Saturday, January 14, 2012

Oh, what a tangled web we weave

It’s quite likely that not many people outside of Germany are aware that there is such a thing as a German President, a largely ceremonial role a bit like a sort of temporary king. Currently, this is Christian Wulff, a man elected by members of the government to obediently sign things into law and generally be the head of state (as opposed to the much better-known Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, and head of government). And right now, Christian Wulff is in even more trouble than the euro, an achievement that will, whatever the outcome, assure him a sort of dubious immortality.

Before you get too excited, though, it’s nothing as exciting as Clinton’s cigar-based fun-and-games, or Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties. This is the German President we’re talking about. This scandal involves a loan.

Basically, the President is supposed to be a person of impeccable moral principles: squeaky-clean and boring enough to be the perfect choice to smilingly support charities and meet visiting royalty. And so it was a bit of a shock when the press reported that they had evidence to show that, during his time as Minister President of Lower Saxony, he had lied to the Lower Saxon parliament. He’d been asked if he had had any business connections to a certain Egon Geerkens. He’d said no. Now it transpires, according to Germany’s biggest tabloid Bild, that he had, in fact, borrowed about half a million euros from Egon Geerkens at a vastly reduced interest rate. Guess that had just slipped his mind.

He might have gotten away with it, though, if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids at the Frankfurter Allgemeine, who reported at the beginning of the year that Wulff had phoned the editor-in-chief of Bild, Kai Diekmann, and had threatened the paper with legal action if they printed the story.

Now, there’s a strategy that’s doomed to failure right from the start. For a politician to threaten to sue a paper for publishing unflattering stories is pretty much the stupidest move since Napoleon said, “You know what? I reckon if we took half a million troops and marched them through eastern Europe for three months, we could knock seven kinds of hell out of the Russians.” The effect is pretty much the same: utter defeat at the hands of a vastly superior enemy and a humiliating march back through the frozen wastes as your political life ebbs away.

And it didn’t help that Wulff later “explained” that what he had asked for was not a retraction, but a delay in publication on the grounds that was on his way to meet an emir. It turns out, however, that Wulff had spoken on Diekmann’s answering machine. The Bild asked Wulff if they could publish the transcript. Wulff said no. The Bild sent Wulff a copy of the transcript. Wulff said, basically, he didn’t really care what the Bild did with that damn transcript.

And at this point, in stepped a small, Berlin-based paper called the taz and decided that they wanted to join in the fun. There’s no love lost between the Bild and the taz, and in fact although their relationship is often described as “love-hate”, it would be more accurate to describe it as “come one step closer and I might just gouge your eyes out”. Why, the taz wants to know, did Bild journalists decide to send other papers extracts from the transcript before Wulff had given his consent?

Diekmann’s answer was prompt and to the point: “Good question, but could you delay publication for now? I’m off to Ludwigshafen to visit Helmut Kohl.”

Turns out, he was joking. He actually does intend to answer the taz’s questions by the deadline they set, which is Monday afternoon. Then again, Wulff did promise that he would himself publish documents and so on which would explain all, and so far that hasn’t happened either.

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