Media: Too stern to keep up with the rivals

The success of Germany's Left seemed like the perfect 50th birthday present for Stern. But, in truth, middle age has not been good to it.
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The Independent Culture
THE PUBLISHERS could not have dreamt of a nicer birthday present. As Stern, the left-leaning glossy that is Europe's biggest-selling magazine, celebrated its first half-century, Germany was swinging left with it. It was Stern that told Gerhard Schroder to go after Chancellor Helmut Kohl on its cover a year ago. Schroder took the advice and won.

"Here we go," screamed the cover of the victory edition, under a portrait of the Chancellor-elect in a pensive pose. Inside was an interview with the man of the moment, announcing plans to form a "Red-Green" coalition.

It was a marked improvement on the jubilee issue the previous week, which had a nude Claudia Schiffer on the front, and the promise of an interview with Chancellor Helmut Kohl that never materialised: the sort of let-down you might expect from the magazine which brought us the "Hitler Diaries".

In fact, the 50th anniversary celebrations were also somewhat contrived. Stern, meaning "Star", first appeared in August 1948. But the publishers held the festive bash a month later, so as not to disrupt the participating celebs' holiday routine.

There was, however, a reasonable explanation for Kohl's absence. The Chancellor had, indeed, signed up for a rare interview with the magazine he loathes, only to be affronted by the previous week's issue. The conversation was abruptly cancelled. "The fact that he turned down the chance to appear in Stern proves just one thing - the Chancellor hasn't changed," wrote the editor-in-chief, Werner Funk. "He has his good side and his stupid side." Stern has not changed, either. Earlier this year, it ran a cover picture illustrating Kohl's widening girth over his 16 years in power, and projecting the bulge beyond the millennium. The politician was not amused. Stern had already run highly unflattering portraits of the first lady, Hannelore Kohl.

Relations between Stern and the authorities have never been good. Only a year into existence, the magazine was closed down by Hamburg's British authorities for an article entitled "Oops, we are living off the occupiers".

In the early days, though, Stern was mostly genteel. Founded by Henri Nannen, one of the greatest publishers in post-war Germany, the magazine was first addressed at prosperous country ladies.

Nannen introduced many innovations. In 1953 he published the first colour picture - a Christmas star. Gradually, the magazine was tilted towards urban readers and then to more ordinary folk. Nannen himself was a left- leaning political journalist with serious issues to convey, who conducted many campaigns against repressive laws.

In 1960 the magazine published its first bikini picture, three years later the first poll on attitudes to "intimate matters", and, in 1964, the first nude. It has not looked back. Stern grew from strength to strength, attracting the most talented writers. There was a big scoop almost every week, sometimes more.

But then, in 1983, came one scoop too many. Like The Sunday Times, Stern had paid good money for the forged "Hitler's Diaries"; now its reputation lay in tatters, Nannen was forced into retirement, and staff in the Hamburg office staged a rebellion against the new editor. Many journalists were sacked, the new regime promised more rigorous fact-checking, but the magazine never recovered its credibility.

After that, critics say, Stern began to lose its way. Sex and lifestyle features proliferated; politics barely got a mention. There was one great scoop to come, though. In 1987, a Stern journalist turned up at the Geneva hotel room of the German conservative politician Uwe Barschel, who was mired in a corruption scandal. The reporter found the door open, and Barschel dead in the bath-tub. He took a few pictures and then called the police. His shots were published in the next issue and went around the world. The mystery of how Barschel met his end has still not been resolved.

Stern's pictures are still the best, and sometimes the reporting makes waves. The jubilee edition has an excellent interview with Hans-Joachim Klein, a former colleague of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Stern draws admiration for breaking taboos, such as asking Wolfgang Schauble, Kohl's anointed successor, whether a "cripple can be Chancellor". But the broken taboos are often sexual, and the political coverage no longer carries much punch. At 50, the magazine is in rude financial health, selling 1.2 million copies weekly, but the owners, Bertelsmann, are said to be unhappy. Stern's journalism does not hold its own against its great rival Spiegel; Focus magazine, a recent arrival, is stealing young readers.

Stern's critics say it no longer sets agendas and does not get talked about. Perhaps because it has entered middle age, the magazine now has a mellow feel. As the daily Frankfurter Rundschau noted: "As vehemently as Stern used to swim against the mainstream, today it swims consistently with it." Maybe now that it has a chancellor it likes, Stern will rediscover its contrary spirit.