Women spoke up, men cried conspiracy: inside Axel Springer’s #MeToo moment

In the spring of 2021, after six bruising weeks of a compliance investigation, senior employees at Axel Springer thought they had defused a crisis.

The German publisher had just reinstated Julian Reichelt as head of Bild, Europe’s top-selling daily newspaper. An external probe by law firm Freshfields found the editor-in-chief had abused his power by promoting and demoting young women he had slept with. Others received unwanted “romantic” messages.

Yet Reichelt had committed no criminal wrongdoing, the law firm found, nor had he broken company rules. Axel Springer told the public that Reichelt had made “mistakes”.

Still, one senior employee told a board member that the written report, if leaked, was “not survivable”. Any outsider who read it, this person quipped, would ask who was replacing Reichelt as the editor of Bild.

Reichelt’s head would not be the only one on the block, the board member shot back. “Also: ‘Who is the new CEO?’ And: ‘Who is the new head of news media?’ If this gets out, it’s at the very least difficult for us. We’re all in the same boat.”

Over the course of a three-month investigation, the Financial Times was able to verify the authenticity of this internal conversation from the spring of 2021, when it seemed the Reichelt episode might be forgotten.

“For now we have calm,” the board member said. “If it remains that way, it was just a shitty six weeks.”

Instead, the real trouble was yet to come.

On October 17, a transcript from the investigators’ files was quoted in a New York Times column. What that transcript described seemed worse than “mistakes”: a female employee who was given an unexpected promotion by Reichelt and summoned for sex in hotel rooms.

The article came just as Axel Springer was making a momentous step in the US media market, with the near-$1bn purchase of Politico, its biggest-ever acquisition.

On October 18, Reichelt was fired. Axel Springer cited “new findings” over an continuing relationship with a Bild employee, and said Reichelt had been “untruthful” to the board. The company said it had “no knowledge of key interview transcripts” referenced in the press.

Yet several people involved have told the FT that Axel Springer was aware of the most serious allegations against Reichelt even before Freshfields was appointed.

At some points, senior executives discussed the investigation with Reichelt, advising him to deny everything. In the process, some of the very people the probe was meant to protect were exposed.

During the investigation and even after its conclusion, Axel Springer’s chief executive Mathias Döpfner and his top brass rallied to protect the editor. Half-truths in the publisher’s statements obscured the scale of Reichelt’s wrongdoing.

The crisis involving one of Axel Springer’s most influential editors came at a crucial moment in the German publishing house’s history © Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images7

The Reichelt drama offers an insight into a powerful publisher that aims to create “the leading digital media company of the democratic world”.

It also sheds light on the workings of some of the world’s biggest private investors that bought a large stake in Axel Springer in 2019. Private equity giant KKR and Canada’s state pension fund each control billions of dollars and own stakes in hundreds of companies around the world. Both say they play an active role in social and governance issues; but both were willing to support his reinstatement after behaviour that has led to dismissals in other companies.

More broadly, the fallout from the Reichelt affair shows the inherent tension of compliance investigations — a system of corporate governance riddled with conflicts that is paid for, managed and communicated by a company itself.

Axel Springer said questions sent by the FT contained “wrong facts, assumptions, insinuations and conclusions”, adding: “As we are subject to various confidentiality obligations, we cannot answer all questions in the requested detail.”

The company said that it was “false” to say that the management feared the results of the investigation could harm their own jobs and reputation but added: “Of course in retrospect we have to admit that we did not do everything right. Our biggest mistake was that we trusted [Reichelt] too long. We deeply regret this, particularly on behalf of employees who suffered from that.”

Reichelt told the FT in a statement that allegations regarding his misconduct were “lies”.

The FT spoke to more than 30 people as part of its investigation, including dozens of in-depth interviews with former Bild employees and contractors, some of whom had sexual relationships with Reichelt and some who acted as whistleblowers.

The FT also talked to several people who read the Freshfields report or were briefed on its content, as well as — with Axel Springer’s consent — a co-author of the report.

The crisis involving one of Axel Springer’s most influential editors came at a pivotal moment in the company’s history. Established in 1946 by its eponymous founder, the publisher became an anti-Communist bulwark during the cold war and was bombed by leftwing militants in 1972.

Today, the company harbours global ambitions. After losing out to Nikkei in the race to buy the FT in 2015, Axel Springer acquired Insider Inc, the publisher of Business Insider, and now owns a host of other digital news and classified sites.

Aiming to make bolder moves, Döpfner, who sits on the board of Netflix, took the publisher private in 2019 with the backing of KKR and CPP Investments (CPPIB), which manages the Canadian pension fund.

A former music critic, Döpfner is the intellectual face of the company. He joined Axel Springer as the editor of conservative broadsheet Die Welt in 1998. Outside his day job, he has launched a highbrow German art magazine and enjoys debating with academics and tech entrepreneurs.

