The firing of Bild chief editor surprised many, although mainly because of how it happened. The whole affair was triggered by a New York Times investigation into sexual misconduct, (meanwhile an earlier German investigation by Ippen into the same matter was spiked). 

Some commented that it took an American paper to publish what European ones couldn’t (while others sarcastically pointed out that NYT wouldn’t have written the piece if it wasn’t for the global ambitions of Bild owner Axel Springer, a budding rival).

But the problem of sexual misconduct, ranging from inappropriate workplace behaviours to outright harassment and assault, is more than a problem of one publication. 

While the #MeToo movement has already deeply changed many US workplaces, European publishing has yet to go through something of similar proportions. Yet the growing number of cases emerging shines a light on an industry that needs to do much better.

Background on the Bild story: an appropriate workplace only for men?

On Monday 18th of October Axel Springer executives fired Julian Reichelt, chief editor of the biggest German tabloid Bild. Reichelt abused his position to pursue relationships with female employees, promoted them later or fired, depending on his personal intentions. 

For example, Reichelt used to invite young interns for dinner on Instagram and promote them afterwards. “Those who sleep with the boss get a better job”, one female employee with whom Reichelt appeared to have a lasting relationship told investigators.

The publisher’s reaction seems to be appropriate in #MeToo era, but Axel Springer decided on Reichelt’s dismissal only after The New York Times piece. Meanwhile, Julian Reichelt was accused of misconduct for the first time in March 2021. 

According to Axel Springer’s then release, Reichelt denied the accusations but asked the board to release him from his functions until the situation is clarified. In a piece under the title “Screw, Promote, Fire” Der Spiegel stated that anonymously interviewed employees admitted Reichelt’s role in growing a culture of fear and abuse. 

Less than 2 weeks later Axel Springer announced a dual leadership in Bild management. Reichelt returned and shared responsibilities equally with Alexandra Würzbach, the editor-in-chief of Bild am Sonntag. Apparently, abuse of power in connection with consensual relationships with female employees and drug use in the workplace were not enough to dismiss Reichelt.

This was not the first time Reichelt shared leadership posts with a woman. He earlier worked with Tanit Koch, the first female editor-in-chief of Bild, as digital editor-in-chief. She reportedly left after constant open conflicts with Reichelt on management issues. So he was appointed head of all Bild titles, a more senior role. 

On Sunday 17th of October 2021, The New York Times reported on the falsity of Axel Springer’s internal investigation (and dishonest deal-making in the Politico acquisition). The next day Axel Springer ousted Reichelt, with executives stating they were unaware of details of the case.

It is worth mentioning that Reichelt is not the first Bild’s chief editor implicated in a sexual scandal.  Earlier there was Kai Diekmann, editor-in-chief in 2001-2015 and one of the most powerful German journalists. A week after he left “of his own request”, German prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into a sexual harassment complaint against him. However, it was closed in 2018 due to lack of evidence. 

More from The Fix: Axel Springer becomes a global player overnight

Nudes from deputy editor-in-chief

Amazingly, Bild’s editor-in-chief was not the only media executive fired for sexual misconduct on the 18th of October 2021. Popular Czech news site Seznam Zprávy terminated the contract of deputy editor-in-chief  Jiří Hošek due to sexual harassment of female employees. 

“For example, he sent unsolicited photos of his ‘nature’”, wrote the biggest Czech news outlet iDNES, quoting Hošek’s former colleague. According to the source, his behavior was well-known in the newsroom for a long time, but nothing has been done. 

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Besides a strange coincidence of timing with the publication of The New York Times report on Bild, the reaction of Seznam Zprávy executives seems to be faster – or at least more transparent – than Axel Springer’s. Instead of a standard press release, Seznam Zprávy published an interview with its editorial top management the day after the announcement. 

Jakub Kubík, editor-in-chief, and Jakub Unger, director of the news and radio division, claimed they were informed by the weekend before the 18th of October and reacted immediately after the confrontation with Hošek. 

“On Monday at 10:15 I received specific, targeted complaints in the company. At 10:24 he could study them in writing. At 10:35 I placed a document about immediate termination in front of Jiří Hošek, which he immediately accepted and left our company”, said Unger. 

Translation of the Tweet: “I sincerely regret what happened. I want to apologize to all the colleagues I touched with my inappropriate behavior. My actions were inadmissible and I decided to solve them with professional help.”

The crisis-response plan developed by the Seznam managers, was itself commendable. The pledged take four steps:
#1 Apologize to all female employees for Hošek’s harassment

#2 Carry out an internal investigation on the case

#3 Provide support to all employees, who directly report inappropriate behavior 

#4 Develop mechanisms for anonymous reporting of such cases across all company divisions

#MeToo cases in other European outlets

The European #MeToo movement is weaker than in the United States. Cases of top male employees brought down due to misconduct against women are rare, concluded The New York Times. The reason is that the law of most European countries protects the accused, whose guilt is not proven, interfering with journalistic investigations.

France and Sweden: harassment victims pay for personal attacks

The most famous case from there didn’t have a positive ending. In 2019, a French court ordered journalist Sandra Muller to pay around €20,000 damages to Eric Brion, a former executive of France Télévisions, whom she had accused of humiliatingly flirting with her. 

Muller’s #BalanceTonPorc (“ExposeYourPig” in French) Twitter action, known as the French analog of #MeToo, was admitted by the court as “surpassing acceptable limits of freedom of expression, as her comments descended into a personal attack”, NYT reported.

Sweden is known as one of the most gender-equal countries, at times in hard to understand ways. A victim of rape was ordered to pay damages to their alleged rapist for violation of freedom of expression limits. 

