Star reporter admits it was a load of Koblenz

TV bosses knew I faked `scoops', says film-maker on trial for fraud. Imre Karacs reports from Bonn
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The Independent Online
IN THE cut-throat world of German television, Michael Born was something of a legend. The gaunt 38-year-old was the most prolific journalist of his generation, his reports invariably reaching the parts rivals could not reach. From the mundane environs of Koblenz, a small town at the confluence of the Rhine and the Mosel, he conjured up images of magical realism. Very strange things were happening in Koblenz, and Mr Born was always there with a camera to record them.

It was, of course, too good to be true. Last week the reporter went on trial in his home town for fraud, a charge one might think would be easy to prove with the help of the 79 witnesses summoned by the prosecution and the props of his trade displayed in the courtroom. Mr Born freely admits that he staged the events depicted in 21 documentaries, yet he might walk from the court a free man. His defence is that he defrauded no one, because the stations which stumped up a total of DM350,000 (pounds 154,000) for his oeuvre knew that they were buying make-believe.

There was the famous - now notorious - documentary about the Ku Klux Klan, for instance. Mr Born needed a local angle to sell the story to a German audience, so he dressed up a few friends in home-made white cloaks and hoods, and made them rant into the camera. The KKK gear can be viewed at the court-room, the inflammatory words spoken by the self-styled militants are burdening Mr Born's charge sheet. Apart from fraud, forgery, driving without a licence and cruelty to animals - more of that later - he is accused of inciting racial hatred.

Every sane person knows that the KKK does not operate in Koblenz, if only because there are no black people living there. Yet Mr Born's "scoop" was eagerly snapped up and aired, and the commissions kept pouring in. The rising star was only too happy to oblige. When the Kurdish underground organisation, the PKK, launched a terror campaign in Germany, it was Mr Born who found and interviewed a PKK bomb-maker - another friend. He also "exposed" a female flasher in Koblenz, a drug courier and an Austrian neo-Nazi terrorist, and purported to smuggle Lebanese asylum-seekers into Germany.

On his forays into foreign lands the touch never deserted him. Mr Born is particularly proud of a vivid documentary sold to Swiss television depicting a corpse-strewn frontier between Greece and Albania after border clashes. The vital ingredient, we now discover, was ketchup.

At least he used a real cat for a story about cat-hunting, a sport that was allegedly sweeping Koblenz. Mr Born bought his victim in an animal shelter and chased it through the woods before putting the creature out of its misery at the hunt's climax. It was a joke, he says now: the television stations knew they were buying "satire".

The allegation that television moguls have connived at feeding hoaxes to their viewers has transformed the trial of one self-confessed conman into an inquiry about the ethics of the entire industry. The best and worst of German television are in the dock, ranging from down-market cable networks to ARD, the painfully serious state-owned channel, and the broadsheet newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, which produces a weekly programme for the small screen. All have bought Mr Born's "scoops", and many of their big names will be called as witnesses for the prosecution.

The defence will also field a prominent television personality, the noted journalist Claus Hinrich Casdorff. Mr Casdorff, it is hoped, will testify that Mr Born merely did what he was supposed to do: manufacture stories that boosted the ratings.