Quick to realise the opportunity and threat of digital media, Döpfner in 2013 sold part of the company’s legacy print business to fund digital expansion.

Döpfner became a billionaire in 2020 after a gift of stock from Friede Springer, widow of the late founder, took his stake in the company to 22 per cent. The 79-year-old Springer also handed him the voting rights on her remaining 22 per cent stake.

In Reichelt, 41, he found a kindred spirit with a more rugged image. Before climbing to the top of Bild in 2017, Reichelt had been regarded as one of Germany’s best tabloid journalists. Enamoured with the US military after his time as a war correspondent, Reichelt used their lingo to sign off emails and kept a military camp bed in his office.

Some editors and colleagues referred to him as Döpfner’s “political alter ego”.

As Axel Springer’s most influential and high-profile editor in Germany, Reichelt advocated provocative, “anti-woke” and sometimes libertarian views. They sparked outrage but sold papers and attracted clicks. With a print circulation of 1.2mn, the headlines at Bild were feared as much as they were courted among the political establishment — and welcomed by the Axel Springer boss.

“Mathias likes being important,” one editor said. “And if you have a brand people are afraid of, then people are afraid of you.”

Fear was also a common emotion among the women in Reichelt’s life.

In February 2021, Axel Springer’s chief compliance officer, Florian von Götz, received a list of several women allegedly mistreated during affairs with Bild’s top editor.

One of the first he called was a former Bild employee who described hotel assignations with Reichelt near the newspaper offices. She had sex with him, she said, out of fear of losing her job. Reichelt had given her what was widely perceived as an undeserved promotion. In the months that followed, she sought clinical treatment for depression.

The same day, von Götz and Jan Bayer, the head of news and a member of the executive board, visited an ex-girlfriend of Reichelt. She alleged he had faked divorce papers to convince her he was no longer married, and had ensured she received contracts organising events for the paper.

The woman requested that the meeting took place at her home because she was afraid to be seen at Axel Springer’s headquarters. She told her visitors Reichelt had often intimidated her and that she feared he might hurt her.

Another woman who spoke to von Götz by phone insisted she was too afraid even to tell an Axel Springer employee her story.

The company decided an external party should handle an independent investigation, selecting Freshfields, whose team was led by former criminal prosecutor Simone Kämpfer, a leading white-collar crime expert.

During 34 interviews with 31 people over four weeks, Kämpfer and her investigators heard multiple stories of Reichelt repeatedly contacting young women at early stages of their careers, often offering to act as mentor or to get them jobs.

Over a period of at least six years, including before he ascended to the top editorial job at Bild, Reichelt wooed and flattered them, invited them to dinner or drinks and sent unsolicited late-night text messages, sometimes expressing romantic or physical longing.

In an anonymised and condensed form, this behaviour from Reichelt — given the alias “Thomas Schneider” during the probe — was described in the Freshfields report and conveyed to company management, the supervisory board and its investors.

“The Freshfields report addressed the identified issues clearly and with no bias towards the interests of the individuals involved in the matter,” the law firm told the FT in a statement.

Simone Kämpfer, a white-collar crime expert
Law firm Freshfields’ team was led by former criminal prosecutor Simone Kämpfer, a white-collar crime expert © Action Press/Shutterstock

Most women who gave testimony insisted on anonymity. Explaining her decision, one former employee told the FT: “A couple of years back, I remember asking a lot of my colleagues, ‘in theory who would you go to, if you had a problem with Julian?’ They would laugh.”

During Reichelt’s own questioning by Freshfields, one lawyer compared the workplace culture at Bild to Volkswagen during its emission-rigging scandal — a company that was also investigated by Freshfields and which Der Spiegel once described as “North Korea without the labour camps”.

“People are more afraid of you than of Martin Winterkorn, who will soon be in the dock,” a Freshfields lawyer told Reichelt, referring to the former VW chief executive who is due to be a defendant in a criminal trial over the emissions affair.

Other complaints, not included in the Freshfields investigation, went back years. As early as 2019, a female trainee told a senior editor that she was desperate to avoid Reichelt and that she planned to leave Bild because of him, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

“Julian’s behaviour towards young women was an open secret internally,” said another former senior Bild editor who once advised a friend not to let her daughter become an intern at the paper because young, attractive women were seen as “fair game”.

The company told the FT: “Maybe it was an open secret in the newsroom but the board members certainly had no idea.”

Between 2019 and 2020, at least five senior editors raised concerns to board member Stephanie Caspar, then in charge of the group’s news operations, over what they saw as Reichelt’s bullying behaviour and abusive language.

Caspar denied ever hearing of inappropriate romantic or sexual behaviour by Reichelt prior to February 2021, stating she was aware only of several complaints over Reichelt’s abrasive leadership style and a “boys’ club” mentality.

