NJust like Eckart von Hirschhausen, he is probably one of the best-known television doctors: Johannes Wimmer. He recently appeared in medical formats of the NDR, with a “Dr. Wimmer Talk – Knowledge is the best medicine” or in the program “Visite”, in which, according to the broadcaster, he gives “insider tips suitable for everyday use”. The fact that the medical doctor was also very active elsewhere did not seem to bother the broadcaster for a long time. The “Dr. Wimmer” magazine with topics such as “How healthy is low carb” or a report “Dr. Wimmer in the fetish cellar” is still comparatively harmless – Wimmer also produced videos for many pharmaceutical companies and the Association of Research-Based Drug Manufacturers (VFA) as well as for the Techniker-Kasse.
But now there is a shadow over the successful model Dr. Wimmer drawn: As first reported by the online magazine “Übermedien”, the NDR with Wimmer “no longer produces formats in the field of medicine/health where conflicts of interest could exist”, as a spokeswoman confirms – here the cooperation will be ended by mutual agreement. However, Wimmer is now allowed to moderate the “NDR Talkshow” instead of Jörg Pilawa, which started on Friday.
Lack of discussion on conflicts of interest
How come the broadcaster ignored conflicts of interest for so long? Initially, the NDR examined other activities and was able to “pay attention to journalistic independence,” explains a spokeswoman. Now the broadcaster is self-critical: “Looking back, we can see that the NDR, together with Dr. Wimmer should have discussed compliance issues more intensively over the course of the cooperation.” In June, he asked Wimmer for transparency because the cooperation was to be expanded – a new planned cooperation had become known that “could mean” a conflict of interest.
When asked what conflicts of interest he had, Wimmer only explained that his activities “were and are known” – he admits that he sometimes also makes training videos for patients on behalf of pharmaceutical manufacturers, which are not published because of the advertising ban for prescription drugs. From his point of view, however, he had neither accepted problematic projects nor had any conflicts of interest. “I am and have been working for those associations and institutions that I consider and have considered worthy of support.” It is not his responsibility that some of them advertised with him as the face of NDR.
Also a case for the medical association
The Berlin Medical Association has also been concerned with Wimmer’s questionable activities for pharmaceutical companies in recent years – for example, in a doctor’s coat he advertised a DNA test from a manufacturer, where it is disputed whether it has any positive effect at all. The chamber’s professional regulations prohibit doctors from advertising products that are related to their medical work. The chamber does not want to comment on the processes for data protection reasons. “I have always and always complied with the applicable laws regarding my content creation work,” says Wimmer. Due to his daughter’s cancer, he had no interest in a “chamber trial of strength” and he let his license to practice medicine rest.
Journalistic and PR activities “cannot be combined,” says Markus Lehmkuhl, Professor of Science Journalism at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – it is perfectly clear that this type of combination of activities harbors conflicts of interest. “You can’t actually discuss that at all.” As a public broadcaster, NDR must “urge with all possible force” that such conflicts of interest do not arise and that trust in the independence of reporting is destroyed. The broadcaster must have “a vital interest in preventing this type of mixing”.
Similar cases occur again and again – in 2018 the ZDF journalist Dunja Hayali was criticized because she also worked for the German gaming machine industry. Dennis Wilms, who moderates science programs at SWR, also worked for the pharmaceutical lobby association VFA and the German Foundation for Organ Donation. “Freelancers are basically free to choose their clients and do not need a permit if they want to work outside of SWR,” explains an SWR spokeswoman – but the interests of SWR should not be violated. This includes guaranteeing journalistic independence, secondary activities would have to be reported and checked.
In the VFA moderation, Wilms had the role of “a curious questioner and moderator”, not that of a “face” of the lobby association. He also only works as a moderator with “no influence on the content”, so the broadcaster considers this type of moderation to be justifiable. Wilms himself says that the moderation was “about journalistic presentation” and that no products were staged. He, too, says he has no conflicts of interest, although his work for the lobby association was apparently rewarded.