»Careful, That's One of Julian's« Sexual Misconduct of Top Axel Springer Editor Has a Long History

The sacking of Julian Reichelt, the editor-in-chief of Germany's top tabloid, only came after years of questionable conduct. New reporting shows that Axel Springer, the publishing house that owns the paper and just bought Politico, likely won't be able to simply sweep the scandal under the rug.
Julian Reichelt has been ousted as editor-in-chief of Germany's largest tabloid, Bild, after allegations of sexual misconduct.

Julian Reichelt has been ousted as editor-in-chief of Germany's largest tabloid, Bild, after allegations of sexual misconduct.

Foto: Marco Urban

By Marcus Engert, Katrin Langhans, Juliane Löffler, Daniel Drepper, Isabell Hülsen, Alexander Kühn, Martin U. Müller and Anton Rainer

As written, the messages could have come from a lover. Their author, though, wasn’t a boyfriend, but Julian Reichelt, the editor-in-chief of Bild, Germany’s largest tabloid. And the woman on the receiving end was just starting her career in journalism. The messages mostly came at night, though sometimes also from editorial meetings. And they were quite intimate. "Still awake?” one said. Or: "I want to feel your body.”

The fact that Reichelt’s interactions with younger colleagues is at least questionable has been known since March. It was revealed that month that the Axel Springer publishing house – which publishes Bild and owns both Insider (formerly Business Insider) and, since this summer, Politico – had initiated an investigation into Reichelt. DER SPIEGEL was the first to report on that investigation.

On Monday, half a year later, the publisher finally took action. As the company said in a press release, Axel Springer has stripped Julian Reichelt of his responsibilities, effective immediately. "As a result of press investigations, the company gained new knowledge in the last few days about Julian Reichelt’s recent conduct,” it said. Some of that reporting came from DER SPIEGEL, which confronted the company with new findings on Monday – on the heels of a damning story in the New York Times on Sunday. According to the Springer statement, the board learned that Julian Reichelt – even after the end of the compliance proceedings in spring 2021 – had "still failed to maintain a clear boundary between private and professional matters and was also untruthful to the Executive Board in this regard.”

DER SPIEGEL has learned that there was, in fact, another sexual relationship between Reichelt and a colleague subordinate to him. Sources at Springer say there were clear indications, and clear evidence, that Reichelt had lied about the relationship during the spring compliance proceedings and that he also did not end the relationship after those proceedings. That breach of trust is the reason given for the termination of his employment.

Sources say that Reichelt was confronted by the board directly and relieved of his duties. Reichelt declined comment on the new allegations.

The allegations against Reichelt were already rather significant this past spring: abuse of power, the mixing of professional and personal relationships with colleagues, the abuse of power in his relationship with women employees at Bild. But after an approximately two-week absence, Reichelt returned to his job to the bafflement – and, in some cases, horror – of many people on the editorial staff. The only visible change: Reichelt had been relieved of his job as chairman. And he was joined by a co-editor-in-chief.

Not That Serious

In a statement on Reichelt’s return, Springer suggested at the time that the situation was not that serious. It claimed that the investigation "did not discover any evidence whatsoever of sexual harassment or coercion” and stated that the executive board concluded there were no grounds to remove Reichelt "based on the mistakes – which are not punishable by criminal law – made in the execution of his duties as an editorial and personnel manager.” Reichelt himself denied the accusations, claiming that he had not made any professional decisions that were shaped or otherwise influenced by personal relationships or otherwise, and that all staff decisions had been made based on facts and his personal evaluation of the relevant person’s professional qualifications. But the Bild editor-in-chief struck a contrite note. The press statement released by Springer quoted him as saying: "What I blame myself for more than anything else is that I have hurt people I was in charge of. I am very sorry for that.” With that, the case was considered closed, and Reichelt rehabilitated. In its Monday press release, Springer wrote: "In place of dismissal, he was given a second chance.”

"He convinces a person in short span of time to run across a burning bridge.”

A source from Julian Reichelt's professional circle

The fact that the matter was shelved so quickly seemed to confirm what some people at the publisher had feared: There had long been no serious interest in disciplining Reichelt. And this despite the fact that, after the compliance proceeding became public, Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner and board member Jan Bayer had assured employees in writing that no effort was being spared to clear things up.

None of the women testifying against Reichelt have spoken out publicly – partly out of fear that he may seek revenge. Even during the compliance proceedings, he wrote to his team that he would "defend himself against those who want to destroy me because they don’t like Bild and everything for which we stand.” Reichelt has previously taken action against DER SPIEGEL: He sought to legally block an article about the investigations into his alleged misconduct and obtained an injunction because the questions sent to the Springer communications department allegedly did not reach him. The article remains online with an addendum regarding that legal challenge.

