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Konrad Werner: In the Kohl cellar

Okay, the Kohl Transcripts book is a bit clickbaity and gossipy. But journalists should stand up for its right to be published, not get all smug and moral about it.

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In Germany, there’s a convention that journalists are supposed to send interviewees the quotes for checking before they publish. It’s ridiculous, because A) it’s slightly against free press principles, because people then edit things they said, a bit like a press release, and B) it cripples the chances of getting a scoop. But it’s just a convention – not an actual rule, just a bit of etiquette.

Anyway, Heribert Schwan definitely didn’t do it. Here’s what happened:

Ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl had a lot to say back in 2001. So he hired Heribert, settled in to the cellar of his home in Oggersheim with a large plate of beef stomachs stuffed with pork, and began talking. When he was finished, 630 hours later, he had got a lot off his chest. All the little things that had bothered him about everyone he knew, mainly other CDU politicians. He felt better. Then he had a nap. The journalist, Heribert Schwan, went away and ghost-wrote three books – the Kohl Memoirs, published between 2004 and 2007. Volume Three finished in 1994 – in other words, the books covered the rise and Germany-reuniting triumph of the great statesmen, but finished before the downfall: the party donations scandal that saw Kohl be deprived of the CDU leadership in the late 1990s. The arc of the story was incomplete.

At this point, in 2009, when they were about to broach the touchy part, the relationship broke down between Kohl and Schwan, and Schwan got sacked. He said it was because Kohl’s wife wanted to have too much of a say in the book, but no one seriously believes that misogynist Yoko Ono bullshit, do they? I think Kohl didn’t feel like doing the hard bit – telling the story of the CDU’s secret bank accounts and what it was like when he ended up under a criminal investigation for embezzlement in 2000. Either way, Schwan still had those 630 hours of interviews, and this week he decided to publish a book, Legacy – The Kohl Transcripts, with a lot of funny quotes. Especially this one, about Angela Merkel: “She couldn’t even eat with a knife and fork. She used to mooch around so much that, more than once, I had to tell her to pull herself together.”

Sure, it was a pretty sensationalist book, and Spiegel‘s front cover this week was covered with all the funniest bits – Chrisian Wulff was a “zero,” Milkhail Gorbachev a “failure.” In reaction, virtually all the German journalists rounded on their colleague Schwan – printing the book was illegal, they said, because Kohl’s banal comments are not in the public interest (a court disagreed this week). Or they said it was boring, because everyone knew what Kohl thought of Merkel and the rest of the CDU who abandoned him. Or they said it was immoral, because Kohl never meant for his remarks to be published – in other words, he went against the standard etiquette.

This last argument is really depressing. At the press conference this week, Schwan had to take a lot of snobbish, muttering criticism from his colleagues. Not one of the journalists there apparently stuck up for his right to publish his interviews. It doesn’t matter if you think the knife and fork thing was funny or not, or if you think it’s not in the public interest, or if you think Schwan is a bit of smug dickhead, but you’d have thought at least some journalists would have stuck up for him. Even the Bild reporter laid into him. The fucking Bild! Anyway, they would all have published it too, if they’d sat in a cellar with Helmut Kohl for 630 hours. Every single one of them.