Legendary Reporter Decries ″Third-World Standards″ in Germany | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.08.2007
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Legendary Reporter Decries "Third-World Standards" in Germany

Investigative journalist Günter Wallraff has made history with his exposes about Turkish guest workers, tabloid journalism and call centers. He spoke to DW about moral courage, discrimination and the media.

Close-up of Günter Wallraff

Wallraff has spent his life doing undercover exposes

Günter Wallraff has been a thorn in the side of German business for decades. Now 64, the investigative reporter from Cologne has made a name for himself trying to expose injustice. His books have sold millions of copies and been translated into 30 languages. Sweden even created a word in the writer's name: wallraffa , which means "to expose misconduct from the inside by assuming a role." His most recent expose dealt with the travails of people working in German call centers. He recently courted controversy by proposing to read Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" in the community center of a Cologne mosque.

DEUTSCHE WELLE: What pronouncement about you has annoyed you the most?

Günter Wallraff: Oh, I'll have to think about that for a while -- there are so many insults. I'd say: I insist on certain enmities! When they start to praise me, I have to ask: Have I been taken in? When Bild-Zeitung [Germany's largest-selling tabloid newspaper, which was the target of his 1977 book "Lead Story"] calls me the "pen of evil," I feel I've been practically knighted. When Die Welt [newspaper] now came and started an article with "Respect for Wallraff" -- in connection with my suggestion to hold a discussion of "The Satanic Verses" in a mosque's community center -- I was slightly bewildered, I asked myself: Did I do something wrong?

For you, it's also an issue of having the right enemies. You became famous at a time when the concept of the bad guy was somewhat simpler, in the 1970s and '80s. Where are your bogeymen today?

I don't have any eternal bogeymen. I wish they would one day become civilized or democratized. I believe in the ability to change, not just in people, but also in societal structures. And even such an inhuman paper as Bild-Zeitung -- which can still be called the Central Organ of Character Assassination -- could possibly develop differently in another social environment and at least let up with this aggressiveness. It always has to do with personalities -- who's currently editor in chief? So, I don't have any eternal bogeymen; I also don't speak of enemies, I speak of opponents, and such a thing as hatred is totally foreign to me. I don't hate anyone.
Two construction workers atop girders

Social standing has replaced origin as a basis if discrimination, Wallraff says

What do you consider to be moral courage?

I think moral courage should be a compulsory subject in the schools instead of certain virtues that have returned to the forefront, such as industriousness, punctuality, etc. I think that in Germany of all places, moral courage should take that place instead, that is, that children should already learn in school to respect other cultures, other ways of life, minorities and also to stand up for them -- also if it means taking risks. That's why I'm often in schools -- especially in eastern Germany. In the last 10 years, I've given almost 100 presentations -- in places where right-wing radicals are often quite dominant. Here and there, I've even changed people's attitudes.

"Lowest of the Low," the book for which you spent two years disguised as a Turkish guest worker, was a huge success in Germany in 1985. It was, according to one critic, the first time the Germans realized that the Turks, who were working hard for little money in the country's factories and being treated like dirt, were real people. Is there now less discrimination against Turks and others foreigners in Germany?

Close-up of Bild-Zeitung newspaper

Bild is known for its bombastic front page

Today it's not the Turks who are at the very bottom of society -- it's the workers from eastern Europe: Poles, Romanians, construction workers who have no rights, who, where we used to earn six, eight deutschmarks [3-4 euros], now do it for two euros an hour. Every third construction worker is illegal or only partly legal, and they are really treated like commodities, hired and fired according to the situation. Germans are among them, too, no difference is made anymore. The long-term unemployed, especially from eastern Germany, also end up in such crews. Discrimination can't necessarily be attributed to an individual's origins anymore, but to their social standing. We have already firmly embedded so-called third-world standards in Germany.

You plan to start working in a factory again soon. Nowadays personal reports have become a standard feature in the media. There's no need to glue on a fake beard anymore. Now that anyone can make their own personal experiences public -- on YouTube, for example -- hasn't undercover journalism become old hat?

I've just provided proof of the opposite, to my own astonishment. The short time I spent in two call centers drew so much public attention to the topic that politicians are now responding and business groups are anxious. Trying it out for yourself has a very different authenticity and force of expression than when you assert something from the outside or even investigate it. And I think it's essential for many more people to do it.

Ramon Garcia-Ziemsen interviewed Günter Wallraff (ncy)

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