Have Politicians Become Nothing More Than Media Personalities?

About the author
Natalie Kulenicz read History at Magdalen College, Oxford. 

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There is now a central tension, inherent in the practice of modern politics, between maintaining a strong media presence and remaining aloof enough from the media stage to avoid seeming ridiculous or fame-hungry.

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It is an exceptionally difficult balance to strike, and the difficulty is layered by the fact that often, media careers end up surpassing the political ambitions of those who govern. The phenomenon of the politician as a public media figure is certainly not new – in fact, it was surely always inevitable given the public nature of political office – but what is surprising is the way in which political figures have been assimilated into an all-pervasive backdrop of media authority. Looking at American politics in the first three quarters of the twentieth century, we can see that there was a certain glamour and mystique attached to the presidential office. That state of affairs has continued to some extent, with the U.S. President remaining one of the most famous people on the planet. However, in the U.K., any excitement of ‘celebrity’ which may once have accompanied political office has been replaced with a normalised media background in which politicians compete for attention with reality TV stars.

The Integration of Politics and Social Media

It seems a truism that politicians are required to keep up a considerable public profile, especially through social media. The fast-paced nature of public life facilitated by social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter has meant that opinions and reactions to politicians and what they get up to can instantly become common knowledge, even a commonly-held belief. When UKIP councillor David Silvester claimed in January that the recent flooding which has swept across the country was to be blamed on the government’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage, a spoof Twitter account –  @UkipWeather – sprang up straight away, amassing 80,000 followers in its first 48 hours live. Silvester quickly found himself suspended from the party, and subsequently expelled.
A screenshot of Obama's twitter page.On the other side of the coin – and the Atlantic – way back in the run up to the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama boasted 1.3 million ‘friends’ on his official Facebook account, compared to his opponent John McCain’s less-than-impressive 200,000. Obama’s official Twitter account boasted 63,000 followers, whilst McCain struggled to top 1,500. This statistic in itself is telling – both candidates neglected Twitter, now considered the primary channel for communication with the rich and famous – and Obama now has over 41 million followers. However, his online popularity in the run-up to the presidential election was indubitable. It would obviously be an overstatement to claim that Obama’s victory with the online vote was solely, or even primarily responsible for his overall victory in 2008. For one thing, politicians do no always run their own social media accounts, presumably due to time constraints. Obama’s Twitter account openly states that it is controlled by the staff of Organizing for Action. But the semblance of a relationship between politician and voter is, apparently, all that is needed. Whilst we cannot give all the credit for Obama’s presidential win to his online presence, his apparent adoption of social media as a recognition of the need to project openness to the voting public, certainly tied in harmoniously with the need for progression, modernity and adoption of familiar cultural practices which has become such a necessary feature of modern political success.

The Role of the Small Screen

An image from the famous 1960 Presidential debate.
The 1960 Presidential debate.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1960, the first televised presidential debate between Democrat Senator John F. Kennedy and the Republican Vice President Richard Nixon demonstrated the explosive power of the media in creating iconic images, brands and personalities. An estimated 37% of the U.S. population (66 million out of a population of 179 million) watched the live broadcast – making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in U.S. television history. Nixon, who at the time of the debate had only just been discharged from his fortnight-long stay in hospital after suffering a serious knee injury, struggled to the arena looking tired, ill, and sporting a famous five o’clock shadow. Refusing the help of a makeup artist, Nixon was no match for his telegenic opponent – and the experience quite possibly contributed to his decision never to take part in another televised debate during the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns. This sequence of events is all the more telling when we consider the findings of the Museum of Broadcast History, which reveal that on this occasion radio listeners preferred Nixon’s answers, finding them more substantial than Kennedy’s, whilst the television audience overwhelming found the young Democrat to be preferable. Potentially, this result could be down to the age split between radio and television audiences, with television viewing representing progression, modernity and a break from tradition, tying in with Democrat sensibilities. But regardless of the reasons, the first ever televised presidential debate attained legendary status – and undoubtedly in Kennedy’s favour. Again, due to the novelty of the first ever televised debate between presidential candidates, it is all too easy to attach Kennedy’s eventual win over Nixon to such a glamorous media extravaganza, but it cannot be denied that the 1960 presidential debate heralded the emergence of a changing political landscape in which the media, in terms of political awareness, had as much power and influence as policy.
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Image shows Eleanor Roosevelt holding her son, Elliot, in 1913.
Eleanor Roosevelt managed her image in the same way as any modern celebrity.

