29 Aug

Publicity, privacy and the personal lives of politicians in media-saturated democracies

Posted By Politybooks

stanyerIs media coverage of politics becoming more focused on the private lives of politicians across democracies?

It is often remarked that the personal lives of politicians, like those of sports, film and television stars and host of other celebrities, have become a familiar part of the public’s daily media consumption.

The public, it might be said, know more detail about politicians’ personal lives than their policy stance or voting records. Like celebrities in other fields they have willingly surrendered their privacy, or have been unable to defend it from a celebrity-obsessed media.

There have been a number of studies conducted in a range of democracies that have pointed to similar developments. Take France for example, research has documented the ‘peopolisation’ or celebritization of French politics in the 2000s, a key aspect of which has been personalized self-disclosure.

Leading French politicians regularly make carefully choreographed appearances on television talk-shows and in glossy celebrity magazines. In the run-up to the 2007 presidential election, Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal appeared in her bikini in Voici, Closer and VSD.

Nicolas Sarkozy, exploited his private life for political purposes, openly using his family to bolster his presidential ambitions. His courtship and marriage to supermodel and singer Carla Bruni, was conducted very much in the media spotlight.

In the UK, Tony Blair frequently disclosed aspects of his private life to the public. For example, in an interview with Tony and Cherie in the Sun during the 2005 general election campaign,  Tony confessed he was ‘up for it’ at least five times a night, a point corroborated by Cherie, who when asked if he was ‘up to it’, said he always was.

In Italy, numerous authors have remarked on the personalized nature of political communication since 1994 and the formation of the Second Republic. Silvio Berlusconi used his private life to promote himself to the Italian people.

Research also points at the increased proclivity of certain media to intrude into the private lives of politicians. Bill Clinton’s presidency was dogged by a series of allegations and revelations concerning his fidelity.

The media digging for and publishing dirt on politicians is now a permanent feature of US politics at all levels, not just the presidency. Further, in democracies where the private lives of politicians have been very much legally protected, certain media outlets seem increasingly eager to publish gossip about public figures.

In France, Germany and Spain, celebrity magazines have not shied away from publishing paparazzi pictures of leading politicians in their swim suits, something that would have been unheard of before.

There may be those who say ‘so what?’, but I would argue that these different nationally focused examples cannot be ignored. They point to a potentially significant development in democratic political communications, namely the growing focus on the personal lives of politicians. They suggest that across a range of advanced industrial democracies the personal lives of politicians are no longer a purely private matter but are instead an increasingly ubiquitous feature of the mediated public sphere.

The zone of privacy which once surrounded politicians and those in public life seems to be slowly disappearing with and without politicians’ consent. These documented incursions of the personal into the public sphere are an indication for some of a public realm that ‘no longer has anything to do with civic commitment’ but one that is increasingly colonized by the trivial and inane.

However, while the above examples provide a tantalizing glimpse of recent developments, they are far from conclusive; it is hard to determine whether there is a trend across advanced industrial democracies and difficult to identify the consequences of such developments, in short, more evidence is needed.

Intimate Politics provides that evidence for the first time. Looking comparatively at seven democracies (Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US) it assesses the extent to which the personal lives of politicians have become a prominent feature of political communications and explains why this might be.

What are the findings? In nutshell, based on a range of measures, political communication is not equally personalized in every democracy examined. What emerges are two main clusters of countries.

Political communication is highly personalized in the US and the UK and a lot less personalized in the other countries. In the US and UK, media coverage of national leaders seems to focus on aspects of their personal lives to a greater extent than in the others and there are a larger number of instances of publicized infidelity. Further, the research also shows that there has been an increase of personal coverage over time.

Of course there are national exceptions – leaders such Nicolas Sarkozy received more personal coverage than his predecessors – but generally significant differences remain between these two clusters of countries.

What factors are driving these developments? There is no single causal factor, such as new communication technologies, or tabloidization. Indeed, the book makes the case that the search for a causal silver bullet is problematic. Rather, the outcome is the result of a complex interplay of necessary and sufficient factors operating in conjunction.

Using fuzzy set qualitative comparative analysis the book identifies a number of so called causal recipes that explain why political communication is more focused on the private lives of politicians in the US and UK. These recipes include personal factors including the age of the politician, media conditions, such as the size of the tabloid press and presence and absence of privacy protection for public figures, and political factors, such as the nature of the political system.

What are the consequences? Scholars, most notably Hannah Arendt and Richard Sennett, have tended to lament the incursion of the personal into the public realm seeing this as leading to a de-politicization of civil society. However, the little empirical research that has been conducted paints a less straightforward picture.  

The book argues that the impact can be most clearly seen in those countries where personalized politics is most developed, such as the US and the UK. Looking at the US and the UK, the book suggests the major consequences of intimization are two-fold: first, a politicization of the personal lives of politicians, especially high-profile leading politicians, not a de-politicization, as suggested by others, and, second, the emergence of regular controversies and scandals around privacy intrusion and protection.

In other words, the very act of exposure and what is revealed can be the site of intense struggle. These are by no means the only developments but they are significant in democracies where mediated political communication is increasingly dominated by the personal lives of politicians.

James Stanyer is senior lecturer in media and communication studies at Loughborough University.