Axel Springer is pursuing a criminal complaint and civil legal action against a former top tabloid editor sacked for alleged misconduct, in a major escalation of a brawl that has shaken Germany’s media world.
In a criminal complaint filed late last week, the German publishing group accused Julian Reichelt, a former editor of the tabloid Bild, of sharing confidential internal data with another German media outlet after giving written assurances that he no longer possessed this data.
In a parallel civil lawsuit filed last week at a Berlin labour court, Axel Springer claimed Reichelt had breached the terms of a financial settlement agreed after he was ousted from Bild in October 2021. The company is pushing for the return of his severance pay, a seven-digit-figure according to people familiar with the details, and is also claiming significant damages for alleged breach of contract.
Reichelt, 42, is a longtime confidant of Axel Springer chief executive Mathias Döpfner and was once one of the country’s most powerful journalists. He was sacked after allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power that he denies.
Axel Springer confirmed that it had filed the civil lawsuit and the criminal complaint but declined to comment further.
The Berlin labour court confirmed that the civil complaint, first reported by the German publication Der Spiegel, had been received. Criminal prosecutors told the FT that they had not yet formally processed any criminal complaint against Reichelt, but added that this process could take several days.
Reichelt’s lawyer Ben Irle told the FT that neither he nor his client were aware of any lawsuit or criminal complaint by the publisher, adding that leaking such information to the media was an “attempt to intimidate and distract” from alleged flaws in an internal investigation of his client’s conduct.
Reichelt was accused of exploiting his position at Bild by having frequent affairs with interns and subordinates and rewarding them with promotions. He has repeatedly stated that all allegations against him were based on “lies”.
The legal case and complaint were filed after Axel Springer received a warning from another media group that Reichelt, unsolicited, had offered to hand over confidential internal communication from Axel Springer, as well as private communications involving Springer employees that potentially violated their privacy rights, according to people close to the details. The rival publisher told Springer that it had destroyed the data.
The scandal that prompted the ousting of Reichelt resurfaced this month with the publication of a novel inspired by the saga, written by a former Döpfner confidant who played a key role in encouraging women to speak up about their experiences.
A week before the novel came out, a trove of private text messages from Döpfner to Reichelt were leaked to German media. In the messages, Döpfner stated that East Germans were “either communists or fascists”, railed against “intolerant Muslims” and praised climate change. They also appeared to show he had lobbied for positive coverage of the pro-business Free Democrats in the weeks before a nationwide election in 2021.
Döpfner, who has run Axel Springer since 2002, later apologised for the messages.
The run of negative headlines underlines how the scandal at Bild continues to reverberate in Germany, where the tabloid is feared and revered by the political elite. It has also raised questions for KKR, the US private equity firm that together with the Canadian pension fund CPPIB owns a 48.5 per cent stake in Axel Springer at a time when the publisher is striving to become a leading media company in the US.