Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Good scandals


The US is just getting used to the idea of a president who will be running an international business marketing his name out of the Oval Office. Political journalists are fooling themselves in supposing that they’re going to have an easy time publicising scandals in the Trump administration. What’s a scandal, when the rulers are shameless? What could you find that would be worse than what has already come out during the campaign? And the mainstream will be pushing their carefully researched and reported evidence of malfeasance at the highest levels against social-network-distributed scandals on the other side, scandals about left-wing figures manufactured by Kremlin operatives or Macedonian teenagers. Of course, the made-up stories will be more piquant than the real ones. They are socially engineered to push every hot button, and so raise the public’s general shock threshold.

It seemed like a good time to repeat a post I wrote last year, about the importance for a healthy democracy to maintain its ability to be shocked:

I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign for misusing his ministry’s letterhead. He had written a letter, on official stationery, to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.

Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.

What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.

It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.

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