German President Christian Wulff intervened personally to try to stop mass-circulation daily Bild from running a story last month about a private loan that has damaged his credibility and exposed him to criticism, German newspapers reported this week.
Wulff reportedly tried to contact Bild Editor in Chief Kai Diekmann on Dec. 12 by telephone to complain about an article the newspaper was planning to run the next day, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung and Süddeutsche Zeitung newspapers reported on Sunday and Monday respectively.
Wulff only reached Diekmann's voice mail and left a message in which he angrily threatened a "final break" in relations with the Springer publishing house, which publishes Bild, Die Welt and other influential German newspapers, the reports said. The papers claim the president said that if Bild wanted to "wage war," he wanted to hold a meeting about it after his return from an official trip. Wulff was touring several Gulf states at the time Bild ran the story.
According to Bild, Wulff threatened to take legal action against the Bild journalists. Wulff apologized in a subsequent telephone call, Süddeutsche Zeitung added.
Voicemail Confirmed by Bild
SPIEGEL ONLINE has also obtained information from sources indicating that Wulff also telephoned with the CEO of Springer, Mathias Döpfner, asking him if he could exert his influence on Diekmann. But the head of the newspaper publishing company, which owns Bild, is said to have tersely told the president that he did not want to interfere on matters concerning the newspaper.
Springer officials would not provide a comment on whether a conversation had taken place between Wulff and Döpfner when contacted by SPIEGEL ONLINE on Monday.
However, later on Monday afternoon, Bild posted a story on its website confirming the contents of the voicemail message left for Deikmann. The paper said it had contacted President Wulff to obtain a statement relating to its coming report on his private house loan. The president provided a statement but then later withdrew it shortly before this issue went to press, Bild said. He then reportedly sought direct contact with Diekmann and left a message on his mobile phone indicating he was "angry" about the reporting being conducted about his home loan and also threatened to take legal action against the Bild journalist responsible. The paper says it didn't report on the message because Wulff contacted Diekmann again two days after the first report was published and offered an apology to the editor in chief for the tone and content of the voicemail.
The actions allegedly taken by Wulff show just how seriously the president took the reporting being conducted into his personal loans. SPIEGEL had also been researching the nature of the personal loans in question for a number of months.
Unimpressed by Wulff's threat, Bild went ahead and published its article on Dec. 13, in which it alleged that Wulff had not given the whole truth in a response to a parliamentary question put to him in February 2010, when he was still governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony, about whether he had business ties with the businessman Egon Geerkens.
'No Collision of Interests Whatsoever'
The report said Wulff's office had declared at the time that there were no business links with Geerkens. According to Bild, however, Wulff and his wife Bettina had received a loan of 500,000 ($660,000) from Geerkens' wife Edith in order to buy a home.
The Bild article caused a pre-Christmas blizzard of media coverage about Wulff's private loan arrangements, prompting Wulff to apologize for not having been completely "straight" in his parliamentary response in 2010.
SPIEGEL revealed last week that Wulff had swapped the Geerkens loan for a loan from state-owned regional bank BW-Bank on preferential terms in 2010, with an interest rate amounting to half the level charged to normal clients.
According to a report in this week's edition of SPIEGEL, BW-Bank had reason to be grateful to Wulff when it granted him the 520,000 loan. As governor of Lower Saxony, Wulff had played an important role in the rescue of sports car maker Porsche, a client of regional bank Landesbank Baden-Württemberg, which owns BW-Bank.
Asked by SPIEGEL if the loan was a form of "thank you" for saving Porsche, Wulff said there "was no collision of interests whatsoever."