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When satire provokes a debate on media ethics

Matthias von Hein | Ralf Bosen
February 22, 2018

German satirical magazine "Titanic" managed to trick German tabloid​ "Bild" into publishing what it considered to be a major political scandal. Now, the hoax has given away to a larger debate on media ethics.

A man holding the German tabloid, Bild, wearing a balaklava.
Image: Titanic/Thomas Hindner

In these times of instant digital communication and social media, fake news spreads more quickly than ever before. That's the bad news, which everyone knows. But the good news is that today it is also possible to swiftly expose those disseminating dubious information. Need an example? Back in 1977, German investigative journalist Günther Wallraff infiltrated the editorial team of German tabloid Bild, posing as a journalist called Hans Esser. He spent two months with the paper.

Read more: German icon of investigative journalism turns 70

Afterwards, Wallraff published an expose, "Der Aufmacher" (The Headline). In this, Wallraff showed the tabloid's openness to interpreting the truth and its questionable research methods. Four decades later, an email and a few calls from a satirical magazine seem to be all it takes to expose the sloppy work at the Bild editorial office — possibly in the service of its own political agenda.

Julian Reichelt, with his arms folded, standing in an office
Bild's editor-in-chief, Julian Reichelt, has defended his newspaperImage: picture alliance/dpa/B. v Jutrczenka

Collusion with Russian trolls?

What exactly happened? Someone leaked a copy of an ostensible email exchange to Bild, that seemingly indicated a major political scandal. According to the fake emails, the upcoming vote by Social Democratic (SPD) party members, on Germany's new coalition government with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), would be manipulated. By enlisting the help of Russian trolls, the "no" vote would come out ahead. The result would produce a political earthquake. The SPD would become the leading opposition party in parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel may be forced to resign, and Germany could face fresh elections. Or it may have to accept the prospect of a minority government made up of the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Read more: Merkel-led coalition: Decisive times as SPD members vote on pact

In the fake email exchange, a made-up Russian internet troll seemingly offered Kevin Kühnert, who heads the SPD youth wing Jusos, to use fake social media profiles to manipulate the SPD vote. Facebook and other platforms would be used to whip up opposition against forming a coalition government.  Kühnert has been campaigning for weeks to prevent another grand coalition, lending this hoax a certain plausibility. Bild then published a lead story about this supposed collusion, titled "Dirty campaign inside SPD party." The article concluded by saying that the authenticity of the emails could not be verified. Soon after the story was published, German satirical magazine Titanic revealed it had invented the email exchange.

A lead story in politically turbulent times

Now, this fake political scandal has morphed into a larger debate on media ethics. Attention has turned from Bild's sloppy research methods, to whether independent German media pursue a political agenda when instead they should be striving for unbiased and truthful reporting. Bild editor-in-chief, Julian Reichelt, took to Twitter saying that while he believed satire should have the right to pull a stunt like this, Titanic was really seeking to gain greater exposure for itself "by deliberately trying to discredit" Bild's journalism.

But Reichelt could not dismiss accusations that his publication had failed to properly verify the emails, and had used them to run a lead story on a central topic in German politics. So it is not surprising that some observers suspect Bild eagerly jumped on this story, given its conservative political leaning. In a tit-for-tat exchange, Titanic responded on Twitter, running a photo of Reichelt on a mock Bild front page. It says "Julian (7) can almost do research." The main title, in black, says, "This mutt is allowed to work for Bild." It is a direct reference to another Bild article, which claimed that a dog would be allowed to cast a vote in the upcoming SPD ballot.

Read more: German dog won't be able to vote on Merkel coalition despite newspaper report

Journalism under attack

The public, meanwhile, is wondering how far German publications are allowed to go to pursue a certain political agenda. Frank Überall, who heads the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), told DW: "The media are free to comment as much as they wish and to have an editorial leaning. On the other hand, of course, they must check the facts."

Überall welcomes what he thinks is an overdue apology by Reichelt. Still, with Bild's massive circulation and influence, "that won't undo such a lead story." But it is not just Bild's conduct that is being scrutinized. Satirical magazine Titanic, too, must heed journalistic standards, says Überall. He believes that this hoax was "biting satire and as such acceptable in this genre." But he also urges his colleagues "to realize that they cannot constantly attack journalism like this."

Read more: German satire magazine Titanic back on Twitter following 'hate speech' ban

Kevin Kühnert with several microphones being held up to his face.
Kevin Kühnert says the incident is 'funny'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Willnow

Battle continues via twitter

The irony of the story is that the Titanic author behind the alleged Russian emails was interviewed by Russia Today — the Russian state broadcaster, which often reports to the German media on politically targeted opinion making. A battle has been raging on Twitter ever since: with many who initially welcomed the satirical coup arguing that talking to Russia Today has discredited the publication.

Frank Überall thinks "the magazine is free to talk to Russia Today if that gives it gratification in this satirical context." Überall himself does not regard Russia Today as a serious player in the world of journalism. And while Bild and Titanic are still arguing with each other and even threatening legal action, Juso leader Kevin Kühnert seem pretty unfazed by all this. He told German news magazine Der Spiegel: "We said from the beginning that this was a crude fake. Now it's become a funny fake."