Tuesday, August 9

Scandal puts German media giant on the brink of global expansion | Germany

TThat Axel Springer, a media empire built on unearthing stories of sex and squalor among the rich and famous, should have turned a blind eye to sex and squalor within his own offices will hardly have surprised his readers.

The chauvinistic office culture of the “Wolf of Wall Street” in its flagship title Bild has always been easy to see, say former staff members of the German media giant, named after its five-time married founder who died. in 1985.

What has surprised many in Germany this week, however, is that the most powerful media publisher operating in Europe got caught trying to draw a veil over such events, just as it embarks on an ambitious global expansion plan.

On Monday night, Axel Springer SE suspended the editor-in-chief of Europe’s best-selling tabloid, Bild, after articles in the New York Times and Der Spiegel revealed unknown details of a compliance investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct. intimidation.

New information “obtained in recent days,” the company said in a statement, had shown that editor Julian Reichelt had “failed to maintain a clear boundary between private and professional matters” and had been “dishonest with the executive board.” .

In fact, the article published by the New York Times it had mostly cited testimony given to investigators at a law firm that Axel Springer himself had commissioned after complaints from half a dozen female staff members.

They alleged that Bild’s editor promoted an apprentice eleven years his junior to a high-level writing job, for which she felt she was unprepared, while he was having an affair with her. According to a follow-up article in Der Spiegel, the woman felt a professional debt to Reichelt and later sought psychiatric care.

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This case is alleged to be part of a larger pattern whereby Reichelt had consensual sex with at least four young women, whom he singled out for praise and prematurely elevated to important roles before leaving.

in a video statement Posted on Wednesday, Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner said he had not seen the testimonies cited by US media when he reinstalled Reichelt in a powerful role at the helm of Bild’s multiplatform universe after a 12-day suspension in March. of this year. . Döpfner emphasized that the “culture problem” was specific to Bild, not his entire publisher, which has 16,500 employees in more than 40 countries.

But former Axel Springer employees say the company’s top management would not have required a compliance procedure to find out what was going on at their main title offices.

“Everybody was talking about this very openly,” said a former staff member who worked at the tabloid at the time of the events that led to Reichelt’s firing. “If an apprentice had an affair with the publisher, she could go to the next level.”

“You had senior editors greeting the new trainees with a wink on their first day, they put on a show watching them as you walked through the office,” said the former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There is still this macho culture from the 80s, it’s like The Wolf of Wall Street.”

“Women are known as Mice (roughly: “pumpkin”) or Princess (“Little Princess”) whatever her role, it’s that kind of place, ”said another former Bild worker.

Had it not been for Axel Springer’s global expansion plans, these workplace practices could have continued to be tolerated. An investigation into the Reichelt scandal by a team of former BuzzFeed reporters was stopped at the last minute by his current employer, Ippen Digital, who denies killing the article due to pressure from Axel Springer executives.

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But after his acquisition of the American political publication Politico, completed on Tuesday and was reported to be worth around $ 1bn (£ 0.7bn), the German firm is held to higher international standards. The report in the New York Times was published six days after the majority owners of Axel Springer, the US private equity firm KKR, announced that its co-founders Henry Kravis and George Roberts would step down as co-CEOs.

Even after Reichelt’s ouster, Axel Springer’s deals will continue to be closely scrutinized. In Germany, the biggest shockwaves have not been caused by accusations of abuse of power, but by the wording of a leaked text message that the New York Times attributes to Döpfner.

In the message, Döpfner seems to argue that Reichelt deserved special protection because he was “really the last and only journalist in Germany who is still bravely rebelling against the new authoritarian state of the GDR”, a reference to Germany’s socialist one-party political system. Oriental. “Almost everyone else has become propaganda assistants,” read the message, which Axel Springer has confirmed as genuine while suggesting that they should be read on a note of irony.

Döpfner, a former music critic, has so far become a respectable figure in public life. Former Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge, as well as President of the German Federation of Newspaper Publishers, he presents himself as a serious public intellectual who does not limit himself to running a business, but lectures on the challenges of digital transformation and role of freedom in the global West.

Meanwhile, Bild, under Reichelt’s editorial direction, reverted to the pugilistic and divisive way of reporting that turned the tabloid into the black beast of Germany’s new left in the 1960s and 1970s, criticizing political correctness, restrictions Governments of Covid-19 and the country’s leading coronavirus. expert, Christian Drosten.

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Moving forward, Döpfner will be faced with the question of whether Bild’s bunker mentality is not just a strategic editorial course, but indicative of a broader philosophy that underpins his publishing empire.


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