Inside Story

The privatisation of political life

When politicians start invading their own privacy, it’s not surprising that the media follow their lead

James Panichi 1 March 2013 3539 words

Political semiotics: Thérèse Rein and Kevin Rudd at their local church in Bulimba in February last year. Dave Hunt/AAP Image

It has to be the English-speaking world’s most distinctive and unsettling contribution to election campaigns: the political family happy-snap. The candidate stands awkwardly alongside loved ones – more often than not a wife and two-point-something kids in their Sunday best. The backdrop is serene and domestic; the house is real but tidy. They might be sitting around the kitchen table or out in the garden having a barbecue, enjoying some authentic family time while offering the camera a forced smile. The caption introduces everyone and gives each child’s age.

When I first came across this type of material in the letterbox as a teenager, I wondered what it all meant. Why did I need to see a candidate’s family? And, more importantly, what bribes had those kids been offered to wear a vest and sensible shorts in a photo that would inevitably end up in the letterboxes of their classmates?

Years later I worked briefly for an MP who had organised one such family photo for his campaign literature. He loved the picture so much that he reissued it as a Christmas card (“Seasons Greetings from us to you”). His wife, a successful business executive, loathed the picture and looked pained every time she saw it (which was often); his children weren’t old enough to complain. When I asked him why he had gone along with the tradition, he gave me his usual puzzled look. It’s what party headquarters expected. Besides: why wouldn’t you?

It was only later that I realised how much the representation of a stable family life actually meant. In the eastern suburbs of Melbourne the MP’s wife had been required to attend Liberal Party meetings and was clearly part of the deal in the preselection process. She had hosted political meetings at the MP’s home (a kind of Chinese wedding tea ceremony, only with finger food and twenty Anglo-Celtic retirees as future in-laws). Her down-to-earth demeanour may well have given the candidate the winning edge. But while the image of domestic tranquillity had initially been for the party, the party then insisted that it be transferred to the electorate.

You don’t have to be a professor of semiotics to understand what my MP wanted to convey with that photo. In order of importance they were: I’m not gay; I’m great enough to have attracted a successful woman; I’ve been able to procreate; my children like me, so you should too; my family is totally OK with my political choices. But over the years I came to see those pictures as evoking an even more basic concept of family. As the MP launches into the unforgiving world of interstate travel to “work tirelessly” for his constituents, he won’t lose touch with reality because his well-dressed and undeniably socially acceptable family will keep him grounded.

The photos are all about appearance, of course. Years after I had left the job I bumped into the MP, who told me he was now “happily divorced” (not a status easily captured in a photo). Indeed, I found that political families in which reality matched the image on the flyer were few and far between.

But what puzzled me at the time was the idea that you would want to offer your family up for this process in the first place. In continental Europe – where I had spent my adolescence – the personal lives of politicians were totally out of bounds. You didn’t see candidates’ spouses, and you didn’t read about their children getting drunk at parties or see photos of the family sitting around the kitchen table. If they had a weekend barbecue you’d never know about it; there was no equivalent of Australian Story where politicians would allow you into their personal sphere.

It’s not that things aren’t changing in Europe; I’m often told that the media here, where I’m living once again, are more intrusive than ever and the veil of secrecy covering politicians’ lives is occasionally lifted. But the norm is still this: politicians give the media nothing. When asked on television last year about a very public Twitter spat between his partner and his former wife, French president François Hollande shut down the line of inquiry. “I am for a clear distinction between public and private life,” he said. “I believe private matters should be regulated in private and I have asked those close to me to respect this.” The journalists didn’t push the matter further.

The reasons why the media on the continent haven’t been more invasive of politicians’ private lives are complex and often linked to strong national privacy laws. But it’s the difference in the political culture that’s particularly stark: European politicians don’t engage in what’s referred to as the “privatisation” of politics. They don’t offer their families for interview in a bid to soften their appeal; they don’t include family photos in their electoral material. In short, they draw a firm line between the private and the public. It’s only when that separation breaks down – as it did spectacularly with Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy – that things spiral out of control.

