Phallic insult sparks German media feud

Mural mocking editor incenses new rival who wants to be taken seriously

No editor of Germany's right-wing, mass-circulation Bild newspaper could ever expect to be liked by the country's left-wing press. But what was mere mutual animosity has now erupted into an embarrassing and vitriolic row over the size – believe it or not – of the Bild editor's penis.

The dispute concerns a massively exaggerated phallus attached to an image of Bild editor and bane of the left, Kai Diekmann. His altogether striking endowment features prominently in a huge satirical mural on the outside wall of the office of Berlin's alternative left-wing Die Tageszeitung (Taz) newspaper.

The mural, by the artist Peter Lenk, was put up months ago. It was the latest weapon in the Taz campaign to mock Bild, whose offices are just opposite, as well as Mr Diekmann, its flamboyant, hair-gelled, red-baiting 45-year-old editor.

Bild has a daily circulation of more than three million and offers its readers a mixture of sex, sport, crime and middle-of-the-road politics. Taz sells 65,000 a day and sees itself, in the tradition of 1968, as a bastion of the alternative left. It enjoys a reputation for poking fun at the German establishment. But the penis row now appears to have put that reputation at stake.

Four months ago, Taz appointed Ines Pohl, 42, a former anti-nuclear and women's rights activist, as its editor. Her brief was to return the paper to its left-wing roots after a much-criticised foray into more popular journalism.

Ms Pohl is not amused by the mural. "If I comply with Peter Lenk's wishes, then I will have to lock up my bike underneath this six-meter-long willy every morning for the next two years," she said. "What a miserable piece of provocation, how pathetic. I am simply fed up with this kind of inflated petit bourgeois male power-game nonsense. Take it down."

Unfortunately for Ms Pohl, not all the journalists at Taz agree with her. As the paper remains rooted in the alternative left principles of grassroots editorial democracy, a full meeting of all staff had to be called to discuss the issue. Half of them insisted the mural be kept and accused its detractors, such as Ms Pohl, of being "neo-petit-bourgeois aunties"; the rest wanted it taken down. Peter Lenk, the mural's creator, has since added weight to the "Keep the penis" campaign by pointing out that his contract says that the mural's early removal would result in Taz having to fork out €130,000 in compensation. "Ms Pohl wants to turn the Taz into a serious newspaper," Mr Lenk said. "But I am not serious."

Meanwhile, the mural's intended object of ridicule, Bild editor Kai Dieckmann, is enjoying a field day. Although he yesterday insisted to Der Spiegel magazine "It can't be me, Peter Lenk has expressly denied that it is," he has certainly made the most of the association. Instead of legal action, he has started a popular blog which runs headlines such as "The Naked and the Reds" and "How much cock should be allowed?" and lampoons the Taz journalists for being "humourless and inflexible".

His reluctance to sue the paper is understandable. In 2002, Taz wrote a satirical article which claimed Mr Diekmann had travelled to Miami for a penis extension which had backfired and turned him into a virtual eunuch. Mr Diekmann tried to sue Taz for defamation. But the court turned him down flat and the editor of Germany's biggest-selling newspaper was made to look distinctly petty.

Mr Diekmann has since switched tactics. He sells hotpants and handbags online, inscribed with mottos such as "I love KD" and "Sympathy for the devil". In a bid to end the row, he has suggested a "peace party" for Bild and Taz journalists, with Bild paying for the drinks. Taz has yet to respond to his invitation.