The scandalous allegations add up to the kind of juicy, sex scandal splash that Germany’s Bild tabloid does best. A lascivious male boss who preys on female staff; colleagues who feel powerless to speak out; and corporate bosses who, to the point of neck dislocation, look the other way.
The problem for Bild is that this sex scandal – #MeToo with Big Ben bells on – allegedly unfurled in its own ranks, for years, but with no consequences for its editor-in-chief, Julian Reichelt.
Until Wednesday that was when, with uncharacteristic discretion, the newspaper noted that Reichelt had been “relieved of his duties ... as a result of press investigations”.
It was the latest half-truth in a seedy spectacle at Bild and its parent Axel Springer, Europe’s largest media company. Through its recent takeover of the transatlantic platform Politico, the company has staked out new global ambitions.
This in turn has brought higher levels of scrutiny and standards to Axel Springer and key figures such as Reichelt, a 41-year-old Hamburg native with journalist parents. After a Bild internship in 2002, he rose through the ranks after studies at a journalism school operated by the tabloid’s parent company, named after its founder, Axel Springer.
From the postwar ruins of Hamburg, the company built up the broadsheet Bild as a German equivalent of Britain’s Daily Mirror and, later, the Sun. Its successful mix of anti-communist outrage, small-man pathos and front page bare breasts made it loved, hated and feared in equal measure in West Germany.
After a softer tone in post-unification decades, Reichelt’s arrival as co-editor in 2017 revived its take-no-prisoners style. Whether on migration, climate change or Covid-19, Reichel pushed the newspaper into extremes of logic and language as circulation plummeted and Bild evolved into a digital media outlet.
Among his staff, Reichelt was loved and feared for his rambunctious creative energy, adopting the guise of a chain-smoking, Hemingway-style war reporter just as older generations at Axel Springer adopted imagined airs of a tweedy British gentry.
Behind the scenes, according to his critics, Reichelt manipulated and exploited young female staff under the mantra “screw, promote, drop”. In March a Der Spiegel report of a series of complaints against Reichelt by female staffers and interns prompted an internal investigation. Reichelt stood aside for 12 days, apologised for unspecified “mistakes” but returned to his role when the inquiry found he had broken no laws.
This week Der Spiegel published fresh allegations, followed by a New York Times report on complaints a woman made against him in 2018. It also emerged that an in-depth investigation into Reichelt by a rival German publication had gone unpublished.
Reichelt’s departure leaves two questions unanswered. First: how a misogynistic, macho corporate atmosphere – plucked and roasted in the 1980 US comedy 9 to 5 – was alive and well half a century later at Bild. And second: why did Axel Springer’s billionaire chief executive Matthias Döpfner go out of his way to protect Reichelt? Bild insiders say Döpfner, the closest confidante of company matriarch Friede Springer, viewed Reichelt as a conservative visionary key to Bild’s survival in a growing culture war.
In a leaked email to a now estranged friend, Döpfer defended Reichelt as “really the last and only journalist in Germany who still fights courageously against the new GDR authoritarian state”.
Now Döpfner is facing pressure from industry colleagues to stand down as head of Germany’s main media lobby group.
Stefan Niggemeier, a German media commentator and long-time Bild critic, wrote: “It’s a disgrace that Döpfner is the industry’s highest representative.”