I just want you to think what I want you to think.
To many football fans in the UK, Germany has attained a status of promised land in the past few years. Standing area in the stadia, alcohol in the stadia – and a FTA highlights show showing all goals and quite a bit more from Bundesliga matches, a mere 75 minutes after the final whistle (at least on Saturdays, it’s a bit more for Friday and Sunday matches). Add to that that there are only three different kick-off times in the Bundesliga, and you can see quite easily how fan-friendly Germany is in comparison.
But things are about to change. The current TV deal runs out at the end of the season and for the new deal, this paradisaical state will change. But as the German Football Association (DFB) tried to make a better deal for pay TV channels by delaying the FTA highlights show, the German competition regulators stated that they would not accept the deal. And now the interesting part begins. In a panel discussion in the German city of Gießen, FA president Theo Zwanziger was faced with an audience that was opposed to the disentangling of the matchdays in relation to the new TV deal. When the moderator repeatedly asked what the consequences of the planned fragmentation of kick-off times in the Bundesliga and 2nd Bundesliga starting with the 2009-10 season would be, particularly with regard to the non-professional leagues, Mr Zwanziger called this line of questioning „demagogic“.
Again, this is not really that interesting, if you gloss over the fact that a representative of Germany’s largest sports association vilifies the process of asking an audience for their opinion. It becomes interesting in a jiffy, if you consider a press release that went out on 14 November 2008, wherein the German FA „condemns the defamation of Dr. Theo Zwanziger“. This defamation, according to the DFB, consists of German journalist and blogger Jens Weinreich calling Mr Zwanziger an „incredible demagogue“ in the comments (#4) of a blog entry at German football blog Direkter Freistoß. His reasoning was that Mr Zwanziger at a congress of the German Olympics Sports Confederation (DOSB) claimed repeatedly that the cause of the difficulties of German football, the German Football League and the German FA was the Bosman ruling of 1995. Mr Zwanziger repeatedly demanded special treatment for the sports world in the context of European law, both regarding employment and financial law. Mr Zwanziger also stated that „if you are not in command of the communication, you will always lose“ – meaning that the DFB needs to control the discourse over the changes made to football these days.
While Mr Weinreich was in Beijing, working at the Olympic Games, he received a fax from the DFB, claiming that referring to Mr Zwanziger as an „incredible demagogue“ was libel and slander and that Mr Zwanziger had always „fought for the exact opposite“ – against what German law calls „Volksverhetzung“ (closely related to the concept of Incitement to racial or ethnic hatred). Indeed, here is the actual issue. As the term demagogue has several meanings in Germany, one of which being closely related to the Third Reich and its leadership, it must always be made clear from the context what meaning is the one alluded to when using this term. Mr Weinreich holds that he clearly did not intend for the term „demagogue“ to put Mr Zwanziger into any sort of commonality with the Third Reich leadership. And two courts of law have since agreed that Mr Zwanziger is not correct in his assumption that using the term demagogue exclusively refers to those people who commit the crime of Volksverhetzung, but that it has a more diverse meaning.
These rulings notwithstanding, Mr Zwanziger announced he would file suit at the Landgericht Koblenz – unless Mr Weinreich explicitly stated that by referring to Mr Zwanziger as an „incredible demagogue“ he did not intend to imply that Mr Zwanziger was a „Volksverhetzer“. Naturally, Mr Weinreich let expire the deadline set for this declaration, and his lawyers sent a letter expressing their perplexity at the insistence of Mr Zwanziger’s lawyers to sue, their understanding of the term in question and thirdly their choice of legal venue, indicating that they hoped this choice was not mandated by Mr Zwanziger having been judge at this particular court and still having contacts with the personnel there.
This last exchange took place on 12 November 2008. No suit was filed, instead, the DFB sent out an email to more than 100 decision-makers in politics and sports, attaching the aforementioned press release and claiming that „we can no longer accept that persons of the public life are defamed without reason on more or less anonymous internet blogs“. The mail continues stating that „we are convinced that we have to promote this basic position offensively“. The mail closes with the expression of hope that this press release would be used in arguing and reporting the case.
Mr Weinreich has identified 18 lies (he refers to them as „Lügenkomplexe“, literally lie complexes) in this press release. The most important omission in this press release is the fact that two courts have disagreed with the DFB. The press release also refers to „more or less anonymous“ internet blogs, despite fact that neither the initial comment, nor the blog where the comment appeared are anywhere near anonymous. To claim that Mr Weinreich’s eponymous blog is anonymous is equally absurd. To call a statement in the comments section of one blog and documenting what resulted from it (i.e. documenting the exchanges between the lawyers etc.) a „campaign“ is also rather far-fetched.
One of the more interesting assertions in the press release is the statement that Mr Weinreich has retracted the defamation within the time limit set to him by Mr Zwanziger’s lawyers. Mr Weinreich writes in his blog that the statement has not been retracted, will not be retracted and that it needs not be retracted as per the decision of two courts of law. The DFB uses the press release to also criticize the reporting of the Gießener Anzeiger, deploring an attempt to discredit Mr Zwanziger – despite the fact that a number of witnesses can confirm that Mr Zwanziger used the terminology as described in the article. The other points that Mr Weinreich lists are equally untrue, but less blatant. He concludes his entry with the following statement.
„The truth is: I have characterized the president of the DFB as a demagogue, I have justified this, but I have not defamed him.
The truth is: Two courts agree.“
In his blog, Jens Weinreich has collected links to blog entries, newspaper and radio commentary regarding this conflict.
Regarding the conduct of Mr Zwanziger and the DFB, the question that has to be asked is: What do you call knowingly putting out a press release that contains no less than 18 untrue statements and is designed to harm the reputation and earnings of another person?
I think I know what the answer is.