Journalists should show respect when interviewing people


As early as the 1960s, the editor-in-chief of the now-discontinued Daily Herald declared that relations between the British press and government were bad, would continue to deteriorate and in any case could not get any better. Behind this rhetoric stands the rabid outwardly represented self-image of an independent fourth power, which has to control the powerful as a kind of watchdog. Anglo-Saxon journalists miss something among their German colleagues. As an example, Imre Karacs of the London “Independent” cites the authorization of newspaper interviews, which is common in Bonn. That is completely unusual in England. Eugene Robin of the Washington Post agrees that there are no such possibilities for controlling post-editing and re-polishing with his paper either.


The close proximity between correspondents and politicians in the distant "spaceship Bonn" has repeatedly been identified as the central problem of German political journalism. “Nowhere else do politics and the press merge as in Bonn,” said Dirk Kurbjuweit in “Die Zeit”. He quotes the long-time Germany correspondent for the Financial Times, David Marsh, as saying: “The small-town character of the city of Bonn is a considerable obstacle for the West German press. The agglomeration of politicians and journalists in a city with no urban culture and almost no contact with trade and industry creates narrow-mindedness and narrow-minded sociability. ”This promotes mongering and the feeling of being part of power among correspondents. Some editors-in-chief of the opinion-forming papers in Hamburg, Munich or Frankfurt, on the other hand, would have long regarded Bonn in the Rhineland as an embarrassing province, a place of publication in Bonn did not increase the prestige of a paper, but reduced it.


According to foreign observers, this curious situation of corrupting closeness of individual correspondents and the arrogant distance of the editors-in-chief of leading media has long been characteristic of domestic German political reporting.


On the other hand, they praise the openness with which information is obtained in Bonn. So there is little reason to glorify the relationships in London or Washington compared to the local ones. The "love-hate relationship" between journalists and politicians that is characteristic of England results there from the chronic secrecy and the fact that the British press is granted fewer legal privileges than the German press.

For example, there is neither a constitutional safeguarding of the right to freedom of the press (which would only exist if the Blair government transposed the European Convention on Human Rights into British law) nor a right to information from authorities (which would only exist if Blair kept his election campaign promise of a Freedom of Information Act would). The different legal, political and historical conditions are of course reflected in the journalistic understanding of roles.


If you ask British and German journalists about their professional goals and the tasks of the media in society, striking differences become apparent (see table). It is more important for British journalists to be the first to publish information and in an entertaining way. On the other hand, it is more important for the German colleagues to bring only serious news and also to address the intellectual and cultural interests of the audience. Care and demands take precedence in Germany, which is by no means a negative judgment. In England, the pressure to be up-to-date, the need for communication and audience orientation seem to be more pronounced. In contrast, the need to be the first to research facts and to exclusively disseminate them to the public in Germany seems to be somewhat less developed. However, due to the increased competitive and exclusivity pressure, British journalists are more willing to provide unconfirmed reports.

Power control

The two items below in the table deserve special attention. Self-descriptions that point to a control function of journalism in the sense of a “fourth estate” find much greater approval among the British. While power control journalism is limited to a few media in Germany, it seems to enjoy wide recognition in Great Britain. It must be emphasized, however, that this image of the aggressive watchdog is also part of a conscious self-presentation. Regardless of this, it seems to be a guiding aspect of self-identification. It results to a large extent from a perceived legal disadvantage. The English journalists are forced to defend their room for maneuver every day due to a lack of safeguards. They do this directly on the demarcation line, often in the ethical gray area at the limit of what is justifiable.

Legal position

Although the legal situation in Germany leaves much to be desired in some areas, local journalists enjoy various privileges that their British colleagues are jealous of. In addition to the right to information, this also includes the protection of the “safeguarding of legitimate interests”, which is valuable for press activities, as well as the favorable burden of proof regulation in libel proceedings. In England the burden of proof for the correctness of a factual assertion rests with the journalist, while in Germany the plaintiff has to prove the untruth of a journalistic factual assertion. Such special regulations in particular explain the lower level of aggressiveness of German journalists. They are in a significantly more favorable position than their British colleagues when it comes to material procurement and therefore see less reason for unscrupulous behavior. Because it seldom happens in Germany that journalists have to justify the use of hard research methods in front of themselves and others, there was no concrete reason for the development of a legitimation model for the press as the fourth estate after 1945. The room for maneuver for the German press is wide, but not fully exploited. This prompted the two Spiegel editors, Jochen Bölsche and Hans-Werner Kilz, to state ten years ago: "The highest judges grant journalism far more rights than many journalists claim for themselves."


