The power of the media Wulff and Bild

Christian Wulff
Christian Wulff | Photo (detail): GYI-NSEA © iStockphoto

Christian Wulff stepped down as German President after weeks of stalling and sidestepping the media's questions about his affairs. Was the press responsible for his downfall? An interview with media expert Lutz Hachmeister.

Does the German media really have the power to bring down a politician?

Certainly. Just think back to Barschel and Möllemann. But to ruin a politician's career, he/she has to reveal strategic weaknesses that will allow the downfall. The nature of the affairs also has to be so clear to the public (rules and codes of ethics must be unmistakably broken) that strong opinions and a general consensus can be formed, namely, that the person needs to go. That is what happened in Wulff's case, but what was interesting was that, in the beginning, most Germans felt the allegations against him were a bit petty, nothing that should get him thrown out of office. But there was a complete turnaround, and Bild, along with other papers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Spiegel, played a large role in that. Which brings me to the third factor involved: one newspaper can't do it alone, not even Bild. To bring down a high-ranking public official there needs to be unity among the leading media outlets.

“Bild” reported favorably on Christian Wulff for years. What made him so interesting?

Wulff's media representative was able to create a solid strategic relationship with Germany's largest newspaper. When Wulff married for the second time in 2008, it caused a big stir that was given very mild treatment in Bild: Catholic with a younger woman despite still being together with his wife. Bild reported positively on the new woman, Bettina Wulff, although it is still unclear what biographical information Bild had about her. It went well for a while, but at Bild there is a saying: The people who are with us on the way up are with us on the way down. Christian Wulff experienced that phenomenon in its most extreme form. He hadn't given it enough thought from the start.

Why did “Bild” turn on him?

There are indications that Wulff tried to redefine the role of the president during his time in office, which included trying to tell Bild that he and his wife would no longer be available for exclusive photos and interviews. The result was like disappointed lovers who end up mutually estranged. This went on for a year before the affair happened and ultimately led to the friction with Springer (publisher of Bild).

What tactics did “Bild” use in this particular case?

Spiegel and Stern were the first to research the discounted loans Wulff was getting from his friends. Bild then got wind of it, researched it and used the incidents to irrevocably end its relationship with Wulff. It was a clever move because Bild could then say, "This isn't mudslinging. We researched this just like the others did." This was a strategic shift that the Bild editor-in-chief, Kai Diekmann, has been pushing for some time. He wants to keep the tabloid character of the paper, with big headlines and a connection with the public mood, but at the same time he wants to compete with more serious papers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Spiegel in a more journalistically sophisticated arena.

And this all happened after the president called executives at Axel Springer and left a message on the editor-in-chief's voice mail?

Yes. It was a bizarre move. The president left a four-minute voice message for the editor-in-chief of the largest daily newspaper in Germany, all in order to prevent a story from being run on his loan dealings. In his message, he spoke of himself in the third person. "The president is indignant…" Springer's media outlets didn't report on it themselves, though. Instead, they provided journalists with excerpts of the call, which was another clever maneuver. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung were the first to publish, making it possible for Bild once again to say, "It wasn't us.“ Wulff had basically declared war with Bild in that phone call, and it was a grave mistake. At that moment, it was clear to me that he would have to step down. That type of behavior is indefensible for a president, and Bild new that immediately.

Was Christian Wulff an easy target for the media, then?

He was very naive in any case with regard to the effects of the media and the relationship between politicians and journalists. I would have thought that someone like Wulff, who was prime minister for years and had a professional media consultant, would have known that. Germans have actually become astonishingly open and tolerant, but they also notice quickly when a politician has lost his way. The media provides the stage, if you will, but to shift opinion the public has to be ready to contribute a certain element of the argument.

So what exactly did Christian Wulff underestimate about the media?

He thought that if he had a strategic relationship with the largest daily tabloid, that the relationship would remain the same. But that is never the case. You always have to be sure of where you stand in the relationship, and once you have entered the game you can't get out. Christian Wulff didn't want to believe it.

Lutz Hachmeister was born in 1959 in Minden and studied sociology and philosophy in Münster and Berlin. In 1986 he completed his doctoral thesis on the History of Communication Studies in Germany 1987–1989. From 1987–1989 he was a journalist at the Berliner Tagesspiegel. From 1989–1995 he was the director of the Adolf-Grimme-Institut. In 1999 he completed a post-doctoral professorship qualification in journalism at the University of Dortmund and was a university lecturer for media history and media politics. Since 2006 he has been the director at the IfM (Institut für Medien- und Kommunikationspolitik - Institute for Media and Communications Policy) in Berlin.