"Bitte Stärke die FDP": Döpfner vio­lates Springer’s own Code of Con­duct

von Dr. Felix W. Zimmermann


Leaked messages published by Die Zeit suggest that Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer reportedly interfered in reporting by the Bild newspaper. Yet the Springer Company’s own Code of Conduct explicitly forbids exactly this sort of interference.  

One of the leaked messages which Die Zeit reports Mathias Döpfner having sent to Julian Reichelt, former editor-in-chief of the tabloid newspaper Bild, shortly before the national Bundestag elections on August 12, 2021, clearly reads:  

"Can you do any more for the FDP? They should get at least 16 percent [of the vote.]" (Translation from German) The FDP (Free Democratic Party) is a German political party that advocates for classical liberal policies based on individual freedom, free markets, and limited government intervention. 

Lo and behold, the very same evening, Bild Online published an article with the headline, "All parties need the FDP: Will FDP leader Lindner be the Kanzlermacher?” (Translation from German) The article concludes that Lindner is set to "emerge as the most important politician" after the election. 

Two days before the election, Döpfner sent another message appealing to Reichelt: 

"Please strengthen the FDP. If they come out strong, they can act with such authority in a Ampel [traffic light: coalition of Social Democrats, the Green party and FDP] that it collapses. And then Jamaica [coalition of Christian Democrats, the Green party and FDP] can work"(Translation from German).  

The following day, Bild published a report for its readers on the: "Final Election Campaign Appearance: Lindner Lashes out at Everyone" (Translation from German). Lindner gets off rather lightly in the piece. For example, the article speculates that: "...the FDP leader, who would evidently prefer the Jamaica coalition, made it clear: with the Liberal Party, there will be no 'red' tax increases [by the Social Democrats] and no 'green' debts [by the Green Party]." FDP pushed, Lindner praised, the Ampel-coalition discredited - has the publisher successfully peddled his own interests?  

Whilst it is not possible to obtain direct evidence, media scientist Prof. Bernhard Pörksen, writing for Zeit Online, is certain that Döpfner's views are "journalistically effective". Döpfner can be seen to deliberately be using his journalistic clout to propagate his personal convictions, using the Bild as his megaphone and through having exerted his influence.  

A publisher may determine the tenor of a publication  

In principle, it is not prohibited for a publisher to exert their influence. Whoever bears the economic risk for a publication is allowed to determine how that medium positions itself, explains law professor and director of the Leibniz Institute for Media Research Prof. Wolfgang Schulz in an interview with LTO. At the same time, the use of journalistic criteria to select news stories for publication is critical to ensure that readers can freely form their opinions. Yet total editorial independence for journalists is impossible to enforce. "Messages like this from a publisher to the editor-in-chief do not violate state law", Schulz says.  

At the European level, the Commission has proposed to grant editorial offices greater independence through the draft European Media Freedom Act – much to the displeasure of the publishing industry

The existing principle of internal freedom of the press means that journalists cannot be compelled to publish articles under their own name that contradict their views. There are no known instances of Döpfner having ever given such orders to journalists. As such there is no indication that Döpfner has violated national media or labor laws. But what about Springer's internal compliance rules? 

Döpfner views Lindner favourably - picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen


Code of Conduct is a "trusty guide for our day-to-day interactions" 

Axel Springer has long ceased to be just a publishing house. The company operates various e-commerce platforms, including the job portal Stepstone and the online comparison portal Idealo. Through its subsidiary, the Aviv Group, Springer is also an active player in the real estate market. The company is personified by Mathias Döpfner, who is no longer merely head of a publishing house, but manager of a global business conglomerate.  

In view of the breadth of the group‘s economic portfolio, the threat to editorial independence posed by the influence of the corporate leadership is significantly more pronounced than at pure media publishing houses, where conflicts are often limited to avoiding alienating advertising partners. In contrast, the Axel Springer Group has significantly more far-reaching regulatory interests and competitors in non-traditional media markets. Because of its manifold business interests and the dangers that these could pose to the independent journalism, the Group has, in a forward-thinking move, laid down rules in a Code of Conduct to bolster journalistic independence. 

The preamble, which is signed by Döpfner himself, states: "The Code of Conduct helps us all make the right decisions and act with integrity. Likewise, it serves as a trusty guide for our day-to-day interactions (…) That’s why it is so important that each and every one of us take the time to get to know the updated Code of Conduct and use it as a guide in making decisions.” (original English text)  

“Each and every one of us" also includes CEO Döpfner himself, as the Code is explicitly "binding for all employees, managers and board members of Axel Springer SE"

Violation of compliance rules 

Under point 3, paragraph 2 of the Code of Conduct, it clearly states: "Management leaves editorial decisions completely to the editorial staff and does not interfere in these decisions" (original English text). This provision has been in effect since at least January 2021, meaning that the messages leaked by Die Zeit sent by Döpfner to Reichelt shortly before the federal election fall within this period. 

