Blue pencil spares politicians' blushes

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The Independent Online
"I do not authorise this for broadcast," the cabinet minister told his television interviewer with airy self-confidence. Nothing to do with state secrets - just the protection of ministerial dignity. In short, an every-day story of German politica l folk. In Bonn, official blue-pencilling is a way of life.

The bizarre episode was duly broadcast to millions of viewers, as part of a light-hearted end-of-year TV round-up of 1994. But the viewer never did discover what it was that Gunter Rexrodt, the economics minister, had told his interviewer, and now wantedto un-tell him.

Politicians in Britain, and across the world, frequently speak "off the record", or not for quotation. This allows greater frankness, because of guaranteed anonymity, and can be to the benefit of politician, journalist and reader alike.

But, once a politician has spoken publicly, he has spoken. A British politician giving an on-the-record interview expects to mind his or her own tongue, even under pressure, as he or she would do in a live television interview. A British journalist does not expect to be telephoned later to be told what the interview may or may not contain. In Germany, however, such practice is par for the course.

Throughout continental Europe, it is standard practice for senior politicians to "authorise" the accuracy of published interviews. This practice, though not customary in the UK, can easily be defended. Advocates say that it prevents sloppy misquotation, and ensures the maintenance of journalistic standards.

German practice goes well beyond the attempt to prevent inaccuracy, however. Senior politicians believe it is their prerogative to rewrite history, before it has hit the page. Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister - described by many German observersas "notorious" in this regard - personally goes through the transcripts of his own interviews, marking the passages where he wishes not to have said what he has said. Occasionally, the worm turns. When a ministerial transcript received a particularly severe mauling, one daily apparently cancelled publication of the interview altogether. But that is a rare exception. Most feel obliged to comply with the rules, however absurd.

In another recent interview, a cabinet minister sought to delete some interesting but innocuous comments from the published record. Only when it was suggested that the interview would, therefore , (a) not be published or (b) would be published with an attached note, drawing attention to the deletion, was there a change of line.

There can be serious knock-on effects, from the success or failure of the authorisation game. When Steffen Heitmann, Helmut Kohl's original favoured candidate to be German president, suggested in a newspaper interview that Germany should seek to leave its own history behind, he triggered enormous controversy. The comments led directly to the forced withdrawal of Mr Heitmann's candidacy a few weeks later.

And yet, the comments only slipped into the public domain because of the censors' inefficiency. Mr Heitmann's minders rang the Suddeutsche Zeitung at the last moment, requiring that the passage (which had already been authorised) be dropped. They were t oo late: the first edition had gone to press. If the crucial phone call had come an hour earlier, Mr Heitmann's remarks would have been airbrushed out of history.

Similarly, after a senior government official had suggested that it was "statistically provable" that Africans were "on average, less intelligent", she sought to deflect the ensuing furore by suggesting that the tape-recorded remarks "had not been authorised" for publication. The Berlin daily, taz, which published the remarks, retorted with a caustic cartoon.

Some German politicians seem to believe that the main purpose of granting an interview is their own official press release, to mark the event. Some take pains, too, to avoid exposing themselves to rough treatment. Helmut Kohl almost never gives television interviews, except to a favoured private channel, where a Paxman-style grilling is not on the cards.

The cosy relationship can clearly be dangerous. In some respects, however, the less confrontational relationship also has advantages, for the flow of information. Press officers and civil servants in Germany are generally much more open than their opposite numbers in the UK, where journalists are often seen as the enemy. In Whitehall, brownie points are given for keeping the press at arm's length. In Bonn, the culture of access to information is strong.