Why the Claas Relotius case proves Der Spiegel’s greatness

Claas Relotius was a prize-winning journalist for German magazine Der Spiegel, described by colleagues as amazingly talented, and on December 3rd he won, yet again, Germany’s Journalist of the Year award. By Monday December 17th, just a fortnight later, Relotius had to kiss goodbye to his career for fake reporting. Italian translator and European affairs commentator Alessio Colonnelli argues here why the debacle has nevertheless not dented his faith in Der Spiegel.

Claas Relotius is a prize-winning journalist, described by all colleagues as incredibly charming as well as amazingly talented. On December 3rd he won, yet again, Germany’s Journalist of the Year award.

By Monday December 17th, just a fortnight later, Relotius had to kiss goodbye to his career. His employer had to fire him having found him out. After a lengthy internal investigation, a number of investigative pieces for Der Spiegel turned out to be “fake”, as Ullrich Fichtner, the editor-in-chief of the Hamburg weekly, bluntly put it.

But what an awkward position to be in: to discover that one of your best writers is a serial forger, making up parts of interviews, people who never existed, not to mention distorting images of places. And for this to happen at the internationally renowned magazine, which rightly prides itself on its top-notch, on-field reporting (wherever the story is, right across the globe), all scrupulously verified through rigorous self-imposed mechanisms, is doubly amazing. Gobsmacking. A serious slap in the face – even the mighty Der Spiegel can fall.

With over 700,000 copies sold every week, Der Spiegel has the means to carry out journalism with a capital J. So, you’d think that fact-checking would be spot on. Something slipped through the net, and as every fisherman knows nets need regular mending. Or constant upkeep, at the very least. Maybe Relotius’ mental calibre and ability to deliver made everyone sit back when it came to checking and cross-checking his work.

Or maybe rigorous fact-checking is nigh on impossible when you are chasing the very best stories across terra firma, air and sea. Is the whole thing too ambitious? It shouldn’t be. Also: the more prizes a journalist wins, the more trusted he or she becomes. They stand out as walking trademarks. Rubber-stamped geniuses. Verifications are less likely to be felt necessary; and now perhaps a big lesson has been learned.

But here is my main point. Some politicians jumped on the slurring band-wagon, grabbing the hullabaloo caused by Relotius to accuse the liberal media of spreading fake news. If Der Spiegel can do it, then everyone else must be guilty too. This is what they’re now saying, and it’s wrong.

Precisely because it was Der Spiegel itself who uncovered the mess and promptly acknowledged that a number of its reportages might rest on untruthful data and made-up statements, this reaction is to be welcomed as an example of what journalism should be about: hard work, honesty and transparency.

Der Spiegel was careful to carry out an investigation before pointing the finger at Relotius. Having meticulously assessed the circumstances for what they were, it then decided to go public. There’s been no attempt to hide anything.

Journalism is done by people; a few of them perhaps are not up to the job. Perhaps they got in because they knew someone. Perhaps they were good at the beginning and then lost their way. Perhaps their work is suddenly affected by personal problems or family issues; they find themselves short of time and take shortcuts. This can happen to some of them. It’s human.

So, journalism can be fallible at times. But this is no reason to slander an industry that we all need in order to understand the complex world around us. And this industry, by far and large, is working well. Just think of all the outstanding titles that we can read.

Often their online content is free; what an antidote this is against the real fake news volleyed across social media like gun-fire. They keep pounding us in the Facebook battle fields. Der Spiegel offers us a place to hide, rest and meditate; it was and still is – its reaction is testament to this – at the helm of the world’s best publications. (I remember a piece about my hometown some years ago in Der Spiegel: the best thing I’ve ever read about the place. Unconventionally told, but firmly on the ground, all facts right, and precisely because of this, the story went straight to the heart of a local issue. Brilliant. I cut it out. I still have it.)

As per Relotius – he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to make up stories. Sometimes the pressure to perform can get the better of you. Especially having reached the very top of German journalism. Success can be the strongest of drugs – exceptionally addictive.

Relotius also wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt, taz, Cicero and several other prominent outlets. He’s only 33, and his amazing career is probably over; but his storytelling talent is real (no sarcasm intended). After some time to reflect, he could try his hand at something else, while we can look forward to the next issue of Der Spiegel.

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  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.

 

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