German Journalists Scooped Again?

Now this is what I call news.  A man from Liechtenstein, the tiny tax haven whose bank-secrecy laws are the scourge of Northern Europe, sold the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND (the German intelligence agency) a CD with the names and detailed account information of potentially hundreds of Germans who have, allegedly, opened accounts in Liechtenstein’s banks to hide wealth from the tax man.  The BND, we read, paid 4.2 million Euro for the data.

The information is supposedly detailed and reliable; dozens of alleged tax evaders and some accountants have reportedly already confessed.  And now we read in the German media (g) that the Wall Street Journal has revealed the name of the man at the center of the affair.  You can also find his name, if you wish, by accessing the WSJ’s Europe-edition website. 

My question is this: why do we have to read his name in an English-language news source?  There would seem to be only two explanations.  First, German journalists were scooped (that is, another newspaper beat them to the story).  Among Anglo-American journalists, getting scooped by another newspaper is a deep humiliation — especially if it’s a foreign newspaper that scoops you  in your own backyard, so to speak.

The second possibility is that German journalists knew his name, but declined to publish it on privacy grounds.  German newspapers usually don’t publish the full names of people who are involved in embarrassing scandals.

If this is a scoop, then it’s yet another data-point in favor of the thesis that German journalists spend far too much time:

(1) sharing with us their personal opinion on various topics ("Executives make too much money!" "The smoking ban is puritanism!" "Obama is wonderful!" "Butterflies are pretty!") ; and

(2) acting as stenographers for the rich and powerful ("politician A said she was ‘outraged’ by politician B’s comment that he was ‘disgusted’ by the ‘irresponsible’ statements politician C made about the Weimar Republic during his hotly-contested re-election campaign!")

and too little time:

(1) building a network of contacts of reliable informants in government and private industry;

(2) leaving their comfy offices to go to various parts of Germany to interview people who are willing to talk; and

(3) fearlessly publishing information that may embarrass the powerful, reveal corruption, show the failure of government policies, and/or spur reform.

Note that I’m not tarring all German reporters here, some of them, like the ones who wrote this revealing book (g) are doing what journalists should do — calling the powerful to account.  But far too many are, frankly, just chuntering on inconsequentially, and apparently missing big stories right under their noses.

13 thoughts on “German Journalists Scooped Again?

  1. > “Butterflies are pretty!”

    Excuse me? Is it just me or is there, as of late, a trend on this blog towards employing a mocking, condescending tone towards Germans? I already gasped when Andrew stopped just 2 inches short of accusing Germans of sucking up to authority (“deference to bigwigs”) and drew in my breath sharply when he treaded on my turf by mocking their Kultur as “precious”, but now German journalists are on the verge of falling into the abyss that’s Andrew’s eternal ridicule! Where have the days gone when every page was filled with praise of recycling or bicycle paths and I could point my friends to this blog as an example of the woeful delusion that is Europeanism?

  2. My question is this: why do we have to read his name in an English-language news source?

    Because you normally don’t betray the whistle-blower’s identity for good reasons (Geheiminformant fürchtet um sein Leben – “Nach SPIEGEL-Informationen fürchtet der Informant nun um sein Leben, verlangte umfassenden Personenschutz, vor der Staatsanwaltschaft will er nie als Zeuge auftreten.”)? And I don’t see any benefit or new piece of information in publishing his name.

    A scoop? You’re joking, aren’t you? Contrary to German media, the WSJ “revealed” absolutely nothing. Its journalists just published a name they got from the Liechtenstein attorney Robert Wallner. Brilliant investigation! As the SPIEGEL already has pointed out, there a serious doubts that he was the BND informant.

    Seems that I really missed something during the run-up to the Iraq war. How many US journalists later cried like little children and pathetically asked their readers for forgiveness? And how many German journalists?

  3. Unfortunately, I tend to agree with your analysis of the majority of journalists. My feeling is that it used to be different, but somehow, at some point, everybody just fell into this deep, homogenic sleep.

  4. Andrew, I also agree with your thesis on German journalism. But Onkel Otto has a point too, so I fear that’s not just a German problem.

    @Onkel Otto:
    How many US journalists later cried like little children and pathetically asked their readers for forgiveness?
    At least they admitted their mistake and DID ask for forgiveness. Something a German newspaper would never do. Usually they don’t even correct false reports. See an especially embarrassing example here: http://www.stefan-niggemeier.de/blog/chronologie-einer-falschmeldung/

  5. Definitely not a scoop as the informer’s name was revealed by the Liechtenstein authorities. This guy is now apparently living in Australia under a new identity.