In mid-March, Reichelt was briefly suspended after the probe was made public by Der Spiegel — only to be reinstated 12 days later, with Axel Springer announcing there were “no grounds to remove him”, as Freshfields “did not discover any evidence whatsoever of sexual harassment or coercion”.

Von Götz seemed aware of the shock this would cause some of the complainants. “I want to thank you once more for your openness,” he told one woman, in correspondence seen by the FT. “Please be assured how much I appreciate it, even if you may not understand the company’s decision today.”

In the following months, Axel Springer selectively disclosed the findings of the Freshfields investigation to employees and the public.

One press release described “mistakes”; another referred only to a single “proven and admitted” past relationship.

But the Freshfields investigators had in fact concluded there was “severe managerial misconduct”, as Reichelt had doled out favours to current or former lovers who were his subordinates, a person with first-hand knowledge of the matter told the FT. And the Axel Springer summary omitted Freshfields’ finding that there had been several additional relationships that Reichelt had not admitted to, including one that was continuing. The report also referred to the unwanted “romantic” text messages.

In a statement to the FT, Reichelt said: “The accusations against me are false, the claims are lies. They were fabricated and orchestrated by an obsessed ex-girlfriend . . . An extensive investigation found I did not break a single company rule, because I never did.”

Reichelt was correct that the company rules at the time did not prohibit workplace affairs. An attempt by the company to require employees to disclose sexual relationships with colleagues was shot down by worker representatives some years back. Only after Reichelt’s dismissal was the code of conduct updated to stipulate that “close personal relationships with employees who report to them must be disclosed”.

Women interviewed by Freshfields told the FT that they felt harassed, but the law firm concluded Reichelt’s conduct did not meet the strict definition of harassment under German law — the unwanted touching of “another person in a sexual manner”. Nor did the hotel room sex constitute coercion, as this is defined as exploiting “a situation in which the victim is threatened with serious harm” to perpetrate unwanted sexual acts.

But the global #MeToo movement has deemed less serious misconduct to be unacceptable and career-ending. The compliance investigation made clear that Reichelt’s relationships and actions, given his status, muddied the notion of mutual consent.

“I find both the term ‘relationship’ and the term ‘consensual’ completely absurd in relation to what Julian Reichelt did at Bild,” said a former employee. “What does a consensual relationship look like in this power imbalance?”

When Freshfields’ transcripts of the woman summoned for the hotel rendezvous were leaked to the New York Times in October the company responded that, “at the request of witnesses, Axel Springer, too, had no knowledge of key interview transcripts”.

Döpfner told employees and journalists: “Knowing what we know now, we would do things differently.”

He did not mention that Axel Springer’s own compliance officer had heard this woman’s story before the Freshfields probe even began or that, while the transcript of the woman’s testimony was not shared with Axel Springer, the company had received a summary.

“They knew it all from the beginning,” a person directly involved in the investigation said. “It was all so crazy, I felt like I was in some kind of Netflix drama.”

Journalists in the newsroom at Bild, Europe’s top-selling daily newspaper, in June 2014
Journalists in the newsroom at Bild, Europe’s top-selling daily newspaper, in June 2014 © Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

In the wake of the probe, Döpfner shared information with Reichelt. In a December interview, Reichelt even told the German paper Die Zeit that Döpfner read out the entirety of the Freshfields report.

The written report was supposed to be closely guarded, with access requiring special log-in details from the law firm.

Axel Springer said: “Julian Reichelt was informed, including by some quotations, about the findings of the Freshfields report. He did not receive the report and it was not read to him.” 

The FT has reviewed evidence, however, that indicates Reichelt received updates during the investigation that enabled him to identify many of the witnesses.

Two weeks after the events organiser met von Götz and Bayer at her home, the editor contacted the woman’s mother. He made clear that he knew of the complaints, even though the woman had been given a written promise of confidentiality.

“I was promised I could trust these men,” the ex-girlfriend told the FT through her lawyer. “I feel like they put me in danger in order to defend Julian — and themselves.”

In early March, Bayer, the head of news, shared some details with Reichelt on the progress of the probe — and mentioned that, by doing so, he endangered his own career, according to a person familiar with the matter and material reviewed by the FT.

Some executives encouraged Reichelt by advising him he could deny everything, making the allegations difficult to prove. Others shared their assurances it would conclude in his favour. “There was constant contact,” a person familiar with the matter said.

Axel Springer said: “Throughout the process, Freshfields and the Axel Springer compliance team . . . strictly adhered to the confidentiality requirements agreed with witnesses. Insights were shared only in abstract summary form and on a no-names basis.”

The presence of two of the most prominent North American investors as major shareholders might have been expected to produce a different outcome.

