The very short time I spent in party politics (four thrilling months during the last general election campaign) has had at least one side-effect: a new-found respect for anyone in this business who can save his or her marriage. It must be even harder in the UK because the pressure from your first-past-the-post voting system and tougher press is infinitely higher.
German media are reluctant to clash with politicians’ privacy. But there are exceptions: Years ago, when the whole political Berlin knew that the aspiring head of Bavaria’s conservatives (Christian family values and all that) had an extramarital affair and a love child (his girlfriend’s baby bump was a bit of a giveaway), it was eventually reported.
But in general, there’s a public sentiment that it’s nobody’s business and our politicians don’t tend to put their personal lives on show. So there are few German versions of James ‘four ovens’ Brokenshire and the like, and many of my curtain-loving fellow Krauts feel disconcerted why any serious person would allow intrusive reporters into their living rooms in the first place – reversing the intended “just like one of us” effect.
Last year’s well-publicised marriage between Germany’s finance minister Christian Lindner and parliamentary correspondent Franca Lehfeldt didn’t help his popularity – despite high-resolution pics of the groom’s evident pride in his stunning bride.
Ever since the happy event – and even before it, actually – the German media bubble has been gossiping about whether a political journalist and a cabinet member can really be allowed to happen. Full disclosure: I have worked with Franca at RTL, she has since moved on to private news channel WELT and frankly I don’t see why a good political reporter should be shoved off to the fashion and style section because of her hubby’s job. An obvious editorial dilemma, which they are trying to solve by having her report on the opposition rather than on government affairs.
And regarding transparency: their involvement isn’t and wasn’t exactly clandestine. Which cannot be said about all governmental affairs.
The Green minister for economic affairs Robert Habeck, for instance, is running his department as a family business: Two of his state secretaries are brothers-in-law. One married the other one’s sister – who in turn, as a former anti-nuclear lobbyist, has joined the National Hydrogen Council, which reports to the Staatssekretärsausschuss (yes, the German language is fun – the council of state secretaries probably less so).
As Der Spiegel deduced, she can now support husband and brother both in and out of working hours: Her so-called Öko-Institut has been signed up to give its expert opinions for £2.1 million. One of its papers was co-authored by yet another brother…
“Politics, war, marriage, crime, adultery – everything that exists in the world has something to do with money,” Graham Greene once wrote. The Greens seem to take Greene literally because the family and friends cabal doesn’t end there.
A sea rescue coalition founded and run by the partner of a Green vice-president recently received a budget of £7million until 2026. There are very diverse views on private sea rescuers in Germany: some regard them as heroes, others warn that people smugglers factor them into their business model, thus leading to even more refugees risking their lives in the Mediterranean.
But no matter where you stand: On the very first occasion private sea rescue operations have received state funding in Germany, is it really clever to create a compliance case?
Interestingly, in the media, the Greens seem to get away with their private-public-partnerships easier than Lindner and Lehfeldt.
Which of course doesn’t help the ménage à trois in government – the coalition of Greens, free market Liberals and Social Democrats. No love lost between this threesome, unlike the twosome of chancellor Olaf Scholz and his wife Britta Ernst.
He once said: “Without Britta Ernst I’d be a different being”. One might speculate whether this different being could actually be an improved version (maybe one who doesn’t call his wife by her surname), but never mind.
They may have a little more quality time together now: Britta Ernst just resigned from her post as Brandenburg’s state minister for education last week. She had wanted to reassign 200 teachers’ positions to admin jobs and social workers, but her own Social Democratic Party opposed her plans, so she stepped down. Just don’t expect a kitchen photo-op from her and Olaf any time soon.