This article first appeared in Malta Today
There used to be a programme on British television called ‘What not to wear’ hosted by Trinny and Susannah. It quickly became the woman’s bible on fashion tips on how to dress to best suit your shape, as the straight-talking duo guided clueless wardrobe-challenged contestants through the pitfalls many women make when clothes shopping, helping them to steer clear of fashion disasters and to avoid the most common mistakes.
Taking a cue from this programme, I really think we need to publish a guide for any aspiring politician who is keen on getting involved at local council level in the hope that one day this will lead to a seat in Parliament. After all, with so many mayors now elected as Members of Parliament, this platform is obviously a good grooming ground if one wants to become an ‘onorevoli’. The other road to Parliament is, apparently, the political TV and radio stations by means of which several of our present MPs (not to mention Joseph Muscat himself) first became known to the general public.
Step One: Step away from your Facebook account
The only politician I can think of who knows how to use FB is Education Minister Evarist Bartolo – his daily philosophies have a sort of cult following as he describes his morning walks and reflections on life, with the occasional reference to educational policies. He is also said to reply to all FB messages immediately as well, so ten points for that.
Everyone else, however, just ends up embarrassing themselves, by sharing too much information about their personal life and the kind of photos which no politician should really be putting out there because they are just begging for a satirical caption or a merciless meme. Much like the now famous Franklin Barbara and his relentless FB campaigning for the post of MUT President, you don’t know whether they are being deliberately ironic and tongue-in-cheek, or simply do not realise what they are doing wrong.
So unless they have a team of people who know how to use social media to communicate their political message on their behalf (but not too often because it becomes annoying), I would urge new politicians to give FB a miss.
Step Two: Practice what you preach
I present to you Exhibit A: Jason Azzopardi.
Let me make it clear that I have absolutely no interest in knowing what goes on in his personal life or about his marital problems (or anyone else’s). But when you have made a firm public stand on such moral issues as the introduction of divorce, you cannot expect people not to bring it up. Let us not forget that back in 2011, Dr Azzopardi spoke in a debate organized by the Anti-Divorce campaign where he was among those who believed that divorce “would erode the concept of a marriage for life ..Dr Azzopardi said this debate was an opportunity for the country to reflect on the state of the family as a unit and within society.” Ouch.
Of course, no one can expect to know the future, but that is why politicians need to be very careful before getting up on their ‘pulpit’ and wagging their fingers at us about how we should conduct our personal lives. You never know when your own words can come round to bite you in the posterior. This can be extended to the Nationalist party as a whole, which has the rather misguided habit of portraying itself as being holier-than-thou and above reproach, gathering its skirts up in a huff and tsk-tsking anytime a Labour politician has transgressed. I think it is about time we debunked this myth don’t you? You find all types on both sides of the political divide, no one has a monopoly on “Christian values” and in my experience, in life it is always best not to purse your lips and act all scandalized because you never know what may befall you or your family. So please give us a break from all the self-righteousness, and let’s stop it with this hypocrisy.
Step Three: If you slip up, acknowledge it
So many political wrongs could be righted (or perhaps made more palpable) if politicians simply learned that the best way to do damage control is (a) acknowledge the mistake (b) admit you were wrong and (c) apologise.
If we go back to Exhibit A above, I think what annoyed people the most was Jason Azzopardi’s mishandling of the whole episode when his wife went public on FB about his (alleged) affair and he basically called her a liar.
The same can be said about Chris Cardona and the famous (alleged) Acapulco episode…as it turned out most people didn’t really care if he went for an (ahem) sauna, but I think he could have probably put a stop to all the speculation if he simply said yes I went, I realise it was an error of judgement on my part given my role and I am sorry.
It’s simple, really, and does not denote weakness as some many assume it does, but on the contrary, would actually show strength of character. Try it, it works.
Step Four: Above all, comport yourself well
Of course Step four could be completely avoided if you start off with the premise that as an elected representative of the people who voted for you, you are no longer a private citizen who can do whatever you like and no one can interfere. Once a politician, your life is no longer your own. You have to comport yourself appropriately, be careful what you say in public (and sometimes even in private because you never know who is recording you) and never forget that everything you write online is there for everyone to read.
Which brings me to Glenn Bedingfield’s blog. I never agreed with it in the first place because as a communications consultant within the Office of the Prime Minister, paid from our taxes, he had the role of a public official so he was already not an ordinary citizen. His blog content has to be seen in that light. It is just not done and no matter how many believe it was within his rights to set it up, I will still maintain that the whole idea was wrong. What a communications consultant does is to advise about PR, create a marketing strategy, network with the media, and cultivate the right contacts. If I want to be blunt about it, yes, he is there to spin the party (or government’s message) but he does not do so himself, but gets others to do it. So I really cannot agree with those who clamour about freedom of speech because that has nothing to do with it at all. Now if Glenn had not accepted the consultancy role and set up the blog, that would have been completely different, but he compromised his blog precisely because he was working at Castille as part of the Muscat administration.
Now that he is an MP, it is even more “not done”. Sure, he can go ahead and keep doing it, but was this really why he was elected to Parliament, and is this what he is going to be doing instead of preparing himself for serious debates or speaking up on behalf of his constituents?
Glenn’s blog is just one example of several things which are simply “not done” once one is a public official, or a politician, where I often find myself unable to relate to people who see “nothing wrong with it”. I cannot understand how this chasm between those who instinctively understand it and does who just don’t get it, first began, but it exists, which is probably why we get so many politicians who enter public life and cannot quite grasp the implications, obligations and limitations of their new role.
But, it is definitely about time they did.