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On the demise of Julian Reichelt
Perhaps you’ve heard already. The “most powerful newsroom editor in Europe” lost his job this week after the New York Times published details of an internal investigation at the Axel Springer Verlag.
The man in question is Julian Reichelt, the now former editor-in-chief of Germany’s notorious national tabloid, Bild Zeitung.
Back in March the Axel Springer Verlag, which owns the Bild and Die Welt titles, announced that it was conducting an investigation into complaints of sexual misconduct against the Bild boss. But within a couple of weeks Reichelt was told to apologize for ‘hurt caused’ and things went back to normal.
Thanks to the NYT, we now know the investigation found far more damning testimony than Axel Springer let on. Female journalists described how their career chances were often dependent on whether they were prepared to sleep with the boss. There is only one conclusion to be drawn: Axel Springer saw Reichelt as too-good-to-fire and initially swept the allegations under the carpet, hoping the scandal would die down.
Reichelt allegedly took cocaine in the office and drove around in a bullet-proof vehicle. It’s easy to gain the impression of a paranoid tyrant who had his bosses wrapped around his finger.
At just 41 years of age, Reichelt was certainly an influential figure.
Bild Zeitung is the unchallenged leader among German news outlets with almost double the readership of any other news website.
But does that make Reichelt the most powerful newsroom editor in Europe (as the NYT claims)?
Those raw readership numbers hide the fact that Bild’s bark is often worse than its bite.
The editorial board - socially conservative but economically liberal - has been on the losing side of the argument on issues as diverse as gay marriage, the Greek bailout, ending gas reliance on Russia, and the nuclear power shutdown in recent years.
Not everything about Reichelt’s backstory fits into the picture of a right-wing villain either.
His parents run a blog about the wonders of homeopathy, an alternative “medicine” popular among Germans of an environmentalist persuasion.
Reichelt started out as a war correspondent. In his reports for Bild when he was still in his twenties he comes across as sensitive to the destruction of war. On assignment in war-torn Georgia in 2008, he is in a contemplative mood: “I am standing under an oak tree whose crown has been destroyed by a shell. Sometimes I wonder what the trees must think about us humans.”
Another fact about Reichelt: In 2018, the immigrant-run Neue Deutsche Medienmacher awarded him its first ‘golden potato’ award for journalism that fuels xenophobia. He surprised the audience by turning up in person and giving an ‘acceptance’ speech (in which he defended his own editorial judgement).
War of the media houses
It is worth pointing out that this is the second major scandal in German journalism in the past few years.
The first one hit Bild’s main competitor, der Spiegel. In 2018 the Hamburg-based magazine’s star reporter, Claus Relotius, was found to have fabricated dozens of articles while hoovering up journalism awards. He was untouchable at Spiegel despite the incredible nature of some of his reports.
While the Spiegel scandal is of an editorial nature and the Bild scandal is about a leadership failure, both highlight similar issues. Journalists were promoted and protected not for the quality of their research but for what they could do for the editors (in the case of Spiegel the arousal was more of mental type).
The two publications loath each other. But more unites them than they would like to admit.
Der Spiegel plays on prejudices that its urban readers have against rural folks, particularly small town America. (Relotius made a career by inventing characters and conversations that portrayed small town Americans as weird, racist hillbillies.)
Bild provides its readers with a drip-feed of crime stories (often crime by immigrants) that create an exaggerated picture of the danger of German inner cities.
‘He’s made things darker’
Few people have paid closer attention to the tabloid under Reichelt’s reign than Moritz Tschermak, author a highly critical book about Bild called Ohne Rücksicht auf Verluste.
“The reporting at Bild changed significantly under Julian Reichelt,” Tschermak told me by email. “Under [predecessor] Kai Diekmann’s long leadership Bild was a voyeuristic tabloid that focused on celebrity and sex stories.”
But when Reichelt took over in 2017 the paper became more political.
“The tone became darker and more divisive. Instead of smut stories, the front page featured more fear, anger and chaos that supposedly reigned in Germany. And the political demands were strictly conservative,” Tschermak says.
The staff at Neue Deutsche Medienmacher came to a similar conclusion when awarding their ‘golden potato’.
Sheila Mysorekar, chairwoman of Neue Deutsche Medienmacher, said that Bild had briefly been a leading voice on immigration before Reichelt took over.
“With him as editor-in-chief, Bild once again consistently stands for a lack of objectivity, prejudice and scaremongering on the topics of integration, migration and asylum,” she said in awarding him the ‘prize’.
And Bild hasn’t totally left the smut of the Diekmann years behind it either.
When scrolling down the home page recently, I came across a video interview with a ninety-year-old woman who had survived Auschwitz. Right next to it was a picture of two naked strippers. Classy.
‘Last defender against new GDR’
So, is there anything good to say about Bild?
Well, despite the criticism that can easily be aimed at Reichelt, he clearly has his supporters. None was more loyal than Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, an art lover, aesthete and music scholar.
In a private message sent to a friend (who later fell out with him and leaked the comment) in March, Döpfner described his editor as “truly the last and only journalist in Germany still courageously rebelling against the new GDR dictatorship.”
Döpfner was referring to an article Reichelt had written the previous week in which he railed against lockdown restrictions.
For critics, these comments are definitive proof that Axel Springer is run by the tin-hat brigade. It is worth considering though that this was a private communication, so a certain amount of theatricality can be excused.
In the tabloid’s defence, it has taken on a new stature during the pandemic as often the only newspaper that is consistently critical of the government. Or, as one normally liberal journalist told me, “if you want to know what is really happening, you have to read Bild.”
While the rest of the German media coalesced around a narrative that lockdowns couldn’t be severe enough and couldn’t come quickly enough, the Axel Springer outlets remained more sceptical. In opposition to the broadsheets, which reduced expert opinion to the views of a handful of lockdown advocates, Bild included a broader array of qualified opinion.
Even Bild-critic Tschermak concedes that the tabloid had a clear stance on lockdowns, although he argues that Reichelt took things too far.
“I don't think Bild was the only one,” he told me. “Other media have also repeatedly criticized the measures. But, yes, probably no other major German media outlet voiced criticism so comprehensively and so clearly.”
“I think a critical view of politics is basically good and important. But at Bild the intersections with the Querdenker scene became ever greater as time went on. Reichelt began to make the wildest claims, like that politicians don’t want to find a way out of the pandemic at all: ‘They want to maintain this state of affairs.’ That’s not useful criticism, that’s conspiracy theory.”
But it’s not just on pandemic policies that the tabloid offers an important counterpoint to newspapers that primarily cater to the urban middle classes.
Look beyond the exclamation marks and capital letters and Bild actually often stands for more sensible public policy than its more respectable competitors.
The tabloid advocates prolonging the use of nuclear energy - it has long complained that the German move to renewables is too expensive for poorer households.
In recent weeks, in its own inimitable style, Bild has been bashing the government over the record price rises for diesel and other fuels while other newspapers stayed strangely quiet - perhaps because the price rises have been driven in part by the CO2 taxes they advocate.
Oh and on homeopathy, his parents’ pet obsession? At least on this theme Reichelt managed to separate private passions from professional integrity. Bild has reported quite factually that these popular “cures” offer no benefit beyond the placebo effect.