Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs


Jonathan Cape, London 2004


Lowest of the Low (Ganz unten)


Günter Wallraff is Germanys most famous journalist. Since 1966, his undercover reporting in defence of those working and subsisting at the bottom of the industrial heap has demonstrated the power of investigative journalism when the journalist is prepared to go to extraordinary personal lengths. Taking on false identities, Wallraff has infiltrated industry, government and the media in order to expose corruption and malpractice. His quarry has been the German establishment the playwright Heiner Müller described him as a 'postmodern Robin Hood' but after decades of being hounded himself by lawyers, officials and the rightwing Axel Springer media, he has exiled himself in Holland.

In researching his book DerAufmacher ('Lead Story', 1977), Wallraff joined the staff of BildZeitung, Germany's biggest tabloid, the equivalent of Rupert Murdoch's Sun. Working under a pseudonym, he exposed the way the paper worked and reveaied the many personal tragedies that lay behind its ruthiess sensationalism. Bild abused him as a 'terrorist sympathiser', a common accusation in the political climate in Germany in the mid1970s. (Other prominent victims of the same witch hunt included the novelist and Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll.)

Wallraff's most celebrated work is Ganz unten ('Lowest of the Low', 1985), which succeeded in placing the suffering of Germanys immigrant workers on the mainstream political agenda. For his undercover investigation, he disguised himself as a Turkish worker and penetrated Germany's illegal labour market. He recorded his experiences of working at the 'bottom of the heap': in a Thyssen steel factory, a McDonald's and as a human guinea pig in the pharmaceutical industry.

His book was the mostsuccessful in German publishing history, selling more than two million copies in less than five months. On publication day in 1985, people queued outside bookshops, and the ensuing national debate about working conditions and racism, specifically German attitudes to 'guest workers', was unprecedented. Translated into more than thirty languages, it was published in English in 1988. (A selection of reports by Wallraff had previously been published in English under the title The Undesirable Joumalist.)

As a result, German prosecutors and tax officials raided the offices of Remmert and Thyssen, which Wallraff had exposed, looking for evidence that both companies were breaking the law regulating and protecting contract workers. In the state of North Rhine Westphalia the setting of Wallraff's expos~ the Social Democratic government moved to stamp out 'lease' labour, a kind of bond siavery. Throughout Germany more than 13,000 criminal investigations were instigated, and penalties were increased tenfold.

However, Wallraff is cautious in assessing his achievements. 'l don't believe that [reportingl can change social reality directly [but it isl a catalyst and its explosive power is often reveaied only many years later.' The following is an extract from Lowest of the Low.