TV and radio presenter Cissi Wallin wrote on her Instagram under #MeToo hashtag in October 2017 that Fredrik Virtanen, a journalist for the popular Swedish paper Aftonbladet, drugged and raped her in 2006. 

Despite the evidence in her case and discovered stories of the other 12 women, harassed by Virtanen, Wallin was sentenced to pay him €8400 euros. Wallin’s claim was deemed disproportionately harmful due to her social media post’s high reach. 

She has appealed the verdict and the case is pending. That story was in detail analyzed in a doctoral study on the University of Texas by Caitlin Carroll about sexual violence and the law in Sweden.

Polish TV editor-in-chief ahead of Weinstein for 2 years

In 2015 Kamil Durczok, editor-in-chief of “Facts by TVN”, a news program on the biggest Polish commercial TV station, sexually harassed and abused his female colleagues, according to an investigation by Wprost weekly .

“Deal with this yourself, you are already an adult”, reportedly answered TVN executives after a female employee complained about Durczok’s behavior. However, after the first publication, the broadcaster internally uncovered 3 cases of harassment without naming a guilty person. 

Afterward, the contract with Durczok was terminated by mutual agreement. The 6-year trial ended with the obligation of the authors and the publisher to apologize to Durczok for defamation, although there were several weighty testimonies against him.

Denmark, where #MeToo was born on stage

In August 2020 Danish comedy TV presenter Sofie Linde, known as X-factor host in Denmark, stated in her speech during the Zulu Comedy Gala the following: 

  • She’s only a second female host of the event in the last 14 years
  • It’s just not true that there’s no difference between men and women in Denmark
  • When she was 18 y.o., starting out at national broadcaster DR, one of the network’s top managers threatened to ruin her career, because she didn’t agree to oral sex

As a result, more than 1,600 women signed an open letter alleging harassment and sexism in Danish media, according to the BBC.

More from The Fix: How the Danish media’s #MeToo wave sparked a country-wide debate

The UK: dismissals in Vice or GQ and BBC internal investigation

The most famous cases are related to Sam Kriss, ex-contributor to Vice and The Atlantic, and Rupert Myers, former GQ political contributor. Both men lost their jobs in October 2017 after allegations of them forcing themselves on women while being drunk. They had one more thing in common: they both declared themselves as feminists and publicly apologized to women. 

At the same period in 2017 BBC’s internal investigation subsequently uncovered 37 formal complaints of sexual harassment, the Daily Mail reported. It was initiated by leading female employees, including Radio 4 presenter Mishal Husain and Victoria Derbyshire from BBC Two, who came together after the BBC gender pay gap affair, discussing sexual harassment within the organization as well. 

As a result Live 5 presenter George Riley was fired without the possibility to return on air after allegations of sexual harassment from at least 8 women. The BBC refused to comment on that case, as The Guardian’s request, in 2019.

Russia: denials after apologies in Meduza and Echo Moskvy 

Before being marked as a foreign agent by Russian authorities in 2021, Meduza survived another huge crisis in November 2018. Its editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov was accused of sexually assaulting a colleague’s wife during a company event. 

Reportedly, a drunk Kolpakov touched her buttocks and said that no one does anything to him for it. As a result, he was suspended from work, and about 20 employees resigned of their own free will, due to internal conflicts. 

However, Kolpakov was reinstated 4 months later. “The decision to reinstate Kolpakov as editor-in-chief was made by me. From the very beginning, Ivan was the ideologist and leader of the publication, together we made one of the most widely read media outlets in Russia. I don’t know another professional who could better cope with new tasks and challenges”, Galina Timchenko, publisher and CEO of Meduza wrote. 

In his first interview about the allegations, given in 2020 to Esquire, Kolpakov stated that his words were a “rude joke”.

The year 2020 was also remarkable for harassment allegations, addressed to one of the most powerful figures in Russian media – Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of famed Moscow radio station Echo Moskvy.

In a Russian BBC service piece Anna Veduta, political activist and former press-secretary of Aleksei Navalny, said that Venediktov forced himself on her in 2012 after a work party.

“I could say: ‘It didn’t happen’. But I don’t remember it. It certainly couldn’t be like this. But at the same time, if something has been grating Anna inside for 8 years already, if she feels uncomfortable, because of how she imagined it, I apologize to her”, said Venediktov, during the DaiDudya program on the Echo Moskvy YouTube channel.

How do European media companies deal with sexual harassment compared to the USA

America’s largest media companies were the first to fire top employees convicted of sexual harassment in 2017 with the #MeToo outburst: Mark Halperin, fired from MSNBC and NBC, Leon Wieseltierfrom from The New Republic, and Michael Oreskes, dismissed from NPR.

In 2021, Moira Donegan, creator of the American “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet and the Cut editor, was being sued to pay $1.5M to one of the men featured. He accused Donegan of libel and asked to reveal the identity of the person who labelled him a rapist.

Harassment allegations still appear, like the case of Chris Cuomo, presenter on CNN. In the end of September Shelley Ross, former ABC executive, reported on harassment from Cuomo in 2005 in the context of recent public allegations for his brother Andrew Cuomo, ex-Governor of New York state. Ross’s story caused public opinions, stating that not every misconduct is #MeToo case, like in Newsweek. 

American society has embarked on a fundamental transformation over the past 4 years. The way of thinking is changing, with some companies also giving second chances. For example, Halperin commented on another sex scandal as a Newsmax TV channel host in April 2021. He started work there in November 2020, despite public criticism.

Certainly, European countries have to find their own solutions. Publishing specifically needs to take a deep look and find ways to address a problem that is only coming to the surface.