Borer affair backfires on Swiss tabloid journalists

Ringier's reports on Thomas Borer (right) led to the downfall of SonntagsBlick editor, Mathias Nolte

Media coverage of an alleged affair between a former ambassador to Germany and a beautician has seriously dented the reputation of Swiss tabloid journalism.

This content was published on July 12, 2002 - 20:22

Kurt Imhof, a professor of sociology at Zurich University, says a campaign led by Switzerland's leading publishing house, Ringier, against the former Swiss ambassador to Germany, Thomas Borer, has dented the company's reputation.

"It won't be possible to use this type of journalism any more in Switzerland. Ringier's reputation has been destroyed for a long period of time," Imhof told swissinfo.

He says the only way for the publishing house to regain credibility is for it to review its output and take the necessary steps to improve the quality of its journalism.

"It will be necessary to apologize [to the people targeted in the coverage] and to work with new journalists," says Imhof.

Borer was forced to give up his post as Swiss ambassador to Berlin in May. He now works in Germany as a consultant and has threatened to file a libel lawsuit against Ringier in the United States.

For its part, the publishing house announced a shake-up of personnel on Thursday: The editor-in-chief of the weekly "SonntagsBlick", which first published the story on the former Swiss ambassador three months ago, was forced to tender his resignation, as were two other journalists working for the Ringier-owned newspaper.

Falling into the trap

Peter Züllig, a lecturer at Fribourg University, points out that Ringier failed to adhere to the tough rules which govern tabloid journalism. "Rule number one in tabloid journalism is thorough research."

But Ringier was left with egg on its face when the star witness - Djamilla Rowe, a Berlin beautician who claimed to have had sex with Borer - last Sunday recanted an earlier version of her story (see link below).

Züllig adds that tabloid journalism is merciless and resembles a game of chess. "You make a wrong move and you lose a chess piece, someone's head has to roll."

He dismisses suggestions that the "SonntagsBlick" and its sister daily paper, "Blick", were trying to imitate a tougher style of tabloid journalism used in neighbouring Germany.

Different tabloid styles

But he acknowledges there is a different type of tabloid journalism in Switzerland. Strictly speaking, Züllig says, Ringier journalists have written in tabloid style in the past, but have not necessarily tackled conventional tabloid issues.

He says style has to come before content in Switzerland because the German-language region of Switzerland offers publishers only a limited market.

Züllig is convinced that the quality of tabloid-style journalism will remain important to a certain degree, because of competition from other mass-market media, including television.

However, he cautions that it is the very nature of tabloid journalism that there are no hard and fast rules governing what editors are allowed to publish.

"There will always remain grey areas," he says.

Imhof offers a more blunt assessment. He says Ringier - with its flagship tabloid newspapers - will have to rethink its policy.

"You need a reason to do a tabloid story. But Ringier did not have a moral reason to do the Borer story."


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