Dismissal of Bild editor shines light on Axel Springer’s culture

Dismissal of Bild editor shines light on Axel Springer’s culture

Dismissal of Bild editor shines light on Axel Springer’s culture

Last March, Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of German publishing giant Axel Springer, sent a text to a friend strongly defending Julian Reichelt, editor of Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper, Bild Zeitung. The words he used have come back to haunt him.

Döpfner described Reichelt as “really the last and only journalist in Germany who is still courageously rebelling against the new GDR authoritarian state” — a reference to Communist East Germany. “Almost all the others have become propaganda assistants.”

The message, which Axel Springer has confirmed is genuine, has become one of the subplots of a saga which has gripped Germany’s political and media establishment for months and raised awkward questions about the working practices at one of its biggest publishing companies.

Axel Springer announced on Monday that it had relieved Reichelt of his duties, saying that even after the conclusion of a compliance investigation into his conduct in the spring of 2021 he had “failed to maintain a clear boundary between private and professional matters”.

The company acted after a report by The New York Times which shone an unforgiving light on the workplace culture at Bild. It said Reichelt routinely had affairs with trainees and then had them promoted within the newspaper.

The scandal would not have gained much traction outside Germany were it not for Döpfner’s status as one of the world’s most ambitious media moguls. In August, Axel Springer, which is backed by the US private equity firm KKR, purchased Politico, the US political website, for about $1bn; the acquisition closed on Tuesday. The company, which lost out to Nikkei in a race to buy the Financial Times in 2015, owns online media company Insider and the business news site Morning Brew.

But Bild Zeitung, one of Europe’s largest-circulation newspapers, has always been Axel Springer’s flagship. With its mix of celebrity gossip, lurid crime stories and hard-hitting political scoops, it has a huge and loyal following and is watched closely — and avidly courted — by the German elite. Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former chancellor, once famously said: “I need only Bild, Bild on Sunday and the telly to rule.”

Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of Axel Springer
Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of Axel Springer, who spearheaded the group’s recent deal to acquire Politico © Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

And so it was unsurprising that Reichelt’s fall featured on all the country’s news programmes on Monday. “Sex, lies and a disorderly exit,” was the headline on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s story on his departure.

A former war correspondent, who often sleeps in a military camp-bed set up in his office, Reichelt had the reputation of a hard-charging populist who steered Bild firmly to the right. Under him, it became notorious for its diatribes against Germany’s long-serving chancellor, Angela Merkel, and in particular her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Döpfner’s infamous text message must be seen in that context. At the time he wrote it, many Germans viewed the long winter lockdown as an infringement of their civil liberties and a blatant case of government overreach. But to many people, comparisons with East Germany — often used by the far-right and extreme libertarians — were obscene.

An Axel Springer spokesman said the text had been misinterpreted. It was “completely absurd” to compare Germany to the GDR, “and that should be obvious to anyone who follows Döpfner’s journalism”. “People use irony and deliberate exaggeration in private dialogues,” he said. “It’s completely impossible to assess what he really meant without the context.”

Bild’s newsroom in Berlin.
Bild’s newsroom in Berlin. The newspaper has a readership of 8m and is Europe’s best-selling mass circulation daily © Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

But German journalists did not see the irony. “I find it extremely surprising that Döpfner would compare Germany to the GDR, with its Stasi secret police and state-controlled press, a country which ordered its soldiers to shoot civilians trying to cross the border,” said Frank Überall, head of the German Federation of Journalists. “If that’s supposed to be a joke, then it’s a very bad one.”

He also said Döpfner had “defamed” German journalists by describing them as “propaganda assistants”. “These are people who have achieved outstanding things, especially during the pandemic,” he said.

Some have questioned whether Döpfner should remain as head of the German Newspaper and Digital Publishers Association (BDZV), a prestigious trade body.

“I really can’t see how such views are compatible with his role as head of the BDZV,” said Marcel Garz, a media economist at Jönköping International Business School in Sweden and long-time observer of the German media. “What he said in that SMS sounds like a conspiracy theory.”

Allegations about Reichelt’s behaviour first burst into the open in March when Der Spiegel, the news magazine, published a story about him headlined “Screw, Promote, Fire”. It said Axel Springer had hired a law firm to investigate claims that Reichelt had created a hostile work environment for women.

Reichelt took a leave of absence, but 12 days later Bild reinstated him, acknowledging he had had affairs with female staff but clearing him of wrongdoing. The board had come to the conclusion it “would not be justified” to remove him “due to the errors in office and personnel management identified in the investigation — which are not of a criminal nature”.

Its attitude changed in recent days, however, when enquiries came from The New York Times and German reporters with new allegations of misconduct. The company discovered that he was in a relationship with a female co-worker even though he had promised the board after the March investigation that he would desist from dating colleagues. Axel Springer had “given him a second chance and he had abused its trust”, said a person familiar with the matter. Reichelt did not respond to requests for comment.

It is not only Axel Springer that comes out of the Reichelt affair with egg on its face. Before The New York Times published its report, a group of reporters at German publisher Ippen had been working on a long article about what had taken place at Bild. But last Friday Ippen told them it was spiking their story.

Column chart of Number of copies sold* (m) showing Bild is Europe's biggest mass daily newspaper

The reporters objected, writing in a letter to company management that “no legal or editorial reasons were given” for killing the article.

Asked whether Ippen’s owner Dirk Ippen had personally intervened to stop publication, spokesman Johannes Lenz said that as a “media group that’s in direct competition with Bild”, Ippen had to “avoid the impression that we want to inflict economic damage on a competitor”.

It was “neither an easy nor a swift decision” to spike the story and in the run-up there had been “intense discussion on both sides”. Spiegel then stepped in and published the entire Ippen investigation on Monday evening.

The whole affair is clearly embarrassing for Axel Springer, especially as it expands in the US, a country where Reichelt’s alleged misconduct would likely not have been tolerated for so long.

“The whole saga shows that the #MeToo movement didn’t really reach Germany,” Garz said.

Additional reporting by Olaf Storbeck