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'Die Zeit' Interviews an "Expert" About Police Tactics Without Telling the Readers He's a Convicted Criminal

Tumblr_o8iexsMOcJ1qav5oho1_500[New Yorker cartoon by Kim Warp]

UPDATE (17:45 PM): Sabine Rückert, an editor at the printed version of Die Zeit, responded to a tweet in which I pointed out the facts contained in this piece:

 

"That is true. The person involved is Wüppesahl. I have informed my colleagues at ZON." (Zeit Online, the online presence of the printed newspaper Die Zeit, which is technically an independent organization.)

And now, the original piece:

Yesterday, the German broadsheet weekly Die Zeit published an interview (g) in which a so-called "police expert" harshly criticized the tactics of German police during the G20 Summit, comparing them to the Turkish police. As I pointed out in a tweet just after reading the article, the man, Thomas Wüppesahl is not an "expert", he is an activist, founder of a group called Critical Police Officers.

Shortly thereafter, in response either to my Tweet or to some of the 600+ comments (many harshly critical) to the original interview, Die Zeit changed the online article. Wüppesahl was now identified as a "critic" of the police, not an "expert". Further, a line was added to his biography indicating that his views were "highly controversial" (sehr umstritten).*

I pointed out the changes in a blog post yesterday. Yet a comment to that post (thanks, Björn!) altered me to a much more astounding fact than the changes to the article.

The "expert" on police tactics to whom Die Zeit gave a long interview is a convicted criminal. He was convicted of attempted robbery and murder in 2005. Because Wüppesahl is a former member of the German Bundestag and a prominent activist (a decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court even bears his name (g)), his trial was covered at great length in the German media. 

Let me quote my translation (footnotes removed) of the relevant portion of the German Wikipedia entry (g) on Thomas Wüppesahl**:

On 25 October 2004, Wüppesahl was arrested on suspicious of preparing to commit a crime. The informant and main prosecution witness was a former policeman and colleague of Wüppesahl's, who was also a member of the Critical Police group [which Wüppesahl had founded]. This person brought a non-functional pistol and a knife from police storage to the meeting with Wüppesahl. These were to be used to rob a money transport van. Wüppesahl was arrested in the colleague's apartment just after the colleague gave Wüppesahl the pistol and knife. 

The trial began on 4 March 2005. Wüppesahl's defense was that the plan which the prosecution claimed he had developed could not have worked in real life. He participated in the preparations only as a maneuver to uncover his former colleague as a police spy, and the action against him as revenge by the Hamburg justice authorities for his criticism of them [as an activist].... The Hamburg Regional Court sentenced Wüppesahl on 7 July 2005 for preparing and attempting to conduct murder in the course of robbery and violations of weapons laws. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. After Wüppesahl's appeal was dismissed, the conviction became legally binding....

With an eye to rehabilitating his reputation, Wüppesahl filed a complaint against his conviction with the European Court of Human Rights on 27 December 2006. After four years of review, the complaint was denied as inadmissible in December 2010.

A Spiegel article about his conviction stated (g): "According to the prosecutor, Wüppesahl planned to confront a money courier in Berlin, shoot him, and hack his hand off with a meat cleaver in order to escape with the suitcase full of money handcuffed to the man's hand."

Ladies and gentleman, this is the police "expert" who was interviewed at some length by one of Germany's leading newspapers. Insert joke here about interviewing a vegan about his favorite veal recipes, a neo-Nazi about Yiddish poetry, etc.

I suppose it's just possible to imagine that it might be appropriate to print an interview with a convicted criminal about police tactics.

But printing the interview without telling the reader the man is a criminal? That is journalistic malpractice. This information was one short Google-search away.

Die Zeit (or at least Zeit Online) owes its readers an apology. 

* It would have been better to alert online readers that the article had been changed. However, this does not appear to be a breach of journalistic ethics, since the German Press Council requires changes to be clearly indicated (g) only as to matters of fact, not to value judgments.

** Wüppesahl has a long and colorful history of political activism, including representing the Green Party in Parliament, protesting nuclear weapons, and suing and criticizing German police. As you might expect, he maintains his innocence of these charges, and has a website (html code era: mid-2000s) in which he has posed hundreds of pages of what he considers to be relevant documents about his trial (g).

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