IN HIS new book Intimate Politics (Polity Press), British social scientist James Stanyer compares the media reporting of politicians’ private lives in a handful of continental European countries (Italy, Spain, Germany and France) with that in Britain, the United States and Australia. Stanyer uses the term “intimisation” to describe “the publicising of information and imagery from what we might ordinarily understand as the politician’s personal life.” The word brings together the personal information made public by the politician – a family photo on the website, or autobiographical writing – and the personal information gleaned from other sources (including the “gotcha” scoops of public figures caught in flagrante delicto).

Stanyer crunches the numbers on political reporting and comes up with some interesting graphs. He finds that the extent of intimisation is much higher in Britain and the United States than it is in continental Europe, with Australia floating somewhere in between the two extremes. Germany is the least intimised, with few stories about politicians’ personal lives making it to press (unless they have plagiarised their PhD thesis – that one’s getting a good run at the moment).

Stanyer’s figures also suggest that in all of the countries he examined the rate of intimised reporting has steadily increased over the past twenty years – the only exception being Germany, where Angela Merkel’s private life has been reported less than those of her predecessors. In Australia it rose sharply after Kevin Rudd’s election; in Spain it went down when the left-leaning José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero came to power (although the average of intimised reporting continued to climb). In the United States and Britain the rise is emphatic.

It has been a gradual evolution. In the nineteenth and parts of the twentieth century, the role of the first lady in American politics, for instance, was purely ceremonial. Things began to change when Eleanor Roosevelt developed a public standing of her own, but it was the advent of television (and Jacqueline Kennedy) that really made a difference. In Britain, Cherie Blair granted the outside world unprecedented access to the home of a British prime minister by welcoming in BBC cameras over a six-month period. (The Real Cherie Blair is the program that emerged.)

In all these examples, it wasn’t the media invading the private domains of politicians – it was politicians themselves (or their spouses) deciding when to invite the journalists in. And the stats suggest that in the English-speaking world this kind of “mediated” visibility is rising.

Yet for continental Europe, most of this remains unthinkable. French president François Mitterrand was able to keep his second family secret for years: the existence of his daughter, Mazarine Pingeot, was only publicly acknowledged shortly before his death in 1996. And as for the private lives of Italian politicians, under normal circumstances the public knows next to nothing. Seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti had a wife, Livia, who appeared occasionally to greet foreign dignitaries, but most Italians would be hard-pressed to remember what she looked like. (I certainly can’t.)

It’s more or less the same story here in Belgium, where I’ve been living for the past eight months. For example, the homosexuality of prime minister Elio Di Rupo is referred to openly in the media. But Di Rupo himself makes it clear that the issue – apart from the mere fact – belongs in the private sphere and that, largely, is where it stays.

Compare that to the media access granted by Tony Abbott’s family or to the baby photo made available by Penny Wong and her partner Sophie Allouache. Clearly, English-speaking politicians and their media advisers see mediated visibility as something they require to survive, or at least to keep the media off their backs.

The two notable exceptions to Europe’s political reserve, Sarkozy and Berlusconi, may now wish they had stuck to the tried and tested path of their predecessors. By French standards, Sarkozy’s very public divorce and subsequent courtship of – and marriage to – model and singer Carla Bruni were highly unusual. It all unfolded while Sarkozy was in office and it may have initially seemed like a breath of fresh air in a country that is known to keep respectfully out of its leaders’ lives. But what soon became clear is that once your private affairs are in the media, it’s hard to get them out again.

For Sarkozy it all ended in a flurry of speculation about the health of his relationship with Bruni; the internet was full of rumours and a few made it to print. Ultimately the drama proved too much and Sarkozy was defeated by Hollande, who promised to be a “normal” leader if elected. After five years of “Président bling-bling” people just wanted someone who would make them feel relaxed and comfortable – a high-taxing John Howard.

Berlusconi’s arrival on the Italian political stage was just as unusual. In a political system still smarting from the collapse of the old political parties, his biography was his main electoral appeal. He was a self-made man in a society where wealth tends to be inherited; he was a doer where most Italian leaders over-intellectualise then faff around. Traditional politicians’ reserve was a model Berlusconi deliberately eschewed. In 2001 he sent all Italian households a copy of his own biography.

