Axel Springer, the owner of Politico, Insider and a host of digital media publications, has ousted Julian Reichelt, a top editor at its German tabloid Bild, after an explosive report revealed his alleged sexual misconduct and the company’s efforts to brush it under the rug.
The news comes after an investigation penned by Ben Smith of The New York Times on Sunday shed light on Reichelt’s affair with an underling whom he promoted to a high-ranking job, as well as multiple instances of sexual harassment.
Axel Springer said Monday that “new findings” have led it to let go of Reichelt since his workplace conduct was the subject of a recent investigation. Without spelling out what was uncovered, the company said “the board of directors learned that Julian Reichelt still does not clearly separate personal and professional matters and has told the board of directors the untruth. For this reason, the board of directors now considers a termination of the work to be inevitable.”
The company said Johannes Boie, 37, currently editor-in-chief of “Welt Am Sonntag” would join Würzbach and Claus Strunz as co-editors in chief of Bild.
Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner added: “We would have liked to continue the path of cultural renewal we have taken with the editorial team and the publishing house at BILD together with Julian Reichelt. This is no longer possible. With Johannes Boie we have a first-class successor. He has proven that he combines journalistic excellence with modern leadership.”
The news comes as Axel Springer expands its presence in the US, having recently bought an ownership stake in news site Politico. The political site is the latest in a slew of US acquisitions for Axel Springer, which bought Business Insider (now called Insider) in 2015 and newsletter publisher Morning Brew last year.
During Reichelt’s affair, which took place from 2016 to 2017, the editor, then 36, told his 25-year-old junior employee that he feared he would lose his job if his affair with a “trainee” became public. But he didn’t end the dalliance, and instead Reichelt gave her a high-profile job, one she felt she wasn’t ready for, while he continued to summon her to hotel rooms near Axel Springer’s Berlin headquarters.
Word of the affair got out when German newspaper “Der Spiegel” reported it in March under the headline: “Screw, Promote, Fire.” That prompted Axel Springer to hire a law firm to look into the affair and claims that Reichelt created a hostile work environment for women.
The German newspaper described “the Reichelt system,” in which “the editor in chief was said to have invited female trainees and interns to dinner via Instagram. Young female employees were sometimes quickly promoted. Their fall from grace was similarly rapid.”
The young woman with whom he had an affair confirmed the editor’s M.O. to investigators, saying: “That’s how it always goes at Bild. Those who sleep with the boss get a better job.”
Reichelt, who was the editor and the face of a new TV network started by Bild, did not, as he feared, lose his job following the explosive report. Instead, he denied abusing his authority and took a 12-day leave, only to be reinstated by the company that determined his actions didn’t warrant termination.
At the time, Axel Springer issued a statement referenced “mistakes” but said they were outweighed by “the enormous strategic and structural changes as well as the journalistic achievements that have taken place under the management of Julian Reichelt.”
It also included an apology from Reichelt, who said: “What I blame myself for more than anything else is that I have hurt people I was in charge of.”
The editor returned to his post, but with a woman, Alexandra Würzbach, as Bild’s co-editor. She was given responsibility for personnel and the Sunday edition.
The Times said Axel Springer has tried to keep the details of the investigation out of the German press. In 2018, the business newspaper Handelsblatt was prepared to report on alleged conflicts of interest in Reichelt’s relationship with a woman at a public relations agency, Der Spiegel reported this year. But, The Times said the article was killed after a call from Reichelt.
This year, German publisher Ippen was preparing an investigation on Reichelt’s conduct, but as the story was nearing its publication date, it was killed without any reason. The Times said the directive came from Ippen’s largest shareholder, Dirk Ippen.
An Ippen rep told The Times that the publication decided not to publish the story “to avoid the appearance of combining a journalistic publication with the economic interest of harming the competitor.”
According to documents viewed by The Times, the trainee testified that when the expenses for the job she’d been placed in exceeded her salary, she complained to Reichelt, who authorized a special payment of 5,000 euros and “told her that she should never tell anyone.”
Aside from the affair, documents painted a picture of a coverup culture at Bild, in which women, who were involved with the editor in chief were often moved around to other departments. One Bild editor said he was tired of taking on women with whom Reichelt had an affair, the newspaper said.
The publication also described the lengths Reichelt was willing to go to cover up his behavior, noting that Axel Springer’s compliance department received a complaint this year that Reichelt had provided a forged certificate showing that he was divorced to a woman who was working on contract with Axel Springer and with whom he was having a relationship. A copy of the phony divorce certificate was reviewed by the paper.
“Julian Reichelt had made mistakes, but no unforgivable mistakes,” Axel Springer said Monday. “Errors that would have justified an immediate separation could not be proven and were denied by Julian Reichelt. Instead of a termination, there was a second chance.”