The new evidence that the German CEO of Europe’s largest media publisher, Axel Springer, (mis)uses his flagship tabloid, the arch-conservative Bild, to advance his personal views on the climate crisis and climate activism is hardly surprising, as the Springer Media group has been mixing right-wing politics and public information for decades. But 2023-leaked emails and text messages have exposed Axel Springer chief executive and part owner Mathias Döpfner’s unvarnished personal views on these issues and others. Paul Hockenos reports.
For example, in 2017 he texted: ‘I am all for climate change.’ He argued that human civilization in periods of warm climate was always ‘more successful’ than during cold-climate periods. ‘We shouldn’t fight climate change but adjust to it,’ he said.
The use of Axel Springer media for the purposes of right-wing politics is absolutely nothing new for the Springer empire, including to attack and discredit environmentalists. Axel Springer himself, the empire’s founding father, did not hide that he used Bild and the daily broadsheet Die Welt to intervene in German and European politics.
The daily was immediately recognizable, as it is today, with its giant full-page headlines and mix of provocative right-wing editorializing, soft porn and sensationalist lowbrow stories. Circulation skyrocketed – aided by the helping hand of the CIA and British occupation military. The Axel Springer publishing house branched out from there. By the 1960s, it owned dozens of regional dailies, glossy weeklies and other major national publications, such as Die Welt, and it has dominated the German media landscape ever since.
Born in 1912 to a well-known Hamburg publisher, Springer started Bild Zeitung in 1952, in imitation of the United Kingdom’s tabloid press. Widely referred to as Germany’s Rupert Murdoch, Springer ensured his politics were expressed unmistakably in his publications. That was particularly so in Bild, his ‘dog on a chain’, as he put it. Communism was the number one enemy of Axel Springer. The Axel Springer high-rise building, built defiantly adjacent to the Berlin Wall, became one of Cold War Berlin’s most identifiable monuments.
Axel Springer’s involvement in political discourse across its many media properties during the Cold War threw Germany’s Social Democrats, trade unionists, anti-nuclear energy campaigners and peace activists into one barrel with Soviet communism. This created a stigma around German progressivism that cost the left voluminous sympathy with the working classes – and probably soccer stadiums’ worth of votes too. For decades, the redbaiting effectively poisoned debate on such issues as social policy and abortion, among many others.
Although Bild today, in terms of readership, is just a shadow of its former self (1.2 million paid circulation, down from a high of 4.5 million), the Axel Springer media house under Döpfner – called by some ‘Germany’s Trump’ – continues to pursue political agendas and vendettas with the same tenacity as it did decades ago. ‘Döpfner denies it,’ Anne Fromm, a media expert at the daily Tageszeitung, told Foreign Policy magazine, ‘but Bild launches one campaign after another, be it against the minimum wage, mandatory vaccinations, Green Party candidates, or other targets.’
Whether it be same-sex marriage, migrants and crime, Fridays for Future, young women in politics, Greek profligacy, electric cars, or Islam, Bild and its offshoots wage no-holds-barred war. There is no German journalist who over the past decade has railed more fervently against renewable energy than Die Welt’s “energy expert” Daniel Wetzel.
In the late 1970s, Bild’s shoddy practices were dramatically unveiled by the West German investigative journalist Günter Wallraff, who worked undercover there as an editor for months. Wallraff exposed the use of fake and altered quotations, as well as outright lies, that turned nonstories into sensationalist catnip – regardless of the privacy and reputation of the story’s figures. For years afterward, the Axel Springer house pursued Wallraff with all of its might, even for some time successfully blocking the publication of parts of his books on Bild, as well as sections of a documentary film. Forty-four years after Wallraff’s storied book, two German media analysts came out with a follow-up investigative report that concluded that very little had changed in terms of in-house practices at Bild.
When the German media house Axel Springer snapped up the Washington news site Politico in October 2021 for around US$1 billion, the media world gasped at the financial audacity – as did those who understood the Springer empire, with regard to the possible implications for the US media world. Subsequent reporting by the New York Times has focused attention on Axel Springer’s workplace culture and allegations of its retrograde approach to gender issues. What has been missing thus far – conspicuously so, from a German perspective – has been greater reaction and alarm at Axel Springer’s long, well-documented track record of mixing journalism and right-wing politics.
Politico, a political journalism company founded in 2007 to cover politics and policy in the United States and internationally, is studiously neutral in its political commitments. The Axel Springer empire, by contrast, has always been unabashedly arch-conservative. Since its beginnings in Germany’s post-war era, Axel Springer hasn’t hesitated to indulge in overt (if largely improvised) right-wing populism – even when that requires bending journalistic rules. The ubiquitous German tabloid Bild and the online Bild.de are regularly sanctioned by the German Press Council, a body responsible for enforcing the German Press Code, for their violation of standard journalism ethics relating to personal privacy, among other issues.
Döpfner oversaw the purchase, in 2015, of the news site Business Insider, today Insider in the US, which accelerated the organization’s move into international digital media. But Döpfner sees Politico as the company’s big-name bridgehead to authoritative US media. Although Insider’s growth numbers are formidable, its reliance on clickbait and use of minimum traffic and subscription metrics to evaluate (and retain) reporters puts it in another league, in terms of impact, compared to Politico. (While most digital media abandoned such metric-driven minimum goals for its writing staff a decade ago, Insider under Springer has re-embraced them, to its marked benefit in terms of subscriptions, if not writing staff satisfaction.) But given Axel Springer’s history, there should be serious concerns about the compatibility of its journalistic culture with its newest US property.
For now, the crisis and scandal are exclusively German. A narrow-minded, racist, sexist media mogul holds inordinate amount of power over some of the country’s largest, most popular and influential media. No wonder Germany’s climate activists and experts feel fierce headwinds even when they’re making sound, evidenced-based arguments.
The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.