What the Berlusconi story reveals is that mediated visibility can be a risky business. His divorce made news when his wife, Veronica Lario, accused the prime minister of infidelity from the pages of left-wing daily La Repubblica. The “bunga bunga” parties for which he is now famous even proved too much eventually for Italy’s influential Catholic hierarchy, which is normally surprisingly tolerant of politicians’ moral shortcomings.

BUT it isn’t open slather in Stanyer’s English-speaking countries – at least for the serious media. For them the golden rule has been that a public figure’s private life is relevant only if it points to hypocrisy. So, it’s fine to reveal that an anti-drugs campaigner smokes stuff he shouldn’t, or that the person heading up a morals crusade pays prostitutes. This always struck me as problematic – hypocrisy is often in the eye of the beholder – and it clearly needs to be rethought.

James Stanyer points out that the threshold of what constitutes hypocrisy can vary greatly from country to country. What’s more, with particular reference to the issue of politicians’ marital infidelity, what he refers to as “critical moments” can play a big role in redefining where the hypocrisy threshold actually lies. For example, in the United States the sexual mores of those congressmen who in 1998 had attacked President Bill Clinton’s womanising became fair game for the media – the stories all passed the editorial hypocrisy test. But the Monica Lewinsky affair as a whole also had the broader effect of lowering the threshold of what intimate details could be reported. (President Kennedy would have been spared scrutiny over stained dresses.)

As for Britain, Stanyer points to prime minister John Major’s 1993 “back to basics” speech, in which he called for a return to “old core values” of morality. The speech opened the floodgates of reporting on Tory MPs’ private lives, with the infidelity of five ministers and seven MPs exposed between 1993 and 1997. The reporting was predicated on the assumption that Major’s team wasn’t taking the return to “old core values” seriously, and it all reached its apex (or possibly its nadir) with the coverage of the 1994 accidental death of a conservative MP by autoerotic asphyxiation.

In an editorial, the Sun newspaper argued that politicians’ infidelity was fair game because of the MPs’ public image. “That’s why so many politicians include happy family photos on their election literature,” the paper said in an editorial. “And that’s why MPs don’t like the press spilling the beans when they’re caught not practising what they preach.”

But what if hypocrisy were to include the cleavage between an MP’s personal life and a view expressed by his or her leader (as in the “back to basics” speech)? Or the lack of consistency between the politician’s private life and the implied message behind a happy family picture in a campaign flyer?

A recent Australian example was the public outing of NSW state Labor politician David Campbell. In 2010, Channel Seven broadcast footage of the then minister leaving a gay sex club in Sydney – an editorial decision which attracted criticism at the time. The initial justifications for airing the report proved either unfounded or unconvincing: that Campbell had used a government car improperly and that he had left himself exposed to blackmail attempts. But the last reason provided by Channel Seven may be more telling: Campbell had campaigned for election as a family man and had sent out Christmas cards with a photo of his wife and children.

It’s murky territory. Campbell had not spoken out against gay rights while keeping his sexuality secret. The hypocrisy exposed was about a much more basic decision to go all hetero-normative on his electorate with the family photo. But what were his choices? He could have included a reference to his sexual interests as a footnote in the campaign literature, but that wouldn’t have spared him the public humiliation. Or, more drastically, he could have ignored the demands of his party’s media advisers and gone down the European path: no family photos, no private access.

IN REALITY, though, the cultural divide between continental European and English-language journalism goes much deeper. Here in Brussels, Anglo-American reporting tends to be adversarial: for every argument put by the European Union there’s another one out there saying the opposite. Those of us who come from an English-speaking tradition will go out of our way to track down that dissenting voice. It can be irritatingly formulaic – what if there is no other side to the story? – but I would defend it as coming from a culture of healthy scepticism about political power and those who wield it.

Continental European reporters do things differently. They may criticise the European Union, but the levels of cynicism are much lower, and the absence of an adversarial starting point often leads journalists and politicians to grow close. In France, that proximity expresses itself on a personal level: President Hollande is just one of many politicians to have formed a relationship with a journalist (his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, hosted political talk shows). But the cosy relationship between the media and politics in Europe can also be seen in unwritten agreements on what should and shouldn’t make it into the papers.

