The big stories this summer has not been about the more or less outlandish test-balloons, parties usually release during July and August when the Folketing is not in session and we are waiting for next year’s budget. In fact, one might argue that the summer has been characterised by the complete absence of policy discussions as all interest has been focused on the leaders of the Conservative and Social Democratic parties who for different reasons have made the headlines – the Conservative leader Lene Espersen for not attending meetings while the Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt (or rather her husband) has been facing suspicions of tax evasion.
In the case of Lene Espersen, problems began when it emerged that she had not participated in an Arctic5 meeting of foreign ministers shortly after she became FM due to a family vacation. And then the ball started rolling. According to Erik Rasmussen of Mandag Morgen, Danish newsmedia have had 2700 items on Espersen since March while the state of the Danish economy only was covered in 800 news items.
So we might ask two questions: 1. Are Espersen’s absences a substantial problem? and 2. Why did they become issues on the media agenda?
The answer to the first question must be: We don’t know. As far as I can tell nobody have seriously tried to consider if or to what degree Espersen is a less effective foreign minister than her predecessors. That Messrs Lykketoft and Helveg Petersen think so hardly counts as an authoritative argument: There is after all a party political element to take into consideration here. The jury, in my opinion, is still out here.
But why did the case explode in media? Well, one reason might be that it makes for a good story as policy is not involved. Media don’t have to explain the intricacies of the Arctic5 cooperation, border disputes, programmes for rebuilding Afghanistan and so on.
Another reason could be that Espersen made herself vulnerable because she exchanged the business and economic planning portfolio with the foreign office in order to … well, not in order to demonstrate that the government’s priorities or Conservative foreign policy had changed but purely in order to raise her own profile.
Now, there is nothing wrong with having a high profile as party leader – the risk with a low profile is that voters forget the party’s relevance – but the absence of some kind of policy profile can easily become a problem as soon as a minister runs into trouble with the media. If becoming foreign minister was seen as a vanity project or an attempted short-cut to popularity without any policy substance, the project was on shaky grounds right from the beginning and this made it all the more important that the minister’s public handling of the office was flawless.
Things were not made better by Espersen’s handling of the original criticism (relevant or not). Voters never received a good explanation of the role of Arctic5 but the presence of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (whose calender we must assume is very full) indicated that the meeting was of some importance, even if it was only symbolic. If Lene Espersen is as concerned about receiving good media coverage as we are told, the planning was very strange indeed. Even good photo opportunities take some work.
At one point the story took a life of its own, simply because Lene Espersen wasn’t willing or able to kill it in the media. Again: Nobody has been able to demonstrate that Danish foreign policy has suffered, but Espersen has looked clumsy and ineffective in the eyes of the news media. Any meeting she did not attend (either by choice or due to obnoxious authorities in Farawayistan) was painstakingly recorded. The lesson, which had not been learned, was that Espersen as foreign minister should have delivered some kind of clear message about the role of foreign policy in the coming years during the spring (if she did, I and the media completely missed it; the Liberal development minister Søren Pind has stolen some of the limelight here) and the she and the FO – once she had become fair game in the media – should have made every effort to avoid negative reporting, even if Danish foreign ministers have always skipped the July meeting of EU foreign ministers.
It is said that those who live by the sword, also die by the sword. The same risk applies to politicians who live by the media.