Germany’s most powerful newspaper removed its top editor Monday after months of defending his sexual relationships with women in the workplace as the scandal began to envelop the paper’s globally ambitious parent company, Axel Springer.
Bild, a center-right tabloid that has fed popular anger at Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Covid-19 restrictions, dismissed the editor in chief, Julian Reichelt, after The New York Times reported on details of Mr. Reichelt’s relationship with a trainee, who testified during an independent legal investigation that in 2018 he had summoned her to a hotel near the office for sex and asked her to keep a payment secret. Hours after Mr. Reichelt was ousted, the newsmagazine Der Spiegel published allegations that Mr. Reichelt had abused his position to pursue relationships with several women on his staff.
The dismissal marked the belated arrival of the global #MeToo movement at Axel Springer — and it came as the German company is making significant investments in the American market, including its acquisition this summer of Politico for $1 billion. Axel Springer faced pressure in the United States and Germany to explain two recent revelations: What the investigation into Mr. Reichelt’s conduct found, and how the chief executive, Mathias Döpfner, responded to the investigation. In a text message to a friend obtained by The Times, Mr. Döpfner seemed to link the scrutiny of Mr. Reichelt’s behavior to the editor’s divisive politics, casting him as a bulwark against a return of Communist-style oppression in the guise of Covid rules.
The company said in a statement that Mr. Reichelt had “not clearly separated private and professional matters,” and had misled the board. Mr. Döpfner, in a statement, also praised Mr. Reichelt for his journalistic leadership and for launching Bild-Tv, a new television station in the combative style of American cable news. He said Mr. Reichelt’s replacement, Johannes Boie, would combine “journalistic excellence with modern leadership.” Mr. Reichelt has denied abusing his authority, and didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Axel Springer is a German media giant that forged its identity as an anti-Communist stalwart in the Cold War. Today, its largest shareholder is the American private equity firm KKR. To continue building a 21st-century audience, it had been seeking to channel populism at home amid a surge in right-wing European media while capturing a new global online generation. Its acquisition of publications like Politico and Business Insider, which it bought for $442 million in 2015, is a major part of that strategy.
The move to dismiss Mr. Reichelt was a significant reversal for a company that prides itself on standing up to Germany’s more liberal media establishment. Axel Springer had been bracing for reaction from its new American employees to the reports of Mr. Reichelt’s conduct, but two people familiar with the company’s decision Monday said that a furious storm in German media added pressure on Mr. Döpfner to act. German critics blasted the company, in particular, for its role in killing a story by a rival publisher, Ippen, whose journalists said in a letter that they were set to reveal details of Mr. Reichelt’s alleged abuse of power.
“That made the whole story bigger than it was before,” said Moritz Tschermak, the co-author of a recent book about Bild. “Somehow it became not a story about Reichelt and Springer but a story about freedom of the press.”
In an inquiry this spring, the company said it had cleared Mr. Reichelt, who apologized at the time for unspecified “mistakes” and remained in his role. Axel Springer appeared to blame the opaque German legal process in part for its reversal, releasing a statement noting that it learned some details of its own lawyers’ inquiry from the media. The company also said it had learned unspecified new information about Mr. Reichelt’s conduct, and that the editor had misled the company’s board.
Axel Springer also said in its statement that it would take legal action against third parties who it claimed tried to illegally influence the company’s compliance investigation, “apparently with the aim of removing Julian Reichelt from office and damaging Bild and Axel Springer.”
Despite the apparent threat, Deirdre Latour, a company spokeswoman, said that “they will not go after whistle-blowers or anybody who brings forward complaints.”
Mr. Reichelt took a leave of absence in March after Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, reported that Axel Springer was investigating allegations of abuse of power and complaints that he had relationships with female employees.
Twelve days later, he returned after the investigation, conducted with help from the Freshfields law firm, concluded that Mr. Reichelt had mixed his personal and professional lives but had not broken any laws. The investigation found no evidence of sexual harassment or coercion, Axel Springer said at the time.
Mr. Reichelt “made mistakes,” Mr. Döpfner, the chief executive, said in a statement in March. “However, having assessed everything that was revealed as part of the investigation process, we consider a parting of the ways to be inappropriate.”
Mr. Reichelt was reinstated with a co-editor in chief, Alexandra Würzbach, the editor of Bild’s Sunday edition, who had taken over his duties in his absence.
In explaining its decision on Monday to remove Mr. Reichelt as editor, the publisher cited “revelations” about his behavior that had “come to light in recent days, following media reports.”
Pressure built in Germany after Ippen Media, which publishes a group of websites as well as a print competitor to Bild in Munich, decided on Friday to pull its own in-depth investigation into Mr. Reichelt. That revelation, in The Times and then in a letter from Ippen’s own investigative team, outraged reporters in Berlin, leading one to ask Chancellor Merkel’s spokesman at a news conference on Monday whether that decision had raised concerns in the German government that freedom of the press could be in danger. Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, declined to comment.
But the reporter who had written that investigation, Juliane Löffler, had the lead byline on an article published Monday in the magazine Der Spiegel, which first broke the news this spring of the investigation into Mr. Reichelt. The article described Mr. Reichelt as a man “obsessed with power” who had a “pattern” of both promoting and seducing young women at Bild.
His sexual relationships with women on his staff were known in Bild’s office, Der Spiegel reported.
The magazine also raised further questions about Axel Springer’s internal investigation, which had promised anonymity to women who testified. Nonetheless, one of the women received a message from a “confidant” of Mr. Reichelt, urging her not to speak to investigators, Der Spiegel reported.
Germany’s publishing world is dominated by large companies, largely run by men, where reluctance to be seen as criticizing one another runs deep. Ippen cited such a motivation behind its last-minute decision to withhold the report.
The Frankfurter Rundschau, based in Frankfurt am Main, one of the regional newspapers owned by the Ippen Media company that had planned to publish the investigation, ran an editorial on Monday calling the decision damaging to their relationship of trust with their readers.
The German Journalists’ Association criticized Ippen’s decision not to publish the investigation. But journalists discussing the reporting also raised questions about why the world of German publishing had struggled to have its own MeToo reckoning, and why it took attention from American media to prompt this action.
As the German media world focused on the turmoil at Axel Springer, the staff of Politico, whose acquisition by Springer is expected to close as soon as this week, was largely focused elsewhere. Journalists there are considering forming a union, and organizers have set a deadline of this month to gather support.