|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||30/11/95, Volume 1, Number 11|
WHEN I sifted through piles of unwrapped newspapers on my return from a two-week journey abroad last week, it took me some time and some strong coffee to detect the changes in the landscape.
There were of course those lingering Belgian issues and déjà vu headlines on teachers' strikes, plant closures and linguistic strife which gave me the impression that I was reading last month's newspapers all over again.
And then suddenly, I felt that there was something new. For the first time, at least for as long as I could remember, two Belgian ministers were making headlines by breaking long-established taboos on politicians' personal lives.
Health Minister Marcel Colla revealed that he had helped his suffering mother die in dignity and Minister of the Interior Johan Vande Lanotte had bluntly stated that “drug use had been a dark period in his life”.
This succession of personal confessions definitely breaks a pattern of public behaviour in Belgium. When he made his declarations, Vande Lanotte was throwing a hand-grenade in Belgium's carefully-tended garden of respectability. Asked whether he had smoked cannabis, the SP (Flemish Socialist) minister answered “yes” and added “and still more than that”.
In a follow-up interview with De Morgen, Vande Lanotte, who is opposed to the legalisation of 'soft drugs', added: “I have known among my friends very worthwhile persons who have succumbed to drugs. Personally, I survived that period thanks to good family support.”
Even if Colla made his revelation to restart the public debate on euthanasia and Vande Lanotte publicised his drug problems in order to tell kids to stay away from drugs, these confessions have come as a shock. “They are unfortunate,” wrote La Libre Belgique. The media is changing, public figures are changing as well. Contrary to other countries, Belgium had escaped the exploitation of politicians' private lives and personal problems until now. This evolution is not a happy one. The two ministers' “public confessions have a demagogic aspect that can lead to media excesses”.
The new candour indeed runs against deep Belgian traditions of public and personal discretion on all private matters. Although political affiliation and, even more importantly, religious doctrine (Christian or atheist) have long been a key to understanding the country's intricate wheeling and dealing, most Belgian citizens are usually wary of openly stating their political or religious beliefs. At most family banquets, politics and religion are carefully avoided when values around the table are divergent.
Politicians of all colours have also maintained a clear line between their public office and their private life, strictly avoiding being dragged into American-style television talk-shows or candid interviews where sexual behaviour or intimate details are the major point of interest.
This attitude stems from a sense of decency, but also from a fear of fanning controversy. Belgians generally have a deep reluctance towards becoming embroiled in conflict.
In a country which knows its fault lines, consensus-building has always required a sense of moderation and restraint. Some explosive or delicate issues, like the monarchy, religion and politicians' private lives, are definitely considered off limits. The press has dutifully reflected this Belgian mood.
On Brussels' news-stands, you will not find any daily newspaper similar to the most blaring British tabloids or the German Boulevard Presse.
The two most popular dailies, Het Laatste Nieuws and La Dernière Heure, both close to the liberal parties, are tame and dull in comparison to The Sun or Bild Zeitung. The only attempt at starting a 'scandal sheet', the weekly Publi-Choc (owned by the Rossel group), has not been successful.
If rumour-mongering and gossip journalism is the main course at Pan and Père Ubu, the two satirical French-speaking weeklies, their writers have carefully avoided digging into politicians' double lives or revealing the names of their paramours. Some Belgian politicians obviously have compagnes and petits amis, but these spicy stories - which would be front-page news in the New York Post or the London Daily Star - are buried on the journalists' walk between the Bar de la Presse and the newsroom.
It is difficult at this stage to say how the public will react to these public confessions and whether these two examples will start a cascade of confessions. Most politicians and older people I talked to were visibly upset at this nascent trend.
But younger people seemed to understand it. Raised on American television and its incessant search for juicy stories, weary of politicians' secrecy and impressed by the string of corruption scandals, they might welcome the new candid mood.
If this is the case, Belgian journalists and politicians will have to review their working practices and their concept of ethical behaviour.
|Subject Categories||Culture, Education and Research, Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium|