhere, at least German railways always keep you informed about "technical disruptions", and supply a convoy of buses to speed you on to your final destination. That's service for you. Yet German media is full of angry customers complaining about this, that and everything else under the black red gold flag.

One of the most popular complaint forums is a Bavarian state TV show called "Jetzt red i" - Steinbach or "Now it's my turn to talk". The idea is to give citizens from predominantly farming communities a chance to air their grief about local issues. The show champions itself as "fighting for your rights".

To distance itself from typical afternoon talk shows, which invariably degenerate into mud-slinging matches between divorcees, "Jetzt red i" yo-yos back and forward between burgers and a panel of politicians, linked by satellite - usually standing outside some flood-lit landmark, like the Bundestag or the Brandenburg Gate. The officious-looking politicians are supposed to offer up a sympathetic ear to the burgers' complaints and promise to deal with them.

I once watched this programme on satellite at home in England, so presumably you can see it everywhere from Munich to Mogadishu too. In one edition, which I'll never forget, an irate farmer protested about local male pigs being injected with drugs to stop them reproducing. Surely all men eating this meat risked losing their "manhood" too, didn't they? I forget if the politicians took him seriously at all but at least it made for entertaining viewing.

The show recently came to my neighbouring village, so I go along. I'm intrigued whether my fellow countrysiders feel so grieved about anything that they're willing to shout it from the rooftops on state TV. The venue, a hops hall, is actually so well attended I almost can't get in. Even though I arrive in good time every second chair is already draped with a coat or handbag – reserved à la German style. It feels a bit like the Invasion of the Beach Towels. You know, when you go on holiday and find all the deck chairs round the pool have been reserved by a certain nationality since the night before.

Finally, I manage to get the last remaining seat. It's at a bistro table, next to a policeman. Perched on our high stools, he tells me he's a community liaison officer, who visits schools and youth clubs. "Oh, how interesting", I say. Reminded of my own schooldays, when policemen would typically bring their sniffer dog into class and show us how they train them to catch criminals, I ask "Do you take your dog along with you?" "Actually no", he replies dryly, as if my brain software needs a major update, "we teach them how to surf the internet safely".

The programme is only 45 minutes long and over before it really gets going. Before I can attract the waitress girl's attention for another Apfelschorle the closing credits roll and celebrity presenter Tilmann Schöber is merrily wishing us "Servus mitanoind, Ois Guate!". He must be glad it's all over.

So what exactly was the purpose of the whole exercise? To be honest, I'm still trying to work it out. All I can say is that the citizens of Steinbach got little chance to have their say about the ways of the world. And if they did the "sympathetic" politicians in Brussels seemed more interested in verbally ridiculing each other than listening to farmers' problems in deepest Lower Bavaria.

I slip over to a fellow villager, one of six "lucky" locals chosen to ask the politicians a question. Actually I just want to pull his leg a bit because his question was "Why do you always let Brits have extra sausage?". He's referring of course to David Cameron's "Brexit" ultimatum to the EU. Thomas confesses that the "open forum" isn't as spontaneous as it might look. "We had a village committee meeting last week and chose six questions. Then we drew straws to see who asks them. We had to send our questions to the programme producers, who forwarded them to Brussels."

"Open" forum? It all sounds rather contrived and censored. I suspect most locals in the audience just want to get their face on TV and wave to family and friends at home. And here's something I really feel fired up enough to complain about too: Even if I had wanted to respond to the outrageous complaint about Brits demanding extra sausages, there's absolutely no chance anyone was going to listen to me. Most likely I'd have been chucked out with "Hausverbot".

I don't bother checking the local newspaper's headlines the following day, but it's probably something like "Über Hundert Bürger finden den Weg zur Live TV Sendung" (Over 100 citizens turn up at live TV show). Yepp, that's how exciting it gets in this outpost of Lower Bavaria. Just imagine, however, the alternative headline: "Böse Briter kriegt Talk Show Hausverbot" (Bad Brit Banned from Talk Show). That really would have made a nice and spontaneous complaints forum.

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