The “fourth estate” spirit of British journalists expressed in the two lower items of the table does not even stop at the private lives of politicians. Taboos, which are hardly questioned by German journalists, no longer apply in Great Britain (and incidentally also in the USA). This is especially true for the private life of politicians, their affairs, marital crises and sexual inclinations. In Germany, the requirement not to write about private matters is largely followed to this day. "If you break the rules here and report from your private sphere, you are immediately excluded from the famous background circles," said a Bonn insider again recently in the "Stern". In confidential talks with editors-in-chief, Theo Waigel had promised not to report on him and his partner Irene Epple while he was still married. Unthinkable from a British point of view, but the German media stuck to it. A similar waiver of reporting applies to the private lives of Helmut Kohl, Rudolf Scharping and many others. The “New York Times” is amazed: “For years, German journalists have been the most discreet in the western world. They usually take notice of public flirtations from their politicians without a word. They often know a lot more than they write. ”It was not until the reporting of the affair between Prime Minister Gerhard Schröder and“ Focus ”editor Doris Köpf that this taboo was first described as a break with this taboo. before which politicians of all parties and journalists of all stripes have stopped so far. Traditionally, nothing is published that the person concerned does not want. (...) But now that the private broadcasters approved by the blacks are rummaging around for entertaining human beings in fierce competition with other media apparatuses, the Bonn truce is in danger ”, wrote the“ Spiegel ”at the time. But the "Bonn truce" held. When the Clinton-Lewinsky affair began to storm the media, German observers once again drew comparisons between Anglo-Saxon and German media culture. Klaus Happrecht again referred to the discretion in the Federal Republic in the "Zeit". It is based "on the silent agreement of the powerful in Bonn and in the media that the protection of privacy corresponds to mutual interests".

... or meddling

Where does this repeatedly invoked discretion come from? Not least because of the German audience. The majority of them do not value such disreputable stories. According to a representative survey from January last year, 85 percent of Germans reject disclosures about amorous affairs by our politicians. The British are completely different: they expect a high level of investigative impetus in reports about their politicians and are increasingly tolerating interference in their private lives: in 1989, 32 percent thought it was justified, in 1992 it was 40 percent. The British tabloids in particular hardly distinguish between misconduct in office and in private life. Especially since, as the "Financial Times" emphasized a few weeks ago, "the British enjoy nothing more than a juicy sex scandal". In the five years between 1990 and 1995 alone, according to the “Independent on Sunday” count, there were 39 affairs involving British politicians, at least a quarter were involved in sex, and six members of the government had to resign for this reason. This series of scandals contributed to the election of the major government in May 1997.

But even under Blair, the press remained true to its principle of relentlessly exposing hypocrisy. This includes exposing the value gap between what politicians preach publicly and what they do privately. But this also includes interpreting the “public interest” to the limit of abuse. In the winter of Advent, for example, three British ministers had to watch their homosexuality spread on the front pages of the tabloids. At the same time, when Ingrid Matthäus-Maier publicly outed an opposition colleague in the Bundestag, “Spiegel” wrote: “Breaking a taboo”. Apart from the “Welt”, no German newspaper went into it.

The majority of German journalists want nothing to do with such stories. In a survey of 500 West German journalists initiated in 1989, half of them stated that the protection of the privacy of a politician always takes precedence over the public's interest in information. Only 32 percent rejected this. While German journalists are comparatively sensitive when dealing with politicians, English and American journalists behave differently: The more public the person's office, the more aggressive they are. After all, it is about the credibility of the representatives of the people.

Press law

This broad consensus between German journalists, politicians and the public to be very cautious about privacy is also reflected in press law. The German legislature protects citizens and politicians much better against "attacks" by the media than the British and American ones. The Federal Court of Justice ruled in 1978: “In principle, everyone, including politicians who are in public and looking for them, has a right to privacy protected by Articles 1 and 2 of the Basic Law, to which others only have access to the extent that they allow them to see. In this private sphere he must be safe from public scrutiny and censorship; otherwise the basis from which his personality can be realized and developed would be endangered. ”Reports from the intimate area are fundamentally prohibited in Germany.

Hard to imagine for us, but in England there is no direct legal protection of privacy, neither for politicians nor for ordinary people. Such a personal right is sometimes called for, but was most recently rejected by the British government in 1995 on the remarkable grounds that such a privacy law "hampers investigative journalism too much". In the USA there is a kind of personal right, but politicians are fundamentally exempt from essential parts.

People's representatives who want to lead the country have to be asked whether they can marry. American politicians even have to put up with false claims in the press - this is also different in Germany: Nobody here has to put up with false claims in the press.

Competitive pressure

Despite the lesser legal protection, there was once a gentlemen’s agreement in Bonn, which still worked in England and the USA, not to report on private matters. However, it has not been taken into account there since the mid-1980s. The main causes lie in a changed political culture and increased competitive pressure among the media, which forces us to make the dry news business more entertaining and sensational. The fact that the silent bond of discretion still holds in Germany is particularly remarkable because no other European television market is as competitive as the German one. A cautious political and journalistic culture as well as a finely woven press law have largely protected us from excesses so far. And that's probably a good thing.

Frank Esser is an assistant at the Mainz Institute for Journalism.
The table mentioned in the text comes from his recently published book

Frank Esser
The forces behind the headlines.
English and German journalism in comparison.
Freiburg, Alber 1998.
Based on journalist surveys by Delano & Henningham (GB) and Weischenberg & Scholl (D).