October 1, 2014
It is difficult to imagine Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s presidential communication strategy being any more erratic than it already is. The political sport of the summer is now to count the days since the president last spoke in public or even tweeted a few lines to Argentines. The last time she used Twitter, she coughed up 21 straight tweets on December 13. Then there was silence. You even have to scroll too much down to see her name in the Casa Rosada website, buried under an avalanche of activity by her new Cabinet Chief, the (far too?) talkative Jorge Capitanich.
As almost any world leader, Fernández de Kirchner has to deal with the fatality of being unable to please the pundit bunch entirely: be it that she talks too much on prime time television or hides her head in the sand for weeks, there will be people out there complaining. Yet that said, the presidential self-gag at a time she is recovering from a delicate head operation and amid a heated summer (in weather, politics and economics) serves the critics an unnecessary (and unexpected) government-slamming dish.
Axiom number one in government communication is that there is no way to avoid the spotligh: if there are no words, there will be gestures, movement and body language. On Thursday, as the peso hit a record devaluation against the US dollar on the illegal market, the president met with Economy Minister Axel Kicillof in a hospital where she was visiting her mother. No official statement was published on the meeting. It was not necessary.
The press elsewhere is also debating whether it should self-gag or not. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is said to have quietly placed a gag order on the journalists of its news agency IRIN to halt any reporting about the crisis in Syria.
According to UN sources cited in a story by Foreign Policy (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/01/14/gag_order ), the reporting “might complicate delicate diplomatic negotiations on access to needy Syrians, and also because its coverage often pointed out shortcomings in the United Nations’ humanitarian relief effort in Syria.” Officially, and predictably, the IRIN officially said that coverage of Syria has been frozen because the crisis was already getting too much attention from the mainstream international press and that the OCHA’s agency mission is to point its spotlights to little known conflicts instead.
To self-gag or not to self-gag was also the fundamental question haunting the French press this week, as the pack faced President François Hollande and had to decide whether to stick to their tradition of respect for private life or surrender to the voracity of the foreign press, eager to get the goriest details about the president’s love affairs rather than the facts about his un-Socialist spending cuts plan.
The English-speaking press at the other end of the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean could hardly understand the existential doubt. For ones, journalism is part of the popular entertainment machine. For others: a form of elitist enlightenment. “Morality does matter,” UK’s Daily Mirror columnist Alison Phillips wrote, also criticizing Hollande’s refusal to discuss “private matters.” “Not necessarily the morals of afternoon delight with a mistress — but the morality of whether you can tell the truth.” And she concluded, in angst, “If the French are too high-minded for such honesty, then more fool them.”
The British press has gained a name recently for its enthusiasm about sneaking into celebrities’ (and ordinary people’s) private lives, as the Leveson Inquiry and the News of the World phone-hacking scandal proved extensively.
The French press pack finally made up their mind and made the question of whether the first lady was still the first lady after the revelations of a presidential love affair. Hollande replied, “I understand your question and I am certain that you will understand my answer. Everyone can, in their private life, go through ordeals; it’s our case. But I have one principle, and it’s that private affairs should be treated in private.” And yes, they both understood.
That would not have been the case in the US either. The National Enquirer, a tabloid credited for scooping delivering lustful details about the Monica Lewinski scandal, announced this week a “World Exclusive: Obama Divorce Bombshell.” The paper quoted “sources” and “one mole” saying that the presidential couple’s 21-year marriage had “collapsed following a disastrous holiday trip to Hawaii” and most especially after “Michelle was furious when she learned that the Secret Service has covered up Obama’s cheating — twice.” It remains to be seen whether any White House correspondent will stand up and ask the President whether the first lady is still the first lady or not.
In Argentina under the Kirchners, the line dividing public and private have been blurred from the very moment the late President Néstor Kirchner appointed his wife as his successor in 2007. The family tale continued during the 2011 re-election campaign, marked by the Fernández de Kirchner’s widowhood. Going to hospital to visit the presidential granny may have been Kicillof’s way into the domestic political saga. There was no official information on that. Do not expect the press to gag itself then.