On New Year’s Eve in 2015, there were reports of mass sexual assaults across Germany. Migrants, it was reported, were responsible for the assault of hundreds of women across the country.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy was immediately in the foray: her reputation and her policies questioned, her credibility at stake.
Frankfurt was one of these locations.
On February 6, German Newspaper Bild reported that women were attacked by a 50-strong group of “Arabic and North African looking men”. The group were said to have stolen drinks and clothing, and thrown bottles and fireworks.
In a since-deleted report, Bild led with the headline “37 days after New Year’s Eve, victims break their silence – sex mob in the Fressgass”.
The story was born from two places: a chef who purported to have witnessed the incident and a 27-year-old woman who claimed she was attacked by men.
A year on and police have cast “major doubt” over the reports, deeming them “baseless”. One of the alleged victims was not even in Frankfurt at the time they claimed the attacks occurred.
In response, Bild published a statement on its website, writing “Bild apologises expressly for the untruthful article and the accusations made in it.
“This article in no way met the journalistic standards of Bild.”
Editor in Chief of Bild, Julian Reichelt, apologised for the error, writing on Twitter that there would be “consequences” as a result of the article.
And I have little doubt there will be. In all of this talk of pervasive “fake news”, jobs should be lost and newspapers brought into question.
But what’s lost in all of this is the consequences that have already played out. The ones that can’t be undone, but have instead clawed their way into public debate and had a very real impact on the lives of so many migrants across the world.
The Frankfurt sexual assaults played into a much bigger German — and later worldwide — narrative: it was a significant cog in a complicated machine where refugees were seen as violent, angry and a burden on the developed world.
They played into the narrative that extending a hand, inviting compassion and letting people escape the horror of their places of origin was a bad thing. A very dangerous thing. A thing that would result in crime, assault and rape. Public fear was used, abused and taken for a ride with the sole intention of causing it to swell to a place of hate.
That’s not to say that the Cologne attacks over this same period shouldn’t be taken seriously and debated profusely. As many as 1,000 women being sexually assaulted at Cologne’s central train station on New Year’s Eve, by, what many believe, was a group of migrant men is terrifying.
But to suggest that they were a part of a much larger, much more dangerous precedent is extraordinarily damaging.
With Merkel’s steadfast belief in Germany’s migrant policies as anti-immigration political party AfD’s platform grows, German media has been flooded with hoax reports and fake news surrounding migrant crime.
Interestingly, if a German woman has to go to the lengths of creating a “Hoax Map” to debunk every fake report of a migrant crime across the country, a nation clearly has a problem with both fake news and racism. And one that will not change nor be fixed with every quick correction, every “Whoopsie! We got it wrong!” statement.
Because after all, Bild can apologise, the media can announce the reports as false and we can talk about this for days. But the damage is done. And no amount of “consequences” can undo that.