In the digital age, how physically accessible should senior politicians make themselves to a public that is more turned off and cynical than ever about the way politics functions?
Depending on your viewpoint, social media has or hasn’t aided the democratisation of politics. But what is clear is that in many cases it has not actually brought government ministers closer to their electorate or humanised them. It’s just given them another platform from which to tweet pictures of highly engineered ‘meet the public’ photo opportunities, while simultaneously making them more attackable online.
So that’s why I was surprised and impressed to see the new Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel doing a live TV interview in the crowd that had turned up in the square outside the European Parliament to show support in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. His appearance had echoes of last year when Belgian ministers were also seen on the streets following the fatal shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
It was a simple but well-judged gesture and (judging by the reaction on Twitter) one that clearly chimed much better with the public mood than a controlled statement delivered from in/outside the PM’s offices might have been.
As a Brit living abroad and already bored by the 4-month electoral campaign that has just kicked off in the UK I wonder whether there are media lessons that the political leaders there could learn from this.
Of course, Brussels is a much smaller city than London, so nipping down the road to do a spontaneous interview isn’t quite as straight forward for David Cameron as it would be for Charles Michel. And, leaving aside the not exactly minor issue of security, there are also risks to your credibility in making yourself too accessible and not statesmanlike enough (not to mention the possibility of it going wrong and being pelted with eggs by disgruntled members of the public).
But so rarely do we get to see our politicians against a backdrop of ordinary people (where the latter aren’t being manipulated or used as photo props) that when we do get the opportunity, it’s a breath of much needed fresh air. But it’s a shame that it takes a tragedy to make it happen.