Did he? Didn’t he?
Headfakes haven’t hurt this bad since The Usual Suspects.
German satirist Jan Böhmermann has carried out a journalistic sting of the highest order. First, he manipulated the German public’s penchant for self-righteous indignation at the supposedly feckless layabouts in southern Europe. Then, in a sweetly-executed bait-and-switch, he stung all those who were applauding him, and revelling in the (temporary) discomfort of his mainstream media targets.
Last month, Böhmermann’s satirical TV show on a little-watched youth channel put out this highly entertaining song lamenting Germany’s supposed helplessness before the smooth-talking, ultra-hip Yanis Varoufakis, the self-styled “eccentric Marxist” who has been Greece’s finance minister for the last two months.
The song (which includes strong language) ends with a clip of Varoufakis addressing a conference in 2013, in which he appears to raise his middle finger, saying that Greece “should stick the finger to Germany” by defaulting and forcing it and other creditors to acknowledge that Greece was bankrupt, rather than forcing it to serve an unmanageable debt burden. (The remarks, made over a year before Varoufakis entered politics, referred to the situation in 2010, rather than today, and few professional economists without skin in the game would disagree with the analysis now.)
It took a week for the clip to come to the attention of Bild-Zeitung, the biggest-selling daily newspaper in Europe, a paper with a famously rabble-rousing style that has been mining Germans’ concern about the cost of bailing out the Eurozone for the last five years. Bild put it front and center of the nationwide political debate.
So by last Sunday, when Varoufakis went on a prime-time talk show on ARD, one of two state-owned channels that dominate the news agenda in Germany, the august host Günther Jauch felt he couldn’t dodge the issue.
This is when the fan collided with the smelly stuff. Varoufakis insisted the video was doctored. Jauch refused to take his word for it. The rest of the German media came down on Jauch’s side, Bild leading the way with this gem of the genre.
Having let the controversy run for three days, Böhmerman then put out a new clip, in which he explained in loving detail how his team had faked the footage. (It’s at least as funny as the original song and well worth watching, even though non-German-speakers will need the subtitles).
That was sweet music to the hordes of Bild-Zeitung’s liberal (or less rabidly conservative) enemies, and to those who like to see a self-important TV interviewer get taken down a peg. But their triumph didn’t last long either, as Böhmermann then put out yet another video admitting that he had faked the faking. That didn’t stop him calling on Jauch and Bild-Zeitung’s editors “as a sign of good faith to our European friends, to leave the Eurozone immediately.”
Confused yet? Varoufakis appears to be.
After he learned of Böhmermann’s video post Wednesday, he asked Jauch for an apology through his Twitter feed. At least, this went out from his verified Twitter account, if that still means anything:
Interestingly, Varoufakis also directed his followers to this article in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where the organizer of the event where Varoufakis gave his presentation appears to admit that the gesture was given but says it “was taken out of context.”
A spokesman at the Greek Finance Ministry couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. Böhmermann said in his Wednesday video (the one he has now at least partially discredited) that all through the hysteria, no-one had called him to check whether the footage was fake or not. His employer, ZDF, said in an e-mailed statement that “the team satirically sharpened the debate over the Varoufakis video after the Jauch talkshow was broadcast. By the same token, Böhmermann and his team presented the possibilities of video manipulation very convincingly.”
Where this leaves the professor-turned-minister is anyone’s guess. He stirred up another media storm last week by inviting the French lifestyle magazine Paris Match to show off his domestic life. Varoufakis’ upmarket apartment in Athens, complete with terrace overlooking the Acropolis, seemed at odds with the hardship his government complains of having to endure.
One thing is clear: Varoufakis and his colleagues have done real harm to its country’s standing in the Eurozone in the last two months by promising one thing in Brussels and then doing another it Athens, with ministers from Germany to Spain, Ireland and Slovenia all expressing varying degrees of exasperation.
Earlier Thursday, Athens passed a law promising stamps for free electricity and food to the poorest Greek families, in defiance of an agreement not to pass new laws without consulting its creditors.
Technical talks between Greece and the creditors on how to put the loans-for-reform program back on track have broken down this week, with Prime Minister hoping to achieve some kind of breakthrough a two-day meeting of E.U. leaders that has just started in Brussels.
Chancellor Angela Merkel says she expects no firm conclusions from the meeting. Still. As long as the Germans have their sense of humor, how bad can it really get?
CORRECTION: Fortune, like many others, was taken in by Herr Böhmermann’s spoof confession. The original version of this story has now been updated to reflect what appears to be reality. If it changes again, we’ll let you know. (“And like that–pwof!–he’s gone…”)