The rise of ‘selfie diplomacy’

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The rise of ‘selfie diplomacy’

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How can we blame politicians for being inappropriate when they don’t know what normality is?

Barack Obama and Helle Thorning-Schmidt at the Mandela memorial

Obama holds pre-selfie talks with Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, left, as first lady Michelle Obama looks on
© Matt Dunham/AP/Press Association Images

You know how it is. You’re chillaxing at a memorial service of unprecedented international significance, you take a moment out to snap a “selfie” (a self-portrait snapped using a smartphone) and the world’s media blow it out of all proportion. That’s what happened to David Cameron, Barack Obama and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, anyway. The trio have been heavily criticised in the media after they were caught photographing themselves together at a ceremony to mark the passing of iconic South African statesman Nelson Mandela yesterday.

Yet what was surprising about this lapse of judgement wasn’t its tastelessness so much as what it revealed about the three politicians’ sense of what is normal.

Like many things, the selfie is not as widespread as you would imagine it to be if you peruse the online media extensively. The Oxford English Dictionary may have declared it their word of the year but outside of a sixth form school disco you would be unlikely to see one in the wild. It is one of those concepts invented to fill space by the shadowy cabal of social media experts and TV producers who control British public life, like vajazzling or Nigel Farage.

If you are a senior politician, however, you have a strange relationship with the public conversation. You are both divorced from ordinary society by virtue of your unrelenting schedule and required to understand it intimately by your campaign managers. As such, you live in a world of trend briefings, hashtags and buzzwords. You are likely to know who triumphed in I’m a Celebrity or X-Factor, but not have any idea of the price of a train ticket or a loaf of supermarket bread (because you own a bread maker, yah). When attempting to convey normality you might find yourself struggling to tell journalists about the last time you ate a pasty.

Politicians’ music taste—that classic media battleground—is another prime example. When forced to air their record collections in public, our leaders tend to fall at either end of a spectrum. Some come across as up to date but poorly-versed (read: hastily briefed), like Gordon Brown who claimed in 2006 to like indie noisemakers du jour The Arctic Monkeys but then could not name a single track from their debut album. Others come across as bland and removed, like Ed Miliband whose recent desert island discs choices were widely seen to betray a lack of any music taste whatsoever. Both extremes reveal a distance from the kind of ordinary daily routine which involves listening to a record because you like the sound of it.

At some stage in the past year it’s possible that Obama, Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt will have been handed a primer on the selfie prepared by sharp-jacketed young advisors. Naturally enough, they will have started to adopt the practice. Why not? Apparently everyone else is. It’s humanising when you get it right, too—just like the barrage of sub-Hallmark christmas card efforts foisted on us in recent weeks.

Only as their respective press teams appraised them of the post-memorial coverage will it have occurred to them that it might not be entirely normal to beam into a smartphone camera at what should have been the most poignant public gathering in the history of the universe. Obama, to whom social media is crucial both as a campaigning tool and as a window for the US electorate into his family life, is likely to have been most embarrassed. All three should probably conclude that, while Twitter and Facebook help their image, they should stay off Instagram. Who knows what they planned to do with the photo before the backlash. I suppose we should just be thankful they weren’t posting snapshot videos on Vine and snapchatting each other throughout the ceremony.

Selfiegate, as it has already been dubbed, will pass. However, anyone who finds themselves unsettled by this social media storm should pause to ask whether our political culture is entirely healthy. The three leaders were most likely making a misguided attempt to lighten the mood of an otherwise solemn event. However, like George Osborne’s photo of his takeaway dinner before the comprehensive spending review, this stunt grossly misjudged the tone. In an age where there is more positive coverage to be had in posing with the hippest new girl band than in actually displaying simple common sense, can we really be surprised when our leaders take their cues on acceptable behaviour from the front page of BuzzFeed?

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