The limits of indiscretion: how close is too close?

The presumed mass disclosure of internal information from the Interior Department during the Corona period to Ringier boss Marc Walder raises questions. Did Federal Councilor Berset go too far? What did Walder want to achieve with this? A one-off affair as part of the Courant normal.

A few alleys around the Federal Palace in Bern mark the core of a web of politics, administration, lobby and media. This is also where part of the Berset/Walder affair is taking place. From the Interior Department at Inselgasse 1, former Berset communications chief Peter Lauener is said to have regularly informed Ringier boss Marc Walder in Zurich about internal details of Covid policy. In individual cases, this information was found the following day on the View-Title page.

The process itself is banal and commonplace in federal government. A large part of the reporting is based on information that would not actually be intended for the public. Or if, then later, as in the case of the information about the contract for the vaccine doses with Pfizer, the View could disseminate one day before the official communication by the Federal Council.

Publisher Michael Ringier and the former president of the Swiss media group Berset tell us how Walder and Berset - and Lauener respectively - found each other. Sunday ViewEditor-in-Chief Peter Rothenbühler made an identical statement; Rothenbühler commented on this in "Arena" and Ringier raised the issue at an internal plenary meeting.

When things got going with Corona in early 2020, Walder quickly and consistently retreated to his home office. There, he informed himself intensively about Covid and what could be done about it. He really knew everything about the subject, Ringier employees recall. Walder probably also thought he knew what the federal government should do and wanted to find out promptly how the authorities planned to deal with the pandemic. He therefore contacted Federal Councillor Berset, whom he knows personally (but is not on friendly terms with). Communication then took place mainly between Berset's chief information officer Lauener and Walder. Whether and to what extent the head of the Interior Department and his spokesman had violated official secrecy by supplying Walder will now be investigated by special investigator Peter Marti, provided a court allows him access to the data that Lauener and Walder had exchanged.

It is not without a certain irony that the discussion about the Corona leak in the Berset department can only be held because of another leak. Investigator Marti had discovered the Lauener-Walder communication in a trial about the so-called crypto leaks and tapped them as by-catch. By some route, they then found their way to the editorial office of CH Media, which began reporting in mid-January. set off a wave has.

Even if the dimension of the affair surrounding the overly trusting dealings between Berset's spokesman and Ringier's CEO is now considered unprecedented and unique, measured in terms of the intensity of the exchange and the actors involved, the events are more commonplace than they might appear - despite all the media excitement. The media and politics have a close structural relationship.

But: When is close too close?

Too much information is currently missing for a clean classification of the present case. The whole discussion so far takes place on the basis of the reporting of the articles in the Switzerland at the weekend takes place. But what does 180 communication processes mean? Does every mail response count, even if it's just a thank you or an acknowledgement of receipt? Is 180 a lot? Are there any comparative figures?

And on the receiving end, at Ringier, the insinuated passing on of Walder's information to the View against the statement of the editorial team, which denies instrumentalization. They had done their own research and did not let themselves be fed by the CEO, the View-Christian Dorer and Ladina Heimgartner.

For a better understanding of what is going on, let's go back to the perimeter around the Federal Palace in Bern. Anyone who spends more time in this microcosm develops confidential acquaintances with politicians over the years, and vice versa with media representatives. The "dedicated line" through which Covid information is said to have flowed from Berset's office directly to Walder's office is part of a system: complex networks of such communication channels stretch through Bern, even if they are usually narrower in diameter than the line in the present case.

If 30 people know about an explosive Federal Council decision in advance, which is a realistic figure, then that's 30 people who also know that there are 29 others with the same information. Disclosure seems justifiable under these circumstances. Others could have done it - and do it.

Now here we come to the answer to the question of when close is too close.

The problem with the Berset/Lauener-Walder contact lies, on the one hand, in the systematic way in which information is passed on and, on the other hand - and almost more importantly - in the personnel of the addressee. Would a simple federal house editor of View or Tages-Anzeiger had maintained a dedicated line with Lauener, it would have been a different constellation, even if the end result would have been the same reporting. As a former editor-in-chief at several Ringier titles, Walder still considers himself close to journalism even as CEO and sometimes intervenes in the editorial business himself. For example, with his own guest contributions or when he urges the editorial team to publish a Covid appeal.

A heart for journalism at the top usually proves to be a stroke of luck for editorial teams. At Ringier, it is a disadvantage.

Walder has apologized for his statement in a video that became public, which was declared confidential, that he had instructed his editorial offices to support the governments in coping with the pandemic with their reporting. He has yet to apologize for his captious e-mail exchange with Lauener, although his behavior (as far as it is known) exposed the editorial offices to the outrageous suspicion that they had served as Corona mouthpieces for the government.

Even if the SVP now tries to make political capital out of the affair with accusations and demands for the resignation of SP Federal Councillor Berset, interest is likely to wane at some point. At the same time, the legal clarification of the events will be protracted, since they are taking place in three interwoven arenas.

The collusion of an influential head of the media with a federal councilor during a sensitive phase of state policy was just as expected as its later revelation in competing media. Seen in this light, the case also stands for functioning self-regulation.

For Marc Walder, the renewed exposure of internal information that puts his company in a bad light should be a lesson: either don't get caught - or just let it go.

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