Undercover journalism: when do you cross the line?

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Is it acceptable for a journalist to walk into an old people’s home and start firing off confrontational questions at an elderly resident? You would think not. But if that resident is convicted Nazi war criminal Heinrich Boere, then that’s a different story. At least, you’d like to think so.

Yet two Dutch journalists who did just that will soon have to defend their actions in court. “A total disgrace,” says Germany’s celebrated undercover journalist Günter Wallraff.

When successive requests for an interview were turned down, the two journalists – who were working for the TV current affairs programme Een Vandaag – decided to try their luck and pay former SS guard Heinrich Boere a visit in 2009.

Boere, who was part of an SS commando unit tasked with killing suspected resistance members or supporters in the Netherlands during World War II, escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1947 and returned to his birthplace in Germany. He was sentenced to death in Amsterdam in absentia for shooting dead three Dutch civilians in 1941.

Closed doors
Armed with a hidden camera, the journalists headed for an old people’s home in the German town of Eschweiler where Boere was living. One of them, Jelle Visser, explains: “The hidden camera was actually a last resort. We really tried to arrange everything in a transparent way. We had phoned Boere, sent letters, but all doors remained closed.” (See video below.)

After the interview was broadcast on Dutch TV, Boere (now 90) lodged a complaint with the Netherlands Press Council, citing invasion of privacy. The Council ruled in favour of the journalists due to the major social significance of the case. In the Council’s view it was in the public interest to bring the content into the public domain, which justified the use of a hidden camera. But the German authorities may well see things differently.

[media:image2]“If the judge convicts these Dutchmen, it will be a terrible disgrace for Germany, Europe and perhaps even beyond,” says German journalist Günter Wallraff.

Wallraff came to prominence thanks to his striking journalistic methods and writing on menial working conditions. In 1985, his book Ganz Unten (‘Lowest of the Low’) placed the plight of Germany’s immigrant workers on the mainstream political agenda, when he disguised himself as a Turkish worker and penetrated Germany's illegal labour market.

Public interest
Wallraff acknowledges that using a hidden camera is “formally speaking, against the law. But this has to be weighed against the public interest of the information brought to light.”

The use of hidden cameras in Dutch journalism is not uncommon. There are countless television shows in which crooks or fraudulent companies are exposed using hidden cameras.

The TV show in which cameras concealed in a car filmed Joran van der Sloot as he admitted to being involved in the death of missing American student Natalee Holloway made international headlines.

Factory of lies
In Germany the situation is more difficult, explains Wallraff, although visual material tends to be regarded as more sensitive than the written word. Wallraff has been taken to court many times in connection with his undercover operations, but ultimately he has never been convicted.

[media:image]German tabloid Bild Zeitung pressed charges against Wallraff for years, because he worked in disguise and under a false name for the news desk with a view to exposing dubious practices at the paper.

“I was convicted by lower courts, but the highest court ruled that the right of the general public to be informed about serious abuses should prevail. In that case, no hidden camera was involved. The issue was that I used false documents and changed my appearance in order to expose the manipulations of what I call the ‘factory of lies’ at Bild, as I call it in my book.”

Wallraff is currently embroiled in another court case because he worked and filmed undercover in a bakery owned by the Lidl supermarket chain. His aim was to draw attention to the poor working conditions there.

It would appear that the end often justifies the means when it comes to undercover journalism. Yet for Wallraff there is a clear line that he will not cross: “Even with regard to my greatest opponents, that line is drawn where their private life begins. My work ends where the work of Bild Zeitung begins... In the course of my job I have come across serious misdemeanours in the private lives of influential people, but I have never made them public.”

The two journalists accused of invading Heinrich Boere’s privacy will stand trial on 9 February in Aachen. If convicted, they could face up to three years in prison.