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Conference Report: “Politics in Public: The mediatization of political personae 1880s-1930s” (October 2018)

Lieven Sommen, Doctoral Student in Japanese Studies

From the 11th of October until the 13th of October 2018, an international conference was held at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) on the mediatization of politics in the late 19th and early 20th century. The organizers were Martin Kohlrausch (KU Leuven) and Betto van Waarden (KU Leuven). The participants presented research on the ways various types of media influenced the political process in a wide range of political contexts in history, and how both the politicians and their audiences had different degrees of agency in this. These matters were widely discussed, with concepts like “political heroes” and “celebrity in politics” taking center stage. There are plans to publish a number of research papers based on the results of this conference, in the field of media history.

On the first day, Heidi Tworek (The University of British Columbia) gave a keynote lecture. Her talk helped to lay a foundation for the other presentations that were to come, as she focused not just on the content of the media, but also the institutions, infrastructures, and (political or economic) incentives which facilitated the spread of certain pieces of information.

In order to compete with the British news agency ‘Reuters’, in 1903 the German government gave large contracts and subsidies to a German company called ‘Telefunken’, which started to place wirelessly connected communications towers all over the globe. Then, using the German news agency ‘Transocean’, they began feeding German news to American newspapers. While it is often thought that the German propaganda efforts during World War I were unsuccessful, this research shows that the amount of Germany-sourced news percolating through to America was not insignificant.

The main message of Tworek’s keynote was that researchers often tend to look at media content and then see this as representative of the public opinion of this time. Aside from public opinion being a very nebulous concept, she warned that scholarship should also take into account the circumstances and infrastructures in which newspapers did their publishing.

On the second day of the conference, Martin Kohlrausch gave an introductory speech which pointed to the importance of looking at the interplay between media and politics, especially in light of the growing importance of social media and the effects they have had on the contemporary global political landscape. He felt that the early 19th century may be considered an inflection point for the relation between politics and media, due to technological developments which allowed for a ‘mass media’ that was cheap to produce and available to a large audience.

The first panel of the conference, entitled ‘Media Become a “Mass” Phenomenon: How political figures responded and the (re)invented roles they played in the emerging mass press from the late nineteenth century onwards’, thus got underway, led by Marnix Beyen (University of Antwerp). The first speaker of the day was Betto van Waarden (KU Leuven). He has looked at the way politicians had agency in the way they were represented in the media, and how they could use this to their benefit in political proceedings. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he looks into four different political actors: Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes, Wilhelm II, and Bernhard Von Bülow. These four were particularly ‘media-savvy’, and from the journalists’ media logic-driven perspective, were also appealing in an economic sense, as they attracted an interested audience that was willing to buy papers to read about them. These characters were marketable, often with recognizable visual traits such as Chamberlain’s monocle. Furthermore, they regularly were represented as being bourgeois businessmen, entrepreneurs that were far closer to the people than the traditional elitist politicians who were sometimes perceived as living in ivory towers.

As with every presentation of this conference, Mr. van Waarden’s talk gave rise to many interesting questions and debates, with highlights including Eva Giloi’s (Rutgers University) assessment that “media can’t decide what their audience thinks, but they can decide what their audience thinks about”, and Berny Sèbe (University of Birmingham) being curious about the danger of ‘bad publicity’ for these political media figures, who allowed themselves to be scrutinized by the journalists.

Thereafter, Chandrika Kaul (University of St. Andrews) took the stage to talk about the mediatization of diplomacy within the context of the British empire. Drawing from her book Communications, media and the imperial experience: Britain and India in the twentieth century (2014), she first discussed the episode of the imperial Durbar of 1911, held in Delhi to welcome king George V of Britain of the emperor of India. British Prime Minister Disraeli understood the importance of winning the colonized people’s hearts and minds, and not only turned the ceremony into a media event, but also had the king give his Indian subjects several boons, which endeared the monarch to them. Professor Kaul pointed out that this was not just because of the ‘new journalism’ in this time period, but also because there was a growing understanding of the power of the media amongst politicians as well, who cleverly made use of this to further their own goals.

As a second case, she spoke of the highly mediatized Salt March by Gandhi, meant as a form of non-violent protest against the British colonizers. Gandhi was not only a prolific journalist himself, but he also managed to garner attention from media outlets all around the world. As Gandhi expressly tried to project an aura of humility, the contrast with a ruler like George V was stark. Still, this made the former all the more interesting to the global audience, and strengthened the reach of his message.

During the questions round, the figure of Rabindranath Tagore was raised by Jan Schmidt (KU Leuven). Professor Kaul responded to this by saying that Tagore likely had paved the way for figures like Gandhi to appear in colonial India. Speaking to the matter of political affiliation in news media, the professor felt that it was too simplistic to call one newspaper ‘leftist’ and another ‘right-wing’, stating that this is always greatly a matter of context and degree.

The second panel, with the title ‘Fusing Recipes for Media Success: How the New Journalism mixed politics, human interest, travel literature, and colonial adventures to create political celebrities’, was started. Vincent Kuitenbrouwer (University of Amsterdam) acted as chair.

The first speaker of the afternoon session was Berny Sèbe (University of Birmingham), who expounded upon the mediatization of colonial politics in France and Britain. Based on his book called Heroic imperialists in Africa: The promotion of British and French colonial heroes, 1870–1939 (2015, Manchester University Press), he presented a typology of four types of ‘imperial heroes’. These were ‘the indirect promotor of imperial expansion’ (e.g. David Livingstone), ‘the direct promotor of imperial expansion’ (e.g. Cecil Rhodes), ‘the hero used as a political argument’ (e.g. General Gordon), and finally ‘the proconsul turned hero’ (e.g. Hubert Lyautey). By making heroes out of certain colonial figures, the audiences in the colonising nations could ‘consume’ the colonised space.

The second speaker of this panel was Eirik Roesvik (University of Cambridge). Presenting a part of his PhD dissertation, he spoke about Wilhelm II’s trips to Norway, and how these visits were spun in the media. Due to technological advances, the German press machine could run fairly smoothly even during his travels to Norway. The news publications humanized Wilhelm II, showing his normal side. This served as an example of the agency monarchs and politicians could have in ‘self-mediatizing’.

Rounding out the second panel was Ulrika Holgersson (Lund University), who came to introduce her project on the way public funerals in Sweden were filmed and turned into media events. She reported her findings so far, of a project that is still in full swing. She showed the audience three films of different funerals, one of king Oscar II, one of Karl Staaff, and finally one of Hjalmar Brantings Jordafärd. These films showed an evolution of the filmmakers’ understanding of how to represent these events properly for the Swedish public.

In the following discussion, Henk te Velde (Leