On May 14, 2020, a remarkable thing happened. For over an hour, one of Germany’s two leading public television stations, ZDF, broadcast (g) propaganda on behalf of a perjurer, con-man, and convicted double-murderer. Jens Söring, who was released from prison in Virginia in November 2019 after serving 33 years in prison for the cold-blooded killing of Derek and Nancy Haysom, was interviewed by Markus Lanz, a leading German talk-show host whose programs are watched by millions. Lanz permitted Söring to tell his story — complete with lies and defamation — without the slightest critical questioning or independent fact-checking. This disgraceful program will surely have many consequences down the line (some legal), but this post will serve as a first, rapid-response fact-check.
One thing should be clarified in advance: Jens Söring, acting alone, stabbed Derek and Nancy Haysom to death. He was found guilty unanimously by a Virginia jury in 1990. Söring was permitted to file numerous appeals of his conviction in Virginia and federal courts, raising many objections to the fairness of his trial. After careful consideration, every single judge rejected every single claim Söring made. Not one ever expressed the slightest doubt about his guilt, the evidence of which, in the words of the U.S. Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, was “overwhelming”. In January 2020, two senior Scotland Yard detectives who had taken Söring’s 1985 confessions released a 450-page report, which can be read in full here, comprehensively debunking every one of Söring’s innocence theories. Jens Söring is, thus, not just a convicted murderer, he is a guilty one. He personally stabbed an innocent, unsuspecting married couple to death in their own home in 1985.
Viewers of the Lanz interview would, however, remain completely ignorant of the overwhelming evidence of Söring’s guilt.
Why did I use the provocative term “capitulation” in the title? Because that is the only word to describe Lanz’ behavior. Jens Söring has a team of lawyers and media consultants working on his behalf. It is obvious to me that they imposed a strict set of conditions on Markus Lanz and the ZDF — conditions designed to protect Jens Söring from any critical scrutiny of his claims. And Markus Lanz evidently accepted them. The only questions Lanz asked were easy, sympathetic softballs which Söring was obviously prepared for. The result was a one-sided propaganda spectacle which could have been scripted by Jens Söring’s media team. The interview violated basic principles of journalism, including many of the guidelines (g) the ZDF sets for its own productions.
II. The Interview
First, some basic background. The interview was conducted in an empty studio, probably for virus-related reason. The only guests in the studio were Söring himself and Prof. Dr. Bernd Maelicke (g), a liberal criminologist whose main role was to comment on the effect confinement has on prisoners. The show also featured clips from a remote interview with American writer John Grisham. The ZDF’s media library features that interview here in full length, in English with German subtitles. Both Maelicke and especially Grisham said some objectionable things, but for purposes of timeliness and clarity I’ll concentrate only on what Söring said. In any event, Söring was the star of the show, dominating at least 75% of the 75-minute running time.
No guest critical of Söring’s story appeared. No guest representing the murder victims’ surviving relatives appeared. No guest defending the American criminal justice system, or its handling of Söring’s case, appeared. None of the dozens of detectives and police officers with deep knowledge of the case appeared. No person representing the interests of Elizabeth Haysom — whom Söring was allowed to call a liar and murderer on nationwide television — appeared. If any of these people were invited, Lanz did not mention this. Nor did Lanz comply with the fundamental requirement of journalistic transparency — he did not mention which conditions Söring’s legal and media team had imposed on the interview, if any, and why he had accepted them. I am convinced that Lanz accepted stringent conditions imposed by Söring’s legal team, and will be requesting to see the correspondence between Lanz’ producers and Söring’s lawyers. After all, I pay license fees for German public television. And German television viewers deserve to know the truth about who dictated the terms of the interview.
III. Söring’s Uncorrected Slander and Lies
I’m now going to single out just a few of the more problematic passages in Söring’s interview. I have provided English subtitles, since many of his statements attack the reputations people who do not speak German. I am showing these excerpts of the program in the spirit of fair use and commentary on public issues (g); all rights remain with the ZDF. The subtitles were not provided by ZDF, but by me. They are not perfect, but accurate. I have included these clips because (1) it is vital to correct the record; and (2) Söring’s demeanor and his manner of speaking are vital to understanding the implications of what he is saying, and Lanz’s reactions are vital to understanding his passive, and sometimes even encouraging, role in helping Söring broadcast his falsehoods.
Clip 1: “They couldn’t break me”
Here, Söring describes his dilemma in prison: In order to qualify for release on parole, a prisoner has to accept responsibility for his crime. Since Söring claims he didn’t commit the crime, he could not accept remorse:
Notice how he accuses the Virginia parole authorities of trying to break him. This is a grotesque accusation. Requiring guilty prisoners to accept responsibility for their crimes is not psychological torture; it is considered an essential step in rehabilitation in every criminal justice system on earth, including Germany’s (g).
But Söring’s statements toward the end are even more outrageous. He claims that nobody has ever been released on parole in Virginia without admitting to the crime (which is wrong), and then goes on to claim that Virginia’s decision to release him without an admission of remorse proved that the Virginia authorities knew “it wasn’t me”, or at least that they had “extreme doubts” about his guilt.
This is a lie. Here is an excerpt from the statement from Adrianne L. Bennett, Chair, of the Virginia Parole Board concerning Söring’s release:
Lanz failed to correct this blatant misrepresentation. Söring is obliged to be “of uniform good behavior” as a condition of his parole. I wonder whether accusing the Virginia Parole Board of psychological abuse and misrepresenting the reasons for his parole is good behavior? We will soon find out.
Clip 2. The American criminal Justice system is ruthless and inhuman
Here Söring refers to the American criminal justice system as “ruthless/merciless” and “inhuman”. The German criminologist of course nods his assent. Söring is entitled to his opinion, but this is a blanket indictment, and a grave accusation, from perhaps the most biased source imaginable. Any journalist should realize a polemic this harsh must be balanced by a contrary viewpoint. But here, it was simply accepted by everyone on stage as the gospel truth — a reaction more suited to a propaganda spectacle than to journalism.
Clip 3. I wasn’t there the night of the crime
In this exchange, Markus Lanz asks Söring whether he was at the crime scene. Söring says “no”, and claims he only found out about the crime afterward. Then Lanz asks whether Söring found out about the murders “from her” — that is, from Elizabeth Haysom. You’ll enjoy what happens next:
Söring hesitates and fumbles out an answer, claiming the changed “legal situation” prevents him from answering the question. Directly after this exchange, Markus Lanz performs another favor for Söring. Since Söring cannot now accuse Elizabeth of personally murdering her own parents, Lanz plays a clip from Söring’s 1990 trial in which he makes this false, defamatory accusation. Of course, Söring cannot now be prosecuted in Germany for what he said in court in the US in 1990. But now the audience knows exactly what Söring wishes he could now say.
What Markus Lanz fails to tell the viewers is that Jens Söring is selling a book right now all over Germany in which he explicitly accuses Elizabeth of personally killing her own parents. In the 2019 Foreword to the book (g), whose German title translates to “Not Guilty! How I Became a Victim of American Justice”, Söring writes : “Since the night when Elizabeth murdered her parents, I have been constantly subjected to outside pressures….” (“Seit der Nacht, in der Elizabeth ihre Eltern ermordete, befand ich mich ununterbrochen unter äußeren Zwängen….”). At some point after Söring wrote this, his German lawyers advised him to stop making this false and defamatory accusation. And Söring has followed their advice, changing the core element of his innocence story yet another time.
Conveniently, Lanz fails to alert viewers to the many changes in Söring’s story, or to the fact that Söring is right now profiting from selling a book in which he says something completely different from what he just told Lanz.
As I said, this interview could have been scripted by Söring’s media advisers.
Clip 4: Elizabeth is a liar
Here, Söring is being asked about his relationship to Elizabeth Haysom. He says that he hasn’t had any contact with her since 1987, doesn’t wish to speak to her, and that he surmises she probably doesn’t want to speak to him. And then he calls her a liar:
The obvious implication here is that Elizabeth will “never” stop lying about the fact that she wasn’t just a participant in the plot to murder her parents (which she has never challenged since 1986), but instead actually murdered them herself. There is, of course, no evidence at all that Elizabeth Haysom was at the crime scene. In an display of mind-boggling cynicism and hypocrisy, Söring falsely accuses Haysom of lying about the very thing he has spent his entire adult life lying about. It is repellent, as is the meek obedience from Markus Lanz, who allows this false and defamatory accusation to go completely unanswered.
Clip 5: I was never convicted of a crime before 1990
Here, Söring describes the end of his court sentencing proceeding:
This is a relatively minor issue after what’s we’ve just seen, but it is still a blatant lie. Söring is now eager to claim that he has always been a law-abiding person, and his “wrongful” conviction for murder was the only blot on his escutcheon. But Söring was convicted of fraud in London, England, in 1986, and sentenced to prison. To quote the European Court of Human Rights: “The applicant [Söring] was subsequently arrested on 30 December at HM Prison Chelmsford after serving a prison sentence for cheque fraud.” And that’s not all: Söring also describes the “huge fraud” he and Elizabeth cooked up in loving detail in both his 1995 and 2012 autobiographies. Even the most basic fact-checking could have exposed this lie. But the Markus Lanz team is apparently incapable of even this.
These clips are only the tip of the iceberg. Söring made dozens more provably false claims about his case to bolster his false innocence claim, without the slightest pushback or critical questioning from Lanz or any of his guests. Grisham’s interview is a farrago of mistakes and sweeping condemnations which does him no credit, but I will save those for another day.
Yet it is Markus Lanz and his entire production team who should receive the lion’s share of the blame. By May 2020, anyone with Internet access could easily fact-check anything Jens Söring says. I personally have published over 23,000 words in German in Germany’s leading newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), documenting the fraudulence of Söring’s claims. Since January 22, 2020, the 450-page report by two senior Scotland Yard detectives on Söring’s case has been freely available in its entirety on the server of the FAZ itself. Either Lanz and his production team failed to discover any of this information, or they chose to ignore it. The result was a program which repeatedly violated the ZDF’s own standards on balance, reliability, and respect for personal reputation. I will shortly be filing an extensive complaint against it, in which I will call for the program to be removed from the Internet and never re-broadcast, or at least accompanied by a thorough and detailed rebuttal at least as long as the original program. German television viewers — and Elizabeth Haysom and her family — deserve no less.