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When Tabloids Turn: Powerful Media Ally Abandons German President

By Stefan Niggemeier

Tabloid Bild helped German President Christian Wulff rise to the top, and he gave the paper access to his private life in return -- even when he left his wife for another woman. The relationship benefited both sides for years, but those days are over.

Christian Wulff, (L) then governor of Lower Saxony, and Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann in better days, at the Bild summer party in July 2006. Zoom
DPA

Christian Wulff, (L) then governor of Lower Saxony, and Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann in better days, at the Bild summer party in July 2006.

The private loan controversy dogging German President Christian Wulff in the past three weeks has ended what had been a symbiotic relationship between the German president and tabloid daily Bild in recent years.

Bild was extremely helpful to Wulff during his time as governor of Lower Saxony. A few years ago, Wulff, a member of the conservative, predominantly Catholic Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, faced the difficult task of conveying to his voters that he had left his then-wife Christiane, with whom he has a daughter, for another woman.

At the time, Bild chose not to turn its guns on Wulff. It refrained from turning the story into a scandal or pointing out that he had violated Christian morals. Instead, it ran a plethora of articles painting a glowing picture of a new, modern, happy Wulff.

Bild's journalists cast the break-up of Wulff's marriage in a decidedly positive light in the summer of 2006. "Wulff is as level-headed in his private decisions as he is in politics," they wrote.

Human Interest Stories

A string of rose-tinted human interest stories about him followed. Bild expressed delight at how well Wulff danced with his new partner Bettina. In its coverage of a press ball, the newspaper gushed: "She shone elegantly in black (with giant open back), and smiled radiantly. Wunderbar!"

Bild praised Wulff's new haircut: "with a short fringe, the hair cheekily and trendily tweaked up with gel!" Bild was delighted at how "in love they looked at the Bild summer party." This, the paper declared, was the "evening's most beautiful love coalition."

Bild beat the drum for Wulff with a remarkable lack of subtlety. One article mused: "Governor, father, lover and still a husband -- how does Christian Wulff handle it all so well?"

Wulff expressed his gratitude by feeding the paper exclusive information and personal stories. In summer 2006 he opened up his "snow-white art nouveau villa" to Bild reporters. "Happily in love under one roof: CDU-Wulff and his pretty Bettina."

At the end of 2007, Bild cheered: "A baby! And now the wedding. Governor Christian Wulff (CDU) and his girlfriend Bettina air their most beautiful secret in Bild." At this point, Wulff was still married to his first wife.

A 'Final Break'

For a time, everyone was happy. Bild got the best stories from Wulff. And Wulff got the best stories from Bild. The tabloid giant, Germany's best-selling newspaper, tends to stay loyal for a while and is quite willing to provide covering fire when their friends run into trouble. But such relationships don't last forever. In the end, they are based on a simple assessment of what serves the newspaper more: exclusive access to Wulff or the merciless investigation of scandals.

Five years ago, Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive of Bild's publisher, the Springer group, said "whoever takes the elevator up with Bild will also take the elevator down with it." Bild played its part in getting Wulff to the top and is now contributing to his fall. Making threats to the paper, as Wulff did, is definitely the worst strategy to adopt.

By looking into his private loan and publishing what it found, Bild has cancelled its special relationship with Wulff. That explains why the president referred to a "final break" when he called Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann last month in his vain attempt to get the story pulled.

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