Scoop on Bundesbank head returns focus to Der Spiegel

BERLIN: In a single stroke, the 57-year-old newsmagazine Der Spiegel has reasserted itself as one of Germany's premier investigative news organizations, a position it had increasingly been forced to share with Focus magazine, owned by Munich-based Hubert Burda Media, and Munich's Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper.

On Friday, the president of the Bundesbank, Ernst Welteke, resigned from office amid a hail of criticism little more than two weeks after Der Spiegel revealed that he had accepted €7,661, or $9,200 at current exchange rates, of free hotel accommodations from Dresdner Bank.

Both the Hamburg-based magazine's top editor and journalism experts said they could not remember a recent time when a single article had prompted the departure of such a high-level German official.

Perhaps not since October 1962, when German police occupied the editorial offices of Der Spiegel and jailed its publisher for more than two months after the weekly reported details of a planned NATO troop maneuver, had one of its articles received so much attention.

The disclosures about Welteke, who had headed the Bundesbank since September 1999 and represented Germany on the board of the European Central Bank, could not have come at a better time for Der Spiegel, which is struggling in a slow advertising market against a slate of aggressive competitors.

"This revelation will be a great boost for Der Spiegel," said Joachim Klewes, a journalism professor at Berlin's Free University. "They've been under pressure a lot over the last few years, and this is a very big scoop."

Klewes, who is also co-owner of a Düsseldorf public relations company, said the Der Spiegel story was likely to reaffirm in the public's mind the magazine's investigative bent, which would help it grab new readers and bolster circulation.

In 2003, Der Spiegel's total advertising pages fell 12.5 percent from the previous year, to 3,929, according to the German magazine publishers' association. That was almost three times as steep as the industry's 3.7 percent average decline. Der Spiegel's publishing sales, which peaked in 2000 at €277.8 million, fell to €226.4 million last year.

Still, Der Spiegel, which means "The Mirror," last year had a weekly circulation of 1.1 million, largest in its market.

The impetus for Welteke's departure was an April 5 article in Der Spiegel that disclosed that Welteke, his wife and son and his son's girlfriend had stayed for four nights around New Year's Eve in 2001 as Dresdner Bank's guests at Berlin's Hotel Adlon, next to the Brandenburg Gate. Welteke and his wife stayed in the hotel's Pariser Platz Suite, at a cost of €1,718 a night.

Welteke had traveled from Frankfurt to Berlin to attend a Dec. 31, 2001, event promoting the debut of euro coins and notes. In the Der Spiegel story and in interviews with other German media over the following two weeks, the Bundesbank president declined to apologize for taking the gifts, dismissing any possible conflict of interest.

Perhaps more interestingly, the magazine's revelations also prompted the long-simmering uneasiness between the central bank and Germany's government to bubble over. The day the charges were published, the government lost no time in saying it could replace Welteke. As he resigned on Friday, Welteke took a parting shot at Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government, accusing it of compromising the Bundesbank's independence.

Welteke's sponsored trip was brought to light by a Der Spiegel reporter, Wolfgang Reuter, 38, who obtained a copy of Welteke's hotel bill, which was reprinted with the article. Reuter, a six-year Der Spiegel reporter assigned to the magazine's business desk in Berlin, declined to say how he had obtained the bill.

Stefan Aust, Der Spiegel's top editor for nine years, said he could not remember the last time a story had prompted the resignation of such a high-level government official.

Aust said Der Spiegel was not pursuing Welteke's ouster but was merely trying to bring the questionable gift to light.

"We thought it necessary that people in Germany know what kinds of gifts the president of the Bundesbank was taking," Aust said. "We are not headhunters at Der Spiegel. There's no triumphant feeling here among us following his resignation. And I really don't think he helped himself with his responses."

Aust credited reporter Reuter for his fair and even handling of the story, noting that Der Spiegel did not aim to hype news through provocative, overwrought language but through the strength of its reporting. Aust characterized Reuter's scoop as part of Der Spiegel's broader, ongoing effort to inform the German public, adding that the scoop would not lead to a reordering of the magazine's editorial priorities.

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