Politicians made concerted attempts to integrate themselves into the media even before widely-publicised spectacles such as television debates began. The phenomenon of ‘celebrity’ became a commonplace feature of American cultural discourse with the birth of Hollywood and the star system, and soon, the viewing public became interested in the private lives of those they idolised on the screen. Elements of this tendency to publicise public figures’ private lives began to seep into the political world as movie fan magazines gained traction, representing a common link between political figures, the backdrop of celebrity, and a voting public which tended less and less to compartmentalise the public figures with which it came into contact.In July 1938, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in the influential magazine Photoplay about ‘Why We Roosevelts Are Movie Fans’. She claimed that ‘when the children come home for the holidays or week-ends there is always a demand for movies in the White House and, of course, it is practically the one and only relaxation which my husband has.’[1] By focusing on the presidential children, and then subtly alluding to the tireless work of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his grateful pursuit of America’s favourite media pastime, Eleanor cleverly gave the eager readers a glimpse of the President’s private life whilst reminding them that he was the ultimate public figure. And of course, by writing in a widely-circulated publication such as Photoplay, Eleanor was acting as a ‘reliable’ publicist for the White House, whilst keeping FDR at a distance from the media circus so as not to affect his credibility negatively.

Michael Portillo during the filming of 'Great British Railway Journeys.'
Michael Portillo during the filming of ‘Great British Railway Journeys.’

In the United Kingdom, the relationship between politicians and the media is peculiarly complicated, due to the unfathomable but undeniable attraction of television careers which seem to beckon both acting and retired political figures. Often, the gravitational pull of the small screen ends in little else but ridicule for the politicians who succumb to it. The famously cringe-inducing spell which George Galloway spent on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, saw the leader of the Respect Party pretending to act like a cat, and Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe participated not only in 2002’s ITV programme Celebrity Fit Club, but partnered professional ballroom dancer Anton du Beke in the immensely popular BBC One Series Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, the year of her retirement. Neither appearance reflected particularly well on Widdecombe as a serious politician – but did nothing but bolster her profile as a media personality, leading to a considerable increase in her personal popularity. Some politicians – albeit the minority – are positively expert in the art of the television broadcast: in 2004, Boris Johnson picked up a BAFTA nomination for guest hosting BBC One’s Have I Got News For You. Some manage a near-total break from politics in the pursuit of a subsequent media career, completely reinventing themselves in the public eye. An example is former Conservative MP Michael Portillo, who since his retreat from ‘public life’ has taken on a new form of public life,  creating a series of history programmes for the BBC, most recently specialising in continental railway history. His broadcasts are extremely popular and receive enthusiastic critical responses. Examples like this, whilst not explicitly proving that politicians use their time in office as a ‘stepping stone’ to a media career, demonstrate the inevitably of an eventual assimilation into a media backdrop.

An Embittered Relationship?

Image shows Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International.
Rebekah Brooks, a personal friend of past three British prime ministers, has been implicated in the phone-hacking scandal.

That is not, of course, to say that political figures lap up all the media attention they can get as a matter of course. Aside from the controversy arising from Prime Minister David Cameron’s personal friendship with Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International and currently embroiled in an unprecedented phone-hacking scandal, on the other side of the Atlantic President Obama has recently come under fire- admittedly from the Committee to Protect Journalists – for imposing unnecessary press restrictions. The report, compiled towards the end of last year, suggested that Obama had failed to uphold his pledge to create a more transparent government, instead spearheading the ‘most aggressive’ attempt since the Nixon administration to silence the media on matters relating to the White House. Referring to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign promise to ‘make our government open and transparent so that anyone can ensure that our business is the people’s business. No more secrecy’, the report points out that whilst President Obama has been in office, six government employees and two contractors have been subject to criminal prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act, for leaking classified information to the press, in contrast to a total of just three prosecutions in all previous U.S. administrations. Whatever our personal stances on these revelations might be, the report itself is testament to a relationship between the White House and the media which has become hugely complicated and embittered in recent years. Perhaps the increasing levels of bad blood between political figures, parties, and the press can partly explain the increase in the political use of social media. As a way of circumventing the complications created by relationships between journalists and those who govern, a more knee-jerk, ‘organic’ method of communication – which might in reality be no less manipulated than traditional print journalism – social media networks seem more direct, and more genuine.
It is unfortunate that the practice of modern politics requires that politicians become media personalities. A double-edged sword, the changed cultural backdrop against which all public life plays out both sucks the public into political participation – even if it is a kind of ‘unofficial’ participation which doesn’t necessarily translate to votes – and alienates them. from it. We might instinctively praise political figures for enhancing their media presence through television appearances and social media integration, for showing themselves to be accepting of new ideas and new, populist methods of self-expression. But on the other hand, there is always a sense of the ridiculous, that politicians will only showcase their ability for gaffes by using Twitter and Facebook accounts – that no matter how hard they try, they will always naturally seem alienated from the public. The world of social media is still nascent, and whilst it is easy to forget, political figures themselves, especially those in a demanding office, do not personally neglect everyday duties in favour of updating their official Facebook statuses. On a practical level, we cannot accuse social media of being a distraction in this context. However, the relationship is still unsteady, and it is hard to not feel that the perception of a need for a tangible media link between politicians and voters is not a force for good.

[1] E. Roosevelt, ‘Why We Roosevelts are Movie Fans’, Photoplay July 1938, p.16

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Image credits: banner; debate; Roosevelt; Portillo; Brooks