Hans Leyendecker “I Want To Be Tough but Fair”

Hans Leyendecker
Hans Leyendecker | Photo (detail): © Alessandra Schellnegger, SZ

Hans Leyendecker from the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” newspaper is regarded as one of Germany’s highest-profile investigative journalists. In 2015, he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from “Medium Magazin”.

Mr Leyendecker, what in your opinion makes for an investigative journalist?

Investigative journalists cultivate their networks, conduct research, analyse, write and attempt to get as close as possible to the truth. The name says it all – they investigate in the sense of actively searching for previously unknown information. Topics of high social relevance are characteristic of investigative journalism.

In 1982, you researched a story for the magazine “Der Spiegel” entitled “Where did the Flick millions go?”, which even today is considered to be a prime example of investigative journalism in Germany. What was the story about?

It was about tax exemption for the Flick Group, which at the time was Germany’s largest family-owned business corporation. At the time, Flick had bribed literally half the country in a bid to obtain support for a tax exemption. Ministers, political parties and associations received large sums of money. Almost at the same time, a party donation affair was uncovered which involved above all the mainstream parties, which had moved money abroad to avoid paying taxes. The parties tried to cover up the scandal by planning an amnesty for tax evaders. This failed partly because the Spiegel magazine learnt about it.

Good sources, bad sources

How exactly does one go about researching a story like this?

One assumes certain information is accurate and then tries to obtain the documents to prove it; one looks for the inconsistencies and attempts to tap into a series of new sources. One approaches the object of the research from the outside and tries to penetrate ever further inside. Finally, the people concerned have to be confronted with the facts that have been uncovered by the research. How they respond to the accusations is what has to be reported.

You have been working as an investigative journalist for nearly forty years. Have you ever made mistakes?

I made at least one large mistake. It was when I was researching a <em>Spiegel</em> cover story in 1993 about an attack by the GSG9, an anti-terrorist unit of the German federal police, on members of the left-wing extremist terror group Red Army Faction (RAF). There was an exchange of fire, which resulted in the death of a police officer and a terrorist. When it was then suspected that the terrorist had been shot in the heat of the moment rather than committing suicide, as the official version had it, I made a major story out of this too early on and relied on sources whose initial statements later turned out to be unverifiable. The then federal interior minister resigned, the then federal prosecutor general had to go, and I should really have been fired too. What I should have done would have been to publish a small story first – and then to conduct further research.

From paper to mountains of data

What was it like to work as an investigative journalist in the 1980s and 1990s – checked shirts, cigarettes and huge piles of paper?

Yes, times were different back then. There was hardly any serious competition. We always had enough time. I well remember my colleague Dirk Koch, The Spiegel’s office manager in Bonn, who was famous for not taking no for an answer. He drove a Porsche, liked to hunt and had a farm in Ireland. The Spiegel I worked for was a world of its own. All the same, I believe that investigative journalism these days is conducted more systematically – and above all it is better written than in the past.

Because the younger generation are better trained?

They are different, much more international. And they were already very mature at an early age. What is important is for them to be professional without being overhasty in pursuing their stories. The youngsters in our research team at Süddeutsche Zeitung are outstanding journalists and good characters.

To what extent has the Internet changed the work of investigative journalists?

In good ways and in bad. The Internet can help one find experts all over the world who one would never have tracked down in the past. The Internet is a great opportunity. Sometimes we find that people overseas read our stories and then offer to act as informants for us. However, the Internet also promotes the dissemination of scandals once they have been unleashed. The problems faced by the media in terms of being accused of lying are partly due to people on the Internet looking for their own truth however false it may actually be.

Journalism 2020

Has the way in which informants or authorities act towards investigating journalists also changed?

The authorities have become more professional, and thankfully there are far fewer informants trying to sell one documents than there were in the past. I have never paid for information, though there can be reasons to do so. And major informants nowadays offer more material than they used to. Just think of Snowden, for instance.

What role do new technologies play for you personally?

I still have informants who like to use paper, and I do not have an encrypted mobile phone so as to conduct secure telephone calls, nor will I be buying one. And yet none of my informants has ever been revealed to date.

Has your attitude to your work changed over the years?

Some of my colleagues say that I have become calmer, more considered and also more sceptical over the years. What I can confirm is that I feel a growing scepticism towards myself. Good and bad, black and white – that can’t be the right approach. Tough but fair, that’s what I want to be.

What might investigative journalism be like in the future – say in the year 2020?

There will be more of it because one will only be able to survive if one offers one’s own genuinely exclusive stories.
 
Hans Leyendecker, born in Brühl on 12 May 1945, worked for the news magazine Der Spiegel from 1979 to 1997, for which amongst other things he uncovered in 1982 secret party donations made by the Flick Group. To this day, the Flick Affair is considered to be one of the most spectacular political and economic scandals of German post-war history. In 1997, Leyendecker moved to Süddeutsche Zeitung as chief political editor – today he heads the newspaper’s investigative department. He played a key role in uncovering the secret donation accounts of the CDU party in 1999, and is a co-founder and board member of the journalists’ association Netzwerk Recherche.