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Column: Politicians’ private lives make a difference. We should pay attention.

Personalities can tell us about values – which is why we should follow what’s said and done behind closed doors, writes Kate Katharina Ferguson.

Kate Katharina Ferguson

AT THE G20 summit last November, Obama and the then French president, Sarkozy, were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day.”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet in the belief that this was a private conversation which would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got wind of the interchange, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

The media treatment of the exchange triggered an important discussion: what matters to the public, and what doesn’t? And how entwined are the public and private lives of our politicians?

The idea that our private and professional selves are separate entities is a myth. Our behaviour might differ from one situation to another, but our values do not.

Research suggests that people vote for politicians based more on their personalities than on their policies. They do so in the reasonable belief that the two are unlikely to be widely removed from each other.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

Since it’s the first responsibility of a politician to act on their values, their behaviour outside of work cannot be logically divorced from the decisions they make on the job.

Lavish parties

Take for example Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund. Notwithstanding the allegations of sexual harassment against him, which have been well-documented by the media, he’s admitted to several affairs and to attending lavish parties featuring naked girls, who may or may not have been prostitutes.

Strauss-Kahn chose the institution of marriage and failed to live up to its requirements. Assuming that values do not change fundamentally from one situation to the other, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to question his commitment to other institutions, such as the IMF and the state of France, to which he also pledged allegiance.

Whether or not such speculation is justified, the more we learn about the kinds of people our politicians are outside of work, the more sophisticated our interpretations of their motivations and performance become.

While some might suggest that such a hunger for private lives only encourages the cultivation of a “public” personality, to assume that this wasn’t already the case would be naive. The challenge for journalists is to convey the personality of a politician as it is, not necessarily as he or she would like it to be.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

So if Enda Kenny announces that he’s turned vegan, Eamon Gilmore squabbles with his neighbour about the position of a garden fence or Joan Burton runs off with her secretary, I want to hear about it.

Kate Katharina Ferguson is an Irish journalist working in Austria. She writes at katekatharina.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @KateKatharina.

Read previous columns from Kate Katharina Ferguson on TheJournal.ie here>

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Kate Katharina Ferguson

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