I once referred to Helmut Schmidt’s contention that every national politician should be able to speak at least two foreign languages. That would rule out almost every British politician (which was Ken Livingstone’s immediate response when I told him this in a television studio last month). The point Schmidt was making is that you can only really understand your own culture (what we might call ‘home’) if you can see it through the eyes of another culture – and to do this you need to know something of the language of the other culture.
So, I find myself back in Germany and reflecting on ‘home’ through the lens of a place that is different. Langenargen is on Lake Constance and appears to be deserted. It looks beautiful in the snow and sunshine. But I am here to read and think and study and walk and get some space to think new thoughts (or, maybe, think old thoughts newly). Which brings me neatly to the media.
I have contested before now that the media in Germany handle matters very differently from in Britain and that there appears to be a more open approach from those the media wish to cover. (I know that is a generalisation, but I haven’t got all day…). The head of the EKD, Dr Margot Kaessmann is a case in point and she is so simply because she has been all over the media since I got here a couple of days ago.
Kaessmann preached a New Year’s sermon in the Marktkirche in Hannover in which she called for (a) clarity of purpose and vision with regard to the presence of German troops in Afghanistan or (b) a withdrawal of German troops from a potentially endless and ill-conceived conflict in Afghanistan. This produced a furore in the political media in Germany and led to a face-to-face meeting between the Bishop and the German Defence Minister yesterday (Monday 11 January).
Kaessmann was shocked that her words had been misrepresented and rejected the extrapolation from her actual words to a call for the ‘immediate’ withdrawalof German troops from Afghanistan. A cursory skim through the media shows that this was taken seriously and that the Bishop had opened up a debate that was overdue. Despite calls from the usual suspects for the Church to keep out of politics (yawn… Silly ‘can’t sort out Afghanistan with candles and prayers’ stuff from the SPD), many politicians defended (a) the role of the Church in asking questions others have failed to ask, (b) introducing moral thinking into public policy and (c) the ability of the Bishop to create a public debate/discussion about something that was bubbling under an embarrassed surface.
I caught up with this in two ways. First, a friend sent me a link to an article by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) – at the height of the furore – and this dealt seriously with (a) the role of the Church in asking the hard questions and (b) whether Kaessmann was simply articulating what lots of Germans think but haven’t either the courage or the opportunity to raise. But then the journalists tackled the questions raised with a seriousness that made its comment worth reading: they assumed that the Bishop was a woman of intelligence and integrity and that the readers should take seriously the questions she had raised.
Then, last night, I happened upon a television interview on ARD with Kaessmann. The first interviewee on the programme had been Horst Seehofer, leader of Bavaria’s CSU (currently coalition partners with the CDU and FDP in the Bundestag. He was subjected to intelligent, open and creative questioning about the struggles within the coalition at the moment – particularly over the taxation demands of the FDP and the style and leadership (or lack thereof) of the Bundeskanzlerin, Angela Merkel.
Seehofer remained at the table when Kaessmann was being interviewed. He vigorously (you have to use your imagination here because Seehofer isn’t a very animated man) defended the Bishop’s right and duty to address matters of public concern – and he did so with clarity and humour. Kaessmann, for her part, took questions of substance (should the Germans withdraw troops from Afghanistan?), but also addressed personal questions about her new role as Ratsvorsitzende of the EKD, comments she had made earlier about the personal pressures upon her, the personal cost of taking such responsibility (not as privilege, but as costly duty), her divorce and so on.
What was impressive was the feeling that we were going deeper – and with less defensiveness than would ever be possible in the UK – and learning about a woman learning her job, recognising mistakes, finding her ‘voice’ and being confident about (a) the right and role of the Church in public life and (b) the relevance and importance of Christian insight and experience (often backed up with direct quotation from the Bible) in helping shape public debate at a serious level.
Now, my question while watching this (and reading the follow-up reports in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (newspaper) this morning – with a strongly supportive editorial comment) was: why could this not happen in Britain? What I mean by this is simply that the adversarial approach – either real or assumed – of journalists to their subjects produces a sense of caution that means the audience doesn’t get very deep into understanding the real person or how she has come to her view. What we get is a game in which the subject suspects that the interviewer is simply trying to expose contradiction or inconsistency (which is sometimes important) and, therefore, tries to avoid this by avoiding getting anywhere near any ‘thin ice’ – and the interviewer assumes that the subject is either thick or a liar and needs to be exposed.
This latter approach means that the public loses the opportunity to understand what makes ‘leaders’ tick (we don’t get close enough) and the debate/discourse is impoverished by being limited to what I have called ‘the game’.
No doubt this will irritate journalists again. But the difference of approach is important and brings with it consequences. I am not naive and not everything in the German media garden is rosy. But I think (a) people like me would be more open and engaged and less defensive in this German culture and (b) the audience in Britain would be better served by the German approach.
And then I saw that Sarah Palin has been signed up by Fox News and I thought the end of the world must be coming…