A magnate on the warpath

profile Leo Kirch. Clive Freeman reports on the German media baron who is fighting to sack one of his editors

FOR someone who shuns public appearances and avoids the press, the German media magnate, Leo Kirch, has been acting wildly out of character of late.

Emerging from the shadows of his movie depot on Munich's outskirts, he sparked a German media sensation last week when he demanded the dismissal of the editor of Die Welt - the once proud but ailing flagship of the Springer newspaper empire - and roared his displeasure at the recent constitutional court verdict banning crucifixes from Bavarian state school classrooms.

His highly public actions have shocked the German print world, triggering speculation that Kirch is gearing up to yet another assault on the giant Springer newspaper chain. This time he has a better chance of wresting power from the heirs of publisher Axel Caesar Springer. The thought of Kirch finally being crowned king of the giant Springer conglomerate is not one that many Germans find attractive.

Kirch, burly, nearly blind and suffering from diabetes, made banner headlines in the German press after the recent Karlsruhe Constitutional Court's ruling that declared unconstitutional an article of the Bavarian schools law that mandated crucifixes in public classrooms. The verdict caused the 68-year-old, a man of devout Catholic beliefs, literally to bellow with rage.

For the Wurzburg-born Kirch, who now presides over a giant media consortium, acquiring and selling TV and movie rights to television stations around the world, the court's five-to-three verdict was tantamount to a "Jesus must go" command. When, next day Die Welt, which for decades has been a custodian of centre-right values in Germany but is now trying to lose its "Pickelhaube" image, ran a commentary by former judge Rudolf Wassermann supporting the Karlsruhe verdict, Kirch blew his top.

In essence, Wassermann was merely saying the Constitutional Court decision was no attack on the church, simply a ruling that Christian symbols had no place in public schools. No matter. Kirch was incensed, and promptly fired off a letter to Bernhard Servatius, Springer's advisory board chairman, complaining bitterly about the duplicity of Die Welt; and calling for the head of its editor, Thomas Loffelholz.

Kirch termed the Karlsruhe verdict "hair-raising" and made it clear he was furious at the newspaper's decision to publish the Wassermann commentary which, he maintained, defended an outrageous verdict.

Surely, he argued, it was the obligation of the newspaper to uphold the guarantee of a Christian upbringing. His verbal attack, culminating in the call for Loffelholz's removal, raised concerns about press freedom.

Executives at Springer, who fought off an earlier bitter takeover bid spearheaded by Kirch and the Franz and Frieder Burda brothers in 1988, bluntly rejected Kirch's public demands for Loffelholz to be fired.

Kirch's group of companies has a 35 per cent holding in Axel Springer Verlag, which owns Die Welt and Bild, Germany's biggest-selling daily tabloid with a circulation around 5 million, and has prospects of gaining more in the coming months.

Axel Springer's widow, Friede, who still bridles at the very mention of Kirch's name, has so far has been successful in her battle to hold on to her late husband's newspaper empire. She has warned that should Kirch ever succeed in his takeover, convulsions will occur, triggering uncertainty among the concern's 11,000 employees.

Other critics talk of an unholy Kirch media cartel in the making.

Kirch, 68, the son of a Bavarian wine grower, remains a highly secretive operator, and a man of contradictions. His business is the media, yet he never grants interviews. He is a conservative Catholic yet his Sat- 1 television network repeatedly shows softcore porn films. Among its offerings last week were Schoolgirl Report, Part 9, in which teenage girls romped in bed with a host of different lovers, and Fast Beasts on the School Bench.

Given such commercial interests, it is not surprising that media observers are hard stretched to take him seriously when he expresses outrage over a commentary in Die Welt (whose sales anyway, are infinitesimal these days). What, they ponder, lies behind Kirch's sudden impulse to make headlines?

Insiders say that by firing arrows at Die Welt, Kirch is tearing open old wounds after a couple of years of relative calm in the Springer boardroom. By doing so, he undermines the position of Servatius, the advisory board chairman, who is a friend of Friede Springer and thus committed to seeing that the wishes expressed in her late husband's will are honoured.

Kirch's influence inside Springer has grown in recent years, and the indications are he is likely to acquire still more of the company's shares in the months to come, bringing him steadily closer to Friede Springer's 50 per cent - and one share - holding.

Last month, Kirch sprang another big surprise when he turned his attention to Italy, buying a 10 per cent share of that country's leading private television company, Mediaset, from his old friend Silvio Berlusconi. Italy has always played a significant role in Kirch's life. It was in Rome back in the 1950s that he bought the rights to the Fellini movie La Strada, his first film classic acquisition. It helped launch his business career.

Kirch's escalating movie and media interests have prompted Germany's Social Democrats to sound warnings about his concentration of power.

Otto Schily, a former member of the Greens Party turned SPD deputy, claims Kirch's campaign against Loffelholz demonstrates "what a danger he poses to Press freedoms".

"Sat-1, the Chancellor Network - Kirch has disqualified himself as a media entrepreneur," said a Greens source.

Wolfgang Gerhardt, leader of the FDP, Germany's liberal party, also sniped at Kirch: "It is absolutely unacceptable that a shareholder demands the sacking of an editor just because a commentary is not to his taste," he said.

Kirch's thirst for more media power will hardly be quenched by such criticism. His group currently controls assets worth an estimated DM4bn (pounds 1.8bn), or far more if you believe a recent Der Spiegel figure of DM7bn.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl has already sprung to the defence of his long- time friend Leo, dismissing as nonsense claims that Kirch's power has become a "danger to democracy". Most of Germany's ruling centre-right CDU-CSU conservatives also back Kirch. In return, Kirch makes no secret of his loyalty towards the Chancellor. At the last elections, Sat-1, in which Kirch has a 43 per cent stake, gave massive support to Kohl's campaign.

Commentator Heinz Klaus Mertes, who had drifted too far to the right for the liking of even the Bavarian Radio Network , was appointed the new Sat-1 programme director with Kirch's blessing - and promptly set up what was soon being called the Kohl show, To the Point, Chancellor!

The programme became almost notorious in journalistic terms for the manner in which questions from very carefully selected journalists were reduced to innocuousness during the programme. The show was a coup for Kohl, however, who basked in the glow of lengthy interviews portraying him in extremely flattering tones.

The precise scale of Kirch's company profits are unknown, due to his rarely, if ever, publishing corporate reports. But widespread business dealings through 40 intermeshed companies that extend to Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the US and several countries in eastern Europe, bear testimony to his business acumen and marketing strategies.

Kirch also owns 25 per cent of the pay TV network Premiere and 24.5 per cent of DSF - German Sport Television - which has domestic soccer television rights.

Kirch likes to boast that his company holds the rights to no fewer than 15,000 movies and 50,000 hours of television programmes - all housed in row upon row of spotless shelves at his ultra-modern depot in Interfoehring, on the outskirts of Munich.

Secrecy surrounds Kirch's family life. But what is known is that earlier this year his 47-year-old son, Thomas, set up his own media company. It owns a 47.5 per cent share of Germany's Pro 7 television network and smaller shares in other networks such as Kabel 1. Father and son have been swift to deny that there is any link between their two operations and firmly reject calls made by some public TV officials that their holdings be considered as one by the monopoly authorities.

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