Last week CNN’s long-time boss, Jeff Zucker, resigned after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a colleague. CPPIB’s own former chief executive, Mark Wiseman, was ousted from his subsequent role at BlackRock in 2019 over a romantic affair with a colleague.

But in the case of Axel Springer, senior executives at KKR and CPPIB enmeshed in the company’s governance — including KKR co-founder Henry Kravis — were persuaded that Reichelt’s behaviour did not constitute sackable misconduct.

Stephanie Caspar
Between 2019 and 2020, at least five senior editors aired concerns to Stephanie Caspar, then in charge of the group’s news operations, over what they saw as Reichelt’s bullying behaviour and abusive language © Axel Springer

Another KKR partner who is not on the Axel Springer board weighed in too: General David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA, who joined the private equity group in 2013.

Reichelt knew Petraeus from his time covering the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, hailing him in one article as a “legend on the battlefields of the 21st century”.

At some point in late February or early March, Petraeus shared his views on the embattled editor with senior KKR executives in Europe. The exact nature of his intervention is unknown.

Neither of the major investors provided direct answers to detailed lists of questions from the FT.

“We were sufficiently and well informed regarding the investigation,” said CPPIB, which invests on behalf of 20mn Canadians and describes itself as an “active and engaged owner” when it comes to companies’ “ESG journeys”.

KKR said it “expects and encourages its portfolio companies to provide all employees with a working environment that is free from any form of harassment or discrimination” and that it supported the Freshfields investigation.

As for Freshfields, six months later, the firm secured a lucrative mandate representing Axel Springer on the Politico acquisition.

General David Petraeus, pictured in May 2019
General David Petraeus was lauded by Reichelt as a ‘legend on the battlefields of the 21st century’ © Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg

Freshfields said future business with Axel Springer had no bearing on its handling of the Reichelt investigation. It told the FT that the probe was conducted “in line with the highest professional and ethical standards, including, without limitation, a presumption of innocence, and at all times in full compliance with the firm’s confidentiality obligations”.

Two days after Reichelt’s dismissal, Döpfner recorded a video to his staff that contained no sympathy for the victims. He spoke of “men behind the scenes” and told them an ex-girlfriend played a “big role” in the saga.

In private, not long after the Freshfields investigation was completed, Döpfner had launched a counter-investigation intended to expose a “conspiracy” — an expression he frequently used in text messages to executives.

“It’s a blind hate agenda . . . My feeling is we haven’t looked at [the ex-girlfriend] in a while,” Döpfner told senior employees in one conversation.

Döpfner and his confidants hired an external lawyer and drew up a list of people to be investigated.

“When there is more media coverage — of victims and so on — then we should go after them [the authors of the alleged conspiracy]. We are not the bad guys who go into the private mistakes of innocent intellectuals. We are the last bastions of independence and government criticism and that is why we are being punished by the leftist bubble, which pursues its views with great intolerance,” Döpfner said.

Beyond the ex-girlfriend, some of the people whom Döpfner and his circle discussed looking into were former Bild editors and two German satirists who had publicly skewered Reichelt over affairs before the compliance case was made public.

Another target was a former friend of Döpfner, the writer Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, who had publicly criticised Reichelt’s politics and since 2020 urged him to investigate claims of misconduct against the editor.

“We should completely move this away from sexism . . . It had nothing to do with MeToo,” Döpfner continued. “If we are attacked again . . . we still cannot directly reveal the accusers, but it’s acceptable to us that these names get out.”

Before the New York Times article was published, Axel Springer threatened to issue a lawsuit against the woman whose transcript was obtained by the paper, accusing her of exposing the company’s business secrets, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

Axel Springer said it had “clear indications” that third parties attempted to oust the editor and harm the company, “including a list of persons named by Julian Reichelt”.

The FT could not establish that any of the women who spoke out against Reichelt had specific political motivations or deliberately gave false testimony. All of them denied that their involvement was orchestrated by “men behind the scenes”.

“The fact these Springer executives see this as a political conspiracy, driven by men, is the whole problem,” said one woman who complained about Reichelt.

Since Reichelt’s removal, many of the women involved do not feel they have won their struggle. They argue the company has yet to apologise fully for what happened, and its own role.

Döpfner told the FT that one case of misbehaviour should not colour the image of the whole company, which he said had been transformed from a male-dominated publisher to an open-minded, tolerant corporate leader in diversity and inclusion. “It’s tragic for one single case and one single asset to be portrayed as a structural problem . . . and it’s unfair to the nearly 17,000 employees,” he said.

While Döpfner continues to drive the digital revolution, Reichelt, whose Twitter bio states “I’ll be back”, is preparing to launch his own television station.

“It is just the same Axel Springer,” a woman who testified to Freshfields told the FT. “They’re ignoring us, all over again.”

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