Public broadcasting in the Netherlands has serious problems with abuse of power. It is about sexual assault and physical violence.

The outgoing Secretary of State for Culture and Media, Fleur Graper, speaks to the press.  On the walls there are numerous paintings depicting men.  She confronts journalists, mostly men.

Fleur Gräper, Dutch State Secretary for Culture and Media, presents the report. Around her: almost only men. Photo: Remko de Waal/imago

Hilversum, a small town outside Amsterdam, is considered synonymous with the Netherlands' complex public broadcasting system. Surrounded by forests, its studios and offices are located in the local Media Park, an archipelago with its own train station, restaurant and gym. In early February, a commission of inquiry revealed that there appeared to be a dark corporate culture involving large-scale bullying and sexual harassment.

Their report is titled “Nothing Seen, Nothing Heard, and Nothing Done.” The chairman, former minister Martin van Rijn, said in the presentation that commission members were “shocked” by the number of people affected by so-called “cross-border behaviour”. This includes threats, discrimination, violence, intimidation or sexual assault.

More than 2,500 questionnaires completed by employees and some 200 personal interviews show that three quarters were victims or witnesses of this type of behavior last year. However, evidence of this was not seriously sought. Cases of employees being strangled, pushed to the ground or spat on in the face were mentioned. Others received naked photos without asking, had their buttocks, breasts or genitals pinched, or were kissed on the mouth without asking.

14 of the 204 pages of the report deal with the popular talk show “De weld draait door”, behind the scenes in which there was often verbal violence, shouting and threats, and sometimes physical violence. There it was also “normal” for employees in lower positions to have sexual relations with their bosses. When women are hired or have their contracts extended, their appearance and “sexual availability” play an important role, former employees explained. Sexism was widespread in the editorial office: it was expressed above all in the constant search for sexual contact and in “inappropriate cock behavior.”

Dozens of exhaustion

The situation surrounding the talk show led to the termination of the commission, according to the newspaper Volkskrant An investigation conducted in 2022 found a “culture of fear” and “structurally cross-border behavior.” Attention was focused on the extreme tantrums of the star presenter Matthijs van Nieuwkerk, who harassed his employees with several final editors. This caused dozens of exhaustion and psychological problems such as anxiety attacks. The management of the responsible station was warned, but did not intervene.

Also receiving special attention is the sports editor of the station NOS, which resigned at the beginning of 2023. According to an internal inventory, harassment, sexism and intimidation were part of daily life there for more than 20 years. Women were seen as “free game” or “prey.” As a measure, the commission recommends improving the supervision of broadcasts and offering support to presenters.

The report does not stand alone. In recent years there have been reports of all sorts of cases of “cross-border behaviour”. As these often involved sexual assaults, there was talk of a “second #MeToo wave” in 2022, which will affect not only the media but also the world of entertainment and sports. In particular, the talent show “The Voice of Holland” became famous with serious complaints, and entertainment and sports stars also fell from their pedestals.

The image of a liberal, progressive, open society with flat hierarchies, for which the Netherlands has long been known, is once again called into question. The years-long march of right-wing populists also counters the previous image. For them, the latest report should come on cue anyway, because the public broadcasting system is frowned upon in right-wing circles as a socialist, woke waste of money.