In response to questions for this article, lawyers representing Reichelt and the publishing house claimed that the accusations are untrue; that they do not have any serious weight or criminal relevance; that they had all been examined by external third parties and that the compliance proceedings had been suspended after several weeks because no proof of punishable behavior had been found; that Reichelt is not a public figure and that his personal relationships are therefore not of public interest. They also argue that the behavior took place some time ago and is thus not of current interest.

Now, though, it is. With Reichelt now ousted, Axel Springer has appointed Johannes Boie, currently the editor-in-chief of the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, to be the new co-editor-in-chief of Bild, joining Alexandra Würzbach, who is remaining in her current position.

After Springer’s rather extraordinary press release in the spring, the public was left wondering what exactly was meant by "mistakes.” The claim that there were no indications of abuse of power, as Springer said at the time, can hardly be believed after deeper reporting. In recent months, a DER SPIEGEL team spoke with a half-dozen women who were questioned as part of the compliance proceedings, as well as with people close to those women. It also viewed hundreds of text messages, messages sent via apps and emails in addition to examining documents – all in an effort to determine the veracity of the claims that had been made against Reichelt.

Extremely Improper

The New York Times ran a story on the Reichelt case on Sunday. Journalist Ben Smith wrote that there were "accusations of sex, lies and a secret payment” and named several cases from the compliance proceeding also known to DER SPIEGEL. A reporting team of the Ippen publishing house in Germany have also examined the accusations against Reichelt in recent months. The publication of that text had been imminent in recent days but was stopped at short notice by publisher Dirk Ippen. The reason provided was a desire to avoid the appearance of seeking to damage a competitor in the newspaper market. Some of the research conducted by Ippen has now been incorporated into this DER SPIEGEL report.

The reporting paints a picture of an editor-in-chief whose treatment of female subordinates was at times extremely improper, given the power imbalance between early-career young women and a man who, for quite some time, has been Germany’s most powerful tabloid journalist. It involves sex that may have been consensual, but which was also apparently tied to professional advantages and disadvantages. It involves urgent text messages in the middle of the night. And ultimately, it involves a way of treating women that can hardly be excused by the fact that the apparent newsroom sexism was but a reflection of the sexism reflected in the pages of the paper itself.

It's not like there aren’t any powerful women at Bild. The company culture, though, has always been male dominated. "It’s a man’s world,” says one long-term leadership figure. Women, the source says, were largely judged by their "fuckability” – both in the reporting and internally. Another source says that women were sometimes included in newsroom conferences as "decoration.”

But Reichelt was a special case, even by Bild standards. His behavior toward women seemed to follow a certain pattern: He would praise them for their work, entrust them with tasks that required a lot of responsibility or promote them to positions for which – partly by their own admission – they were not suited. Reichelt was simultaneously a promoter and a seducer of young women.

Employees described Reichelt as obsessed with power. As someone who took an aggressive tone, who humiliated people, who saw traitors and competitors everywhere. But women who got involved with him also saw a different side. As someone who wrote sweet messages, who showed himself to be approachable, vulnerable, who could also cry. And who quickly gave them the feeling that they were an important part of his life. "He convinces a person in short span of time to run across a burning bridge,” says one person from his professional milieu.

Several former colleagues said that people at Bild had grown accustomed to Reichelt’s behavior. There were instances, they say, that before new female trainees would enter a meeting room, there was an announcement. "Careful, that’s one of Julian’s.”

Unrelenting Flattery

One of the women who testified against Reichelt – we’ll call her Constanze Müller for the purposes of this article – was questioned in March by the business law firm Freshfields, which Springer hired to carry out the investigation. According to a transcript of the conversation obtained by DER SPIEGEL via a third party, the head of the investigation wanted to know if Reichelt made jobs dependent on whether a person slept with him. The woman answered that she was the best example of this.

Müller, too, had been drawn in by Reichelt with compliments. This was in 2016, when she was a trainee and he was the head of digital operations for Bild. He complimented her intelligence, her looks, her work. Ultimately the flattery worked, and they slept together. Like many other women – as is described in the transcript – Müller thought Reichelt was trustworthy and charming, and fell for him.

Reichelt apparently knew at the time that the relationship could become problematic for him. Müller told Freshfields that Reichelt asked her back then to delete her entire message history and that if someone found out about their relationship, they would have "very big trouble.” But the messages that prove the existence of their relationship still existed. Müller herself declined to comment when contacted.

It was well known in the editorial department that Reichelt had sexual relationships with women who were below him in the hierarchy.