Even if, ignoring the de facto nature of the dependent relationship between Reichelt and Döpfner, one wanted to avoid seeing the messages as commands, appeals such as "Can we do more for them (the FDP)?" (August 7, 2021), "Can we do any more for the FDP?" (August 12, 2021), "Please strengthen the FDP" (September 24, 2021) are at the least a clear and repeated interference in editorial decision-making processes, with the intention that Bild report in a certain way, specifically pro-FDP. This thereby constitutes a violation of Springer’s own compliance rules. 

Döpfner sees influence over Bild as part of his job 

How does Axel Springer SE respond to the accusation that its own CEO does not adhere to the Springer Code of Conduct? The corporation has hitherto refused to respond to an LTO request for comment. Likewise, the question as to which sanctions are in place in the event of a violation of the code remains unanswered.  

Döpfner himself does not deny the accusations of interference. On the contrary, in a statement in the Springer intranet, he writes: "Regarding the theory that Mathias Döpfner influences Bild, all I can say is that I certainly hope I do. That's my job as CEO and co-owner." He continues that he enjoys arguing with his editors-in-chief, who are "all mature and self-confident." Whilst his values lie closest to the FDP, he writes, "thank God, our journalists and editors won’t let themselves be influenced. It’s always the editors in chief that have the final say." (All translations from German). 

Rules already prohibit interference 

Springer's Code of Conduct not only prohibits editorial decision-making by corporate management but also all interference in the decision-making process ("Management leaves editorial decisions completely to the editorial staff and does not interfere in these decisions."). This is for good reason: firstly, it is significantly more difficult to prove that decisions have been influenced than to prove prior interference. Secondly, the rule reflects the fact that even the slightest interference by management can put pressure an editorial team, thereby influencing journalistic decision-making processes. 

Given Mathias Döpfner's immense power in the Springer Corporation, it is obvious that his interference can have an effect on journalism; not only through requests for specific reports, as in the case of the FDP prior to national elections, but also by communicating the expectation that journalists will obey his requests. 

Somewhat late, but he had to go - is Julian Reichelt now seeking revenge? picture alliance / TOBIAS STEINMAURER


"It is all up to Döpfner, nobody else," (Translation from German) executive board member Jan Bayer reportedly replied in early March 2021 in response to the question by Die Zeit as to whether Julian Reichelt would lose his position as editor-in-Chief of Bild following allegations of abuse of power and sexual misconduct. Whilst the board is formally involved in decisions like these, in practice it is Döpfner who decides whether to dismiss editors-in-chief at Axel Springer. The CEO, who holds a more than 20 percent share of the company, is described as the Herr [lord] of the corporation, who rules like a sun king and considers himself to be untouchable

Editors-in-chief are under constant threat of dismissal 

Whilst demonstrating a certain lack of journalistic integrity, it is perhaps understandable that editors-in-chief may choose to comply with the "wishes" of the CEO – as Reichelt appears to have done. Their job could, after all, be on the line if Döpfner gives the thumbs down. An abrupt, unjustified dismissal of the Bild editor-in-chief is not outside the realms of possibility for Döpfner. 

Where subordination and power imbalances exist, the extent to which employees have freedom to make their own decisions is always questionable. In the case of Reichelt’s dismissal, Döpfner was either unaware of this or chose to ignore it. Döpfner stood by the Bild editor-in-chief for a long time despite his affairs with employees and sexual misconduct. Yet when it comes to the question of editorial independence, Döpfner has either failed to recognize or refuses to admit that the freedom of employees to take decisions is compromised if the big boss explicitly or subtly expresses editorial wishes. 

A dispute between a CEO and lower-ranking staff ("I enjoy having arguments (...) especially with our editors-in-chief") is likely to be understood on the receiving end as a clear request for compliance. It is inconceivable that Döpfner is unaware of the impact of his power. He must therefore assume that journalists really are "thankfully not influenced" by his positions. 

Publishers in Germany generally do have freedom to choose the editorial stance of a publication and to decide upon its content. Yet often this doesn't bode well for independent journalism. It is presumably for this reason that Axel Springer SE decided to use internal regulations to clearly separate editorial staff and management: in order to reinforce editorial independence and the reputation of their journalism. At least in theory. 

Döpfner allegedly orchestrated Bild campaign against Adidas  

In practice, the messages leaked by Die Zeit are not the first case of alleged editorial influence by Döpfner. The Financial Times reported in September 2022 that the Axel Springer CEO was also said to have used the Bild to orchestrate reports against Adidas, for his own personal interest. 

As context: during the Corona pandemic, the sportswear manufacturer Adidas planned to freeze commercial rent payments in the first lockdown. This was inconvenient for Mathias Döpfner, who was co-owner of a property rented to Adidas. Döpfner is alleged to have contacted former Bild editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt and  suggested to orchestrate a public outcry, arguing that Adidas was a highly profitable company and the non-payment violated the fundamental principles of a free economy, as reported by the Financial Times

In true Bild style, they launched a successful campaign. At least ten articles appeared within a matter of days, in which the topic was mostly portrayed completely one-sidedly. Headline included "Comment on Adidas: Dangerous Chain Reaction" (26.03.2020), "Can a global corporation simply stop paying rent?" (29.03.2020), "Scheuer criticizes corporation for rent freeze. 'I am disappointed with Adidas. Very disappointed'"(27.03.2020), "Comment on the Adidas embarrassment"(01.04.2020). 

The overall tone: the evil, rich Adidas corporation was exploiting a regulation that had emerged during the Corona crisis with the intention of protecting poor tenants from eviction due to rent arrears. The decision to suspend rent payments displayed a lack of solidarity, which could cause private landlords to be brought into acute existential distress if retail giants froze rent payments

Döpfner fails to disclose his interest 

That Adidas stores are generally not owned by private landlords, but rather by billionaires such as Mathias Döpfner, was categorically ignored in the Bild campaign. The campaign also failed to discuss whether a lockdown which caused a gigantic drop in sales for retail stores did not in fact constitute an extraordinary disruption to business, which would justify an adjustment of the rent. The Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) later affirmed this in principle. 

 Several German politicians tried to jump on the bandwagon of the furore created by Bild with embarrassing stunts, such as former SPD MP Florian Post, who burnt an Adidas jersey. SPD politician Katerina Barley promised not to buy Adidas shoes anymore, whilst CSU politican Andreas Scheuer expressed “great disappointment”. A picture-perfect campaign, and successful to boot. On April 1, 2020, Bild was able to report: "Adidas apologizes and has agreed to pay rent."  

Axel Springer denied there had been any conflict of interest by Döpfner, calling the notion "absurd." Döpfner had only passed on the information to Bild because he "immediately knew that it was a matter of overriding public interest." The publisher also stated that Döpfner had "of course" disclosed his personal interest to former Bild editor-in-chief Reichelt. However, it would not have been "reasonable" to name Döpfner as the source of the information. The reason for this remains unclear. 

Freedom of the press above all else? picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska


Freedom of the press above all else?  

The Adidas case is significantly more problematic than the FDP case. Whilst the founding values of the Axel Springer corporation do not yet include the goal of promoting the FDP, and although the violation of the Springer compliance rules is obvious, it would in principle be possible for a private publication to take to a certain political direction and openly publicize this direction. The alleged use of a publication for the publisher's private business interests can, however, no longer be described as journalism. 

Following the leaked messages by Die Zeit, Döpfner posted to the Springer intranet: "…freedom of the press is the most important thing to me. I don’t protect anything else as fiercely and passionately. Every employee in this company can be certain of that. Those that know me, also know this to be the case" (Translation from German). 

  But is this really the case? Döpfner may only choose to intervene occasionally in Bild: the broad range of opinions in the newspaper is testament to this. Yet the pride with which Döpfner always emphasizes the journalistic independence of the Springer editorial staff is no more than lip service in cases which concern Döpfner's personal interests. The FDP messages and the Adidas campaign are testament to this. 

 Consequences of compliance violations?  

Media law professor Wolfgang Schulz agrees that Mathias Döpfner's messages appear to violate the Springer Code of Conduct. In conversation with LTO he comments that "Döpfner's statements about the FDP can be seen as interference." With an ironic undertone, Schulz adds: "In this respect, it would be interesting to see if the Chief Compliance Officer uses this opportunity to initiate proceedings." (Translations from German). According to the Code of Conduct, this person is responsible for investigating violations of the code. 

However, an open-ended investigation against the CEO by the Chief Compliance Officer in charge, Florian von Götz is highly unlikely. In theory, according to Prof. Michael Fuhlrott, violations of a Code of Conduct can have disciplinary consequences, ranging from a warning to immediate dismissal. 

Döpfner does not need to fear sanctions for his editorial interference or for his comments on ossis [east Germans] and how to deal with climate change, so long as major shareholders KKR investment group from the USA, Döpfner's supporter Friede Springer, and the Canadian investor CPPIB stand by him. 

Major shareholder KKR does not wish to comment at this time 

KKR's involvement is of central importance for Springer's expansion, particularly in the US. KKR is a major investor that also influences the strategic direction of the corporation. 

However, compliance violations and controversial statements are not seen favourably by the US investment group. KKR values silence. Particularly as interference in editorial matters could also affect the reputation of other Springer media, such as Welt or Politico. It is for this reason that the Springer Code of Conduct states: " Failure to observe rules may result in significant financial losses, fines, and damage to the reputation of Axel Springer." 

As recently as March, KKR Europe CEO Philipp Freise spoke of supporting Döpfner completely. According to the OMR podcast, neither Philipp Freise nor KKR itself wishes to comment on the leaked messages reported by Die Zeit at this time. 

This Text is a translated version of the Legal Tribune Online report published in German on 16th of April 2023. 



"Bitte Stärke die FDP": Döpfner violates Springer’s own Code of Conduct . In: Legal Tribune Online, 19.04.2023 , https://www.lto.de/persistent/a_id/51579/ (abgerufen am: 20.05.2024 )

Infos zum Zitiervorschlag
Jetzt Pushnachrichten aktivieren


Sie haben die Pushnachrichten abonniert.
Durch zusätzliche Filter können Sie Ihr Pushabo einschränken.

Filter öffnen