    The reason why German newspapers wouldn’t publish a suspect’s full name is normally the presumption of innocence (innocent till proven guilty). It’s dubious though why journalists have so far failed to do a proper legal analysis about whether the BND was allowed to purchase data that were obviously gathered illegally. This raises a lot of questions about other dodgy activities of the BND – and that’s an area where your criticism of German journalism is very justified.

  6. @Norbert
    With the information that’s currently available, I’d be even inclined to think that this alleged informant is a false track placed by Liechtenstein authorities to discredit the investigation. Liechtenstein is scared like shit that this scandal spoils the business model of their whole country and is currently biting in every direction like a rabid dog (see e.g. http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/0,1518,536213,00.html).

    I agree with your opinion on the non-investigation on the legality of this information, though.

  7. I don’t know why everybody keeps blaming the BND for doing something illegal?
    First of all the BND was just the middleman, the Finanzministerium and our Finanzminister made the deal not the BND.
    And if they were responsable for bying that data on their own, wouldn’t that just be the thing an intelligence service is supposed to do?
    And the last thing is, who cares about the name of this guy? The name is infotainment, along with how does he live and how bad was his childhood, sry but that isn’t the story here.

  8. @Norbert,

    It’s dubious though why journalists have so far failed to do a proper legal analysis about whether the BND was allowed to purchase data that were obviously gathered illegally.

    I don’t agree because a lot of articles I read explained the “Fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine and that it probably doesn’t hold in Germany. See, for some recent examples, “Anwälte zeigen Bundesregierung und BND an” (Welt), “BND auf dünnem Eis?” (ZDF), “Streit über Rolle des Geheimdienstes in Steueraffäre. Wird aus der Steueraffäre eine BND-Affäre?”(Tagesschau), “Bundesnachrichtendienst. Steuer-Datenkauf beschäftigt Kontrollgremium”(FAZ). At this moment, journalists can only speculate about the origin and the nature of the data and further arguments about the legal status (“a proper analysis”) aren’t possible in my opinion.

    @Alex,

    At least they admitted their mistake and DID ask for forgiveness. Something a German newspaper would never do. Usually they don’t even correct false reports.

    As Stefan Niggmeier wrote, dpa admitted the false report from saturday the next tuesday and Spiegel Online who “relatively quickly reacted” (S. Niggemeier”) additionally documented the whole affaire with the following conclusion on its website:

    “Am Dienstag gab auch dpa zu, dass die Rede auf der Bühne korrekt übersetzt worden war. Die Agentur drückte ihr Bedauern aus und entschuldigte sich bei den Veranstaltern für ihren Fehler. SPIEGEL ONLINE bedauert, die fehlerhafte Übersetzung von dpa übernommen zu haben.

    Nevertheless, I fully agree with you that too much journalists simply use press releases or announcements for their articles without own investigations – I could give you much more dramatic examples where German journalists completely failed.

  9. @Onkel Otto:

    It appears most journalists have no clue what they are writing about when they cite the “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine”. But that’s not the point, because it’s related to another question, namely whether the information gained through the purchase of data can be used in a criminal procedure. More pertinent at this stage is the question whether the BND, under its current legal set-up, is entitled to do what it did, namely buy information that was obviously gathered illegally, from somebody who was sentenced in another country for breaching his confidentiality duties. I am not so certain that the persons in charge would get away by simply argueing “that’s what intelligence services do”.

  10. A good example is the GSG-9 mission in Bad Kleinen in 1993 where TV magazine Monitor and the Spiegel argued that one terrorist, Wolfgang Grams, was executed by two GSG-9 commandos. Hans Leyendecker, who worked for the Spiegel at that time and wrote the cover story “Der Todesschuss”, later called it his “most devastating mistake”.

    See the short summary from Zapp, a very nice little TV magazine that critically covers German media and also has a video archive.

  11. @Onkel Otto
    Interesting, thanks. But actually I don’t think this is a good example, because here an investigative journalist has let himself being carried away and made some terrible mistakes, wheres we are more lamenting the culture of not investigating at all and just copying mistakes made by others.

  12. @Norbert,

    But that’s not the point, because it’s related to another question, namely whether the information gained through the purchase of data can be used in a criminal procedure.

    I’m no laywer, but Focus reports that according to Prof. Jörn Ipsen, expert in constitutional law, it can. And according to Prof. Dieter Birk, expert in fiscal law, the data were sufficient for initial suspicion and for tax investigators to raid the homes and offices. Seems that it’s even unclear if the act of “transmission” really was illegal according to German laws because fiscal data are no “Geschäftsgeheimnisse” and German bank employees are obligued to call German authorities in the case of tax fraud. [Hey, I really like the reader’s comment 43: “Bundeswehr billiger! Wäre ein Kurzeinsatz der Bundeswehr zur Erlangung dieser Daten nicht günstiger gewesen (…)” That’s German humor…]

    Currently, there’s too much wild speculation. We will see.

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