The media - Rottweiler who just won't let go

24th February 2012 at 00:00
Germany's leading tabloid wants blood for a series of maths exam paper blunders

In May 2009, Germany was rocked by one of its worst educational scandals. Some 15,000 "gymnasium" (grammar school) pupils were affected when maths teachers distributing test papers in the Hesse region discovered, to their horror, that the papers were littered with errors, including the switching of plus and minus signs in one integral calculation.

The fallout from the debacle has continued ever since, despite the education authorities offering pupils who sat the exam a best-of-two deal: repeat the exam with a chance to improve their results or stick with their original mark.

Axel Springer, a media conglomerate best known for its ownership of Bild, Germany's leading tabloid, has been running a campaign to name the culprit responsible for the fiasco. In May last year, Axel Springer won the first round of an ongoing legal scrap when local courts ruled that the authorities should "name the person who dispatched the faulty maths papers".

The case is, however, a long way from being settled, and an appeal against last year's ruling is currently working its way through the courts, with the state insistent that it should not name names. Last month, the High Court judge overseeing proceedings gave glum civil servants cause for hope. He agreed to set a date for another hearing where the head of department responsible for the unnamed employee will give evidence on the scope of that person's duties and the extent of their responsibilities.

Officials are clear that the newspaper group should let the case drop, pointing to the work they have done to ensure that such a fiasco could not happen again. Test papers are now finalised two months ahead of exams. They then undergo comprehensive safety checks over a lengthy period. Finally, they are subjected to a "dummy run" by teachers, who tackle the questions under exam conditions.

But none of this has made any difference to the combative campaign run by Axel Springer. Bild, which usually rides roughshod over the individuals it targets with its stridently populist style of reporting, has seized the moral high ground, claiming the "public has a right to know" who in the education ministry was responsible for the plight of the thousands of pupils caught up in the fiasco. "It's not about publishing a name," said Axel Springer's spokesman, Tobias Frohlich. "We need to gather all the facts so we can judge what's relevant from the public's point of view."

One thing is for certain: Bild and its owners have invested an enormous amount in the case and are unlikely to let it fizzle out. And the authorities know they are battling a journalistic Rottweiler.

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