A few years ago, after spending 90 minutes in the federal chancellery in Berlin interviewing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, I asked her spokesman what would happen if I transcribed the (German-language) remarks from the recording and used them directly in an article without seeking prior approval.
The response was curt and was tinged with bemusement.
“We’ll write a letter to your editor. We’ll deny that she ever said that,” he said.
As well as the implied warning: no more access here for your newspaper.
It was a collective interview — four European newspapers and one US. Only the Anglo-Saxons balked at being informed that the chancellor had not necessarily said what she had manifestly said on the record. Indeed, the US reporter remonstrated with the German government spokesman, arguing that he could be fired for failing to supply an entirely accurate account of the chancellor’s remarks, rather than the more sanitized version to be supplied later by the chancellor’s censors.
Following the interview, the five reporters repaired to a Berlin coffee house to discuss Merkel’s comments and quickly reached unanimity on the most interesting thing she had said. Problem. Rather than trust our recordings, we had to wait for the official, authorized transcript of the chancellor’s remarks, which was all that could be used in writing up the interview.
Surprise. The bit we all agreed to be the most interesting had been excised by the spin doctors, airbrushed out of history. She did not actually say that.
Such is the modus operandi, the unwritten rules at the heart of the relationship between politics and media in Germany. And, increasingly, the US too. On Monday, the New York Times lifted the lid on how US politicians, in particular the Obama campaign, are increasingly demanding quote approval as a condition of giving reporters access to key players.
So a leading politician’s comments recorded during an interview are not necessarily what they seem. To obtain the interview in the first place, the journalist has to play by the rules written by the political class: That means that on-record remarks can later be rethought, amended and excised, and the journalist has to wait for the “authorized version” of what the politican said before writing an article.
This helps to explain, for example, some of the more striking differences between, say, the German and British press, in purely formal terms. Open up Der Spiegel any week and the chances are you will find a straight question-and-answer interview with a Cabinet minister.
The British papers rarely do verbatim accounts of interviews, rather depending on the journalists and editors to rearrange things for the benefit of emphasis, news and context.
The Q&A format is great for politicians whose observations are transmitted pretty much unmediated. If the big German media organizations play by these rules and seldom mount any challenge, there is little that the foreign media operating in Berlin can do to change the control-freakery, unless they break the rules and find themselves cut out of access.
However, surprises can happen. Only once in more than a couple of decades of reporting have I been in a position to utter the words: “Hold the front page!” to editors back in London. Again, because of German reporting rules when talking to government ministers.