For example, Mitterrand’s second family was an open secret among journalists, who agreed not to report it (until the weekly magazine Paris Match did so, having obtained the blessing of Mitterrand himself). As part of the deal, journalists also ignored the financial arrangement of Mitterrand’s second family: his lover and daughter were being housed by the French state. On that matter alone a more aggressive and independent journalistic culture would probably have had no qualms in reporting the story. Which raises the question: when journalists agree to ignore newsworthy events in the name of a higher principle, who audits those decisions? What principle is higher than telling the public that it is paying for a leader’s complicated family arrangements?

In Italy things aren’t too different. Few Italian journalists would accept this, but the collapse of the country’s so-called “First Republic” under the weight of the 1990s corruption scandals marked their profession’s lowest point in recent history. The kickbacks scandal was known to the country’s journalistic establishment and could have been the Watergate for a courageous Italian newspaper. Instead, the Italian media only started to report once it all came out in court. The publishers and many journalists turned a blind eye to a story about large-scale corruption of the entire political class. You can’t get more intimate than that.

Shadowing the rise in intimisation is a similar increase in the personalisation, or even the presidentialisation, of politics – the degree to which the media sees the leader as the embodiment of the government. It’s a trend that seems to suit both politicians and the media. When covering Spain, for instance, we talk about the “Rajoy government” – not the People’s Party government. As for Silvio Berlusconi’s party, it’s hard to keep track of what it’s actually called. Berlusconi is the party.

The intimisation of politics may not be particularly palatable to political purists, but there is a sense in Europe that the personalisation of politics may not be altogether a bad thing. In fact, in countries like Italy the move towards personalised politics (with directly elected mayors and regional presidents) is often equated with modern notions of accountability. Having a leader who can embody his or her party’s philosophy – and be voted out of office if need be – is now seen as part of the game.

I discussed this with Marco Zatterin, the Brussels correspondent for Turin’s daily La Stampa, during a break in the European Council’s recent marathon budget meeting. “Let me give you an example,” he said. “The problem with the left of politics in Italy is that it has yet to respond to the demands of modern communications. By that I mean that to win an election you need a strong leader. The [centre-left] Democratic Party is terrified of strong leaders because they remind them of Mussolini.”

As for whether the personalisation of politics should translate to intimisation, Zatterin says the Italian media is still very conservative. In fact, he argues that there is a case to be made for personal lives to be examined more closely. “I remember when they held the ‘Family Day’ march in Rome,” he said, referring to the 2007 protest against legalising de facto relationships. “Among the participants were [Christian Democrat leader Pier Ferdinando] Casini, who was separated and had a daughter out of wedlock with his new partner; [centre-right leader Gianfranco] Fini, who was also separated and had a child with a much younger woman; and Berlusconi, with two marriages behind him and a stack of lovers. These were the three faces of Italian family values.” Yet the fact went largely unreported.

Which takes us back to the difficult-to-define matter of hypocrisy and politicians’ seemingly growing desire to share their private lives. If an MP campaigns on the photo of his family, should we not hold the symbolism of that photo up to scrutiny? When Kevin Rudd poses for the cameras in front of his church on Sunday he is playing a semiotic game with his audience – he is linking his religiosity to his public persona. So, do we then have the right to find out whether he lives his life in accordance with the backdrop he is so keen for us to see?

Whether or not the invasion of a politician’s privacy is ethically justified, the Sun’s editor is right when he says that politicians (and those advising them) use mediated visibility as part of a strategy to wrest control away from media gatekeepers. If Tony Abbott offers up his wife and daughters for interview, it’s because he wants to short-circuit the media narrative which says he has a problem with women. Mediated visibility is lovely for the media outlets on which it is bestowed (you don’t hear Australian Story complaining), but it is broadly anti-journalistic in its intentions.

Politicians are happy to pay the price of the mediated visibility – after all, your family will usually pose for a photo to make you happy. But when their personal story goes off message, they have to count the cost. If I could relive my short time as a political staffer the advice I would give to my MP is this: go European. Give them nothing; keep your family out of it. •