In 2018, she took on a prestigious assignment at Bild, apparently at Reichelt’s request. According to her testimony, she was doubtful that she was up for it, given that she was still working as a trainee. Reichelt apparently also shrugged off warnings from Müller’s direct superior and colleagues, who also did not believe that she was quite prepared. "It was insane, she wasn’t ready,” says a former colleague.

According to the documents, Reichelt met Müller multiple times in hotels, most often near the Springer building, for sex. In one case, she did so because he insisted in text messages. She didn’t want to anger him and felt like she was professionally dependent on him.

The situation was difficult for Müller. She said in the transcript that the pressure from the job was enormous and that she was at the end of her strength. She said that people whispered behind her back that she had only gotten the job because of her relationship with the boss, and that she felt bullied. Ultimately, according to the transcript, Müller went to a clinic for psychiatric treatment and took several weeks of sick leave. Former Bild employees say that they had noticed for months how poorly the woman was doing and that she was getting sick with increasing frequency. They also confirm that she spent time in a clinic. They say that she had clearly been overwhelmed by the position, and say that they communicated their concerns to Reichelt.

It was well known in the editorial department that Reichelt had sexual relationships with women who were below him in the hierarchy. Some of the affairs dated back to 2014. Several women say that Reichelt established himself from the beginning of their training period at Springer as a kind of "mentor” who regularly contacted them and gave them compliments on their work. One of them recalls, "He said I was the most gifted young talent that ever was.”

Unwanted Advice

According to sources at the paper, Reichelt tended to poach women from the political and entertainment departments in particular. They say that he often approached women at the start of their careers. A former figure in the Springer leadership says that if a new trainee was especially witty and eloquent during the paper’s regular reviews of the previous day’s issue, one "could have set a watch” by the speed with which Reichelt would "chase after her.”

Reichelt didn’t seem interested in keeping to himself the number of women he had in his life. In messages DER SPIEGEL was able to view, he boasted of intimate contacts: including with a woman that be brought into his immediate professional environment; with a politician; with a trainee; and with another woman who later began her training at the in-house journalism school, the Axel Springer Academy. Reichelt’s lawyer writes that these messages are private and confidential and that nothing from them can be quoted.

There are reasons to doubt if Springer was at all interested in seriously investigating the case. Several women report that they fundamentally distrusted the investigation, and apparently for good reason. Springer learned that Constanze Müller had received unwanted advice from Berlin – apparently a person close to Reichelt suggested by phone via third parties that, if a lawyer got in touch with her, it would be better if she said nothing. The matter was reported to both the compliance department and to the board.

In a brief that reached DER SPIEGEL over the course of the legal disputes with Julian Reichelt, his lawyer gives several reasons why such a call, if it ever happened, should not be considered intimidation. Perhaps, his lawyer argued, the man hadn’t wanted to intimidate the witness, but rather protect her from "trauma” and "hostility”? Springer promised to further investigate the matter. To this day, nothing is known of the result. The publisher did not respond to a question on the subject.

"A daily work and professional life without the mixture of the professional and the private is hardly imaginable.”

Lawyer representing Julian Reichelt

As Medieninsider, a German publication focusing on media issues, has reported, Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner spoke to the staff via video conference in late March, four days after Reichelt returned from his nearly two-week break. The publisher pulled off the rhetorical trick of stating that, on one side, he believes private relationships in hierarchical relationships are "not exemplary, not acceptable” while, at the same time, protecting Reichelt. Döpfner said that Reichelt’s work is successful, that his journalistic efforts are "right and extremely important for this country.”

According to third parties, a message Döpfner sent during the investigative proceedings to the writer Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre reveals what he meant by this. On that day, Reichelt had written a commentary in which he described Germany’s measures to control the spread of COVID-19 as proof of the arbitrariness of the state. Döpfner wrote that Reichelt "is really the last and only journalist who is bravely rebelling against the new GDR authoritarian state” – a reference to communist East Germany. Döpfner wrote that most of other journalists had become propaganda assistants. According to sources, Stuckrad-Barre ended his friendship with Döpfner over his handling of the Reichelt case.

Now, though, even Döpfner couldn’t hold on to his editor-in-chief. The accusations were simply too weighty.

In any other publishing house, affairs between the editor-in-chief and a young employee, as well as nightly text-message advances, would have been grounds for immediate dismissal. At Springer, however, the affairs with trainees were apparently, for a long time, not seen as abuses of power, but rather as a private matter for the boss.

Reichelt’s lawyer, at any rate, came up with an especially creative defense against the accusations. He explained that many of them were simply normal. In one brief, through which Reichelt attacked DER SPIEGEL’s reporting in March, he wrote: "A daily work and professional life without the mixture of the professional and the private is hardly imaginable.” He argued that, for this reason, professional relationships becoming private ones and vice versa isn’t an exception – but maybe even "the rule.”

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