Guilty Until Proven Innocent


Augustinas Šemelis

Back in 2012 the President of Germany Christian Wulff was forced to resign: the German media had accused him of corruption and published something that seemed like legit proof at the time. Subsequently, he had to resign. And yet recently the former president was proven to be innocent: the allegations in the newspapers turned out to be false, yet effective rumors. Does this mean that the gravity force of the media has grown so strong that it can warp reality and make a commodity out of it?

The Wulff affair, as the Germans call it, began in late 2011, when the famous and influential German tabloid Bild published series of articles allegedly proving that the president had abused his position to push forward the business interests of his friend, film producer David Groenewold. Not only that: Wulff, according to Bild, had also accepted numerous favors from the rich and powerful: cheaper flight tickets, free hotel stays in the U.S., loans for a favorable interest rate, you name it. Purely on the basis of these allegations by the media, the investigation started and Christian Wulff resigned, becoming the first and only president of the Bundesrepublik to ever do so.

But then in 2014 the court of Hannover, capital of Wulff’s home state Lower Saxony, found the resigned president not guilty. He was cleared of all the corruption and bribery-friendship allegations. In contrast, exactly ten years ago we had a case when the President of Lithuania Rolandas Paksas faced somewhat similar charges, but they were justified. Also, he refused to resign amidst a deep political crisis resulting from this scandal, until finally he was impeached and found guilty. The man had abused his presidential powers and had to go.

But Wulff’s case is entirely different. What happens if you act more sensibly and instead of clinging to your position you resign, thus saving your country from a political default, but then subsequently you are absolved? It seems we now have a prominent case of the media, and not a politician, abusing its power. “What I complain about is the brutalization of the discourse, all this malice and defamation”, the former president told Der Spiegel recently. Can we say that there is a drift of the media towards abandoning its watchdog observation tower and becoming an instrument of torture?

Even the well-respected and serious outlets of German media have dived in for a full attack during the Wulff affair, which in turn led to the president’s resignation. Even Der Spiegel made the corruption charges seem to be a factual reality rather than a possibility to be examined critically. The most notorious example of this was the cover design of Der Spiegel from early 2012: a portrait picture of Christian Wulff and a German caption above saying “in office with honor”, with the word “honor” crossed out in red. Pretty suggestive, wouldn’t you say?

It’s as if sometimes Kafka’s The Trial is coming to life in the public sphere, where public persons are facing an omnipresent, surreal, mechanic and confusingly spiteful court. And most importantly, it works backwards: you are guilty, until proven innocent.

Christian Wulff goes even further: he sees himself as a victim of deliberate and organized public opinion attack. He supposedly casted black clouds over himself when he stated in one of his public speeches as a president that Islam is an integral part of the German culture. But let’s leave these conspiracy theories aside to the inner affairs of the German society.

The main thing to extract from this story is the importance of realizing the difference between an intoxicating hunting fever and legit critical scrutiny. And when the media catches a fever for hunting rather than carefully observing and scrutinizing, the final product is, as Stephen Colbert would put it – truthiness. It’s when instead of reporting the news to you, the media “feels the news at you”.

They felt that Wulff was guilty, they felt there was truth to the rumors and the corruption stories, and that was good enough. And maybe it’s not entirely the media’s fault: maybe sometimes it gets driven by the impulses of truthiness because many people find truthiness more enjoyable than facts, as facts are usually stone-cold and so distant from our opinions. Or maybe this is just a faux generalization, I have no idea. One thing stands to reason though: when the watchdog is bored of watching, it likes to bite just for the sake of it. And that’s as dangerous as him being subdued and non-free to bark at the intruders of democracy.

Photo by Martina Nolte / License: Creative Commons BY-SA-3.0 de

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