Sometimes as a journalist, especially in these very turbulent times, it is better to be careful, more careful and thoughtful than the Süddeutsche Zeitung was obvious. Mediums who raise serious allegations that fit their own sentiments but are difficult to prove risk a lot – for the whole profession as well. This in advance.
What is the current news in the Hubert Aiwanger scandal? In any case, it cannot and must not read: Helmut Aiwanger, the brother of the deputy Bavarian Prime Minister, wrote an anti-Semitic leaflet and Hubert Aiwanger had it in his school bag, but cannot remember whether he distributed it umpteen years ago, but instead:
Helmut Aiwanger says he was the author of this leaflet, and his brother Hubert says he had one or more copies in his school bag. He says he no longer knows whether he “passed on individual copies”. So we don’t know if both are true. It could have been otherwise, but even that would only be a guess. Want to say: Hubert Aiwanger is not off the hook yet.
Free voter boss Aiwanger speaks of a “dirt campaign”
Now to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Last Saturday she put this headline, combined with an almost half-page photo of Hubert Aiwanger, as a lead on her page one: “Aiwanger is said to have written an anti-Semitic leaflet as a schoolboy.” Youth apparently right-wing extremist ideas. This is suggested by a document that has now surfaced. The Free Voters boss speaks of a ‘dirty campaign’.”
The Süddeutsche Zeitung has a suspicion, but cannot prove it. There is no evidence, namely for the two central allegations: the newspaper has neither proved that Aiwanger wrote this leaflet, nor has it proved that he distributed it. And yet she published this suspicion – against the denial of the alleged author and disseminator. A classic case of suspicion reporting.
Suspicious reporting is controversial
Suspicious reporting is controversial. It’s tricky because the “smoking gun” is missing, so you can’t prove an accusation. Because the sources you have may not be watertight. Or because you only have one source. Or because you run the research business of public prosecutors. Or because you hope that once you throw a stone in the water, the waves will be high enough to bring more to the surface. There are many problems with this because:
Suspicious reporting is fatal for the accused – in any case. Irrespective of actual personal guilt, a political or social career can be destroyed simply by the seriousness of the allegations. The Aiwanger case also has this potential.
No sooner was the SZ story on the market than the first calls for his resignation were made
No sooner was the SZ story on the market than the first calls for his resignation were made. Often wrapped in the phrase – “if” that’s true. For example, the Bavarian Greens top candidate Katharina Schulze said: “If the allegations are true, then Markus Söder must dismiss Hubert Aiwanger.”
More on the subject: Bavaria’s deputy rejects allegations – Aiwanger is said to have written anti-Semitic leaflets as a student Free voter boss Hubert Aiwanger – The self-proclaimed “Robin Hood of the middle” – a right-wing agitator?
With this, Schulze was moving in a rhetorical gray area. Based on the facts, she should have formulated correctly: “If the allegations should come true…” Sometimes the difference between “if” and “if” can decide about a career, just like the difference between the subjunctive and the indicative.
Anyone who reports on suspicions is taking a high risk
Now to the journalism. Anyone reporting on suspicions is also taking a high risk as a medium. If a suspicion is refuted, especially if it is made big, your own credibility is gone for the time being. Risking journalistic credibility can even end up being bad for business.
Helmut Aiwanger’s declaration that he was the author of the indisputable, unspeakable pamphlet is initially a setback for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. There is now a key witness who refutes your version. So the question: Shouldn’t she have asked Hubert Aiwanger’s brother what he knew about the matter, especially since the two brothers went to the same school?
And was it really permissible to make such an accusation on the basis of anonymous sources – especially since only a few weeks before the Bavarian state elections, which provokes the accusation that a medium is massively influencing an election? So that the political attitude of journalists may determine a publication more than the underlying facts?
Hitler diaries were fake, the anti-Semitic leaflet was reality
Now other journalists from the new portal “Nius”, which is operated by the former Bild editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt, are transporting the accusation from other journalists that the Aiwanger leaflet is something like the scandal surrounding the Hitler Diaries for the Star. This comparison is wrong. Because:
The Hitler diaries were a forgery, which Stern, craving sensationalism, fell for. The anti-Semitic leaflet, on the other hand, was a reality for which Helmut Aiwanger took responsibility. If you want to put the Aiwanger case in relation, then even more so with the Bad Kleinen case in Spiegel.
The Hamburg magazine – also citing an anonymous source – claimed that the RAF member Grams had been shot dead by police officers at the Bad Kleinen train station. In the Hamburg magazine, also on the basis of an anonymous source, the allegation was raised that RAF member Grams had been shot by police officers at the Bad Kleinen train station. “The fatal shot” was on the cover in the summer of 1993. This led to the resignation of the then Federal Minister of the Interior, Rudolf Seiters. The story later turned out to be false, Grams had shot himself and Der Spiegel apologized – 17 years later.
According to criminal law, the pamphlet would probably be statute-barred
Politically, the question arises as to whether pamphlets that are indisputable in every respect and that refer to Auschwitz as an “entertainment district” and that were written by a minor should still be able to justify a ministerial resignation decades later. That is what the SPD, the Greens and the liberal Federal Minister of Justice are demanding. How to decide?
If you take criminal law as a benchmark, then the following applies: The only crimes that do not have a statute of limitations are murder, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. According to criminal law, the pamphlet would probably have become statute-barred after more than 35 years, even if it had constituted an offense of incitement to hatred.
Politically it can be different because anti-Semitism, such as the mockery of Nazi victims – rightly so – is considered a deadly political sin in Germany. However, the consequences to be drawn from this must be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. There are different standards.
For the outcome of affairs of this caliber, the decisive factor is whether Aiwanger’s party friends, the Free Voters, stand by him. So far that is – clearly – the case. Then it is crucial whether Aiwanger’s head of government, Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder, stands by his Vice Aiwanger. He could fire him, which is what the left-wing parties are demanding – despite unclear facts; Interestingly, also by the Social Democratic Federal Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser, who is contesting a state election herself and therefore preferred a party name to the restraint that is probably required of an Interior Minister. In any case, Söder has kept his two options open so far, which is understandable given the dynamics of the case.
Söder has already counted Aiwanger once. But: Too many questions are still open. For example: Is there anything else coming?