TV tale of sex, taxes and the minister's 'vendetta'

Imre Karacs in Bonn on the star who had the plug pulled on her chat show
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Shortly before midnight on Thursday, millions of television screens flickered across Germany and, an instant later, the nation's favourite chat-show hostess was gone. For the first time in German television history, a station had pulled the plug on a live programme because of its content.

"This is the moment you all have been waiting for," Margarethe Schreinemakers told her 3 million viewers. But they had to keep on waiting: because, with lightning speed, SAT-1 management cut from Schreinemakers's Cologne studio to its Berlin newsroom.

What could have been so offensive? Schreinemakers' weekly three-hour programme was always charged with controversy and laced with sex, often bizarre, yet her reports on leather fetishism or bestiality never stirred the passions of an immunised audience.

But this time Schreinemakers was treading far more dangerous territory. She was about to tell a strange story involving her taxes, the Finance Minister and his ex-wife, and the most explicit word she was threatening to use was "vendetta".

"We are of the opinion that a chat-show hostess cannot and must not deal with this subject on air," was the prudish explanation offered by SAT- 1, which is a commercial channel. Nevertheless, it is a subject the whole of Germany is talking about. For weeks, newspapers, magazines and television channels have been inundating their audiences with details of Schreinemakers' tax avoidance, an activity of which Germans strongly disapprove even if they practise it themselves.

The accusation is that Schreinemakers, 38, moved abroad in order to avoid paying her dues to German society. She commutes from Liege, Belgium, where she owns a farmhouse. She also owns a production company in the Netherlands, some of whose profits she repatriates to a tax haven in the Dutch Antilles. She is reckoned to be worth about DM25m (pounds 12m) and to have paid only 16 per cent tax on last year's earnings of about DM4m.

So far the story is no different from any other German star's, except that Schreinemakers claims the campaign against her is being organised by none other than Theo Waigel, the Finance Minister. "I have the feeling that Waigel wants to get me," she says.

Why? Because of the way she allowed Mrs Waigel to publicise her husband's affair. At the time, about two years ago, the press had reported the breakdown of the Finance Minister's marriage but portrayed his wife as a depressed hag from whom Mr Waigel would understandably want to separate himself. Schreinemakers gave Karin Waigel air time, and the public learnt the real reason: Mr Waigel had found a woman 20 years younger and the couple were expecting a baby. Mrs Waigel came through as a strong and sympathetic woman; Mr Waigel emerged as a philanderer.

Whether you believe this explanation or not - and most Germans, including Mrs Waigel, do not - Schreinemakers seems convinced that she is the victim of a vendetta.

Nearly half of Germans surveyed yesterday told the Forsa polling institute that the public squabbling over her tax troubles has damaged Schreinemakers' image.

"Schreinemakers Live has always had a high level of credibility, and I hope that any we may have lost will be restored," Schreinemakers said.

Last night, at the risk of rupturing her lucrative contract with SAT- 1, she appeared on RTL, a rival television network. The subject of the programme? Schreinemakers' missing tax millions and the Finance Minister. "I broke no law," she insisted, on the edge of tears. "What you have to ask is: 'Who made the laws?' "