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German tabloid Bild takes down politicians with its unmatched megaphone

German tabloid Bild, Europe's largest newspaper, drives the political agenda of the most influential economic power on the continent. Its latest target: President Christian Wulff. 

By Correspondent / January 18, 2012

In this 2010 photo German President Christian Wulff reacts during a joint news conference with the President of Poland, in Berlin.

Michael Sohn/AP/File

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Berlin

It's notorious for its mix of gossip, inflammatory language, and sensationalism, which includes a daily picture of a topless woman on the front page. It receives more reprimands from Germany's independent press watchdog than any other paper. And it engenders fear in the hearts of politicians, who rarely dare to cross Bild – Europe's largest newspaper – which reaches 12 million readers daily.

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Just ask Christian Wulff.

The German president found himself the subject of heated debate after articles appeared about the propriety of a private loan to finance his home. Having survived the initial storm, Mr. Wulff then made what may have been an even bigger mistake: threatening Bild. Since the spat started, his popularity has dropped precipitously and there have been calls for his resignation.

Bild has the undisputed ability to shape the careers of politicians from across the ideological spectrum. But its power to channel and magnify perceived public sentiments and its readiness to support or reject public figures is also highly controversial, with many observers charging that the paper abuses its clout.

"Bild is a high-risk factor for every public figure," says Hans-Jürgen Arlt, a professor of political communication at Berlin's Free University. "Its circulation and its constant readiness to judge and to condemn give it the capacity to cause a lot of damage."

Some high-profile figures see Bild as a threat. Judith Holofernes, a popular German singer who was asked in 2011 by Bild to appear in an ad campaign for the paper, refused in an open letter.

"Bild is a dangerous political instrument," she wrote, "a malicious creature that does not describe a certain Germany, but creates it."

It is often compared to The Sun, Rupert Murdoch's famous British tabloid, which has a similar circulation and style and wields comparable power in Britain.

'Only as powerful as politicians believe it to be'

"Bild can set the agenda politicians have to follow," wrote Michael Spreng, former editor of the sister publication Bild am Sonntag, on his blog Sprengsatz. "But it is only as powerful as politicians believe it to be."

Wulff assumed the presidency, largely a figurehead position, in 2010. He is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, and she strongly backed him for the role.

In mid-December, several German papers simultaneously published reports that, during his term as prime minister of Lower Saxony, Wulff received a €500,000 ($640,000) home loan with unusually favorable terms from the wife of a wealthy businessman.

Faced with a media frenzy, Wulff apologized for not disclosing the loan before he became president. There is no evidence that Wulff broke any laws, but the consensus – acknowledged by Wulff in his apology – is that his actions were morally questionable and that his handling of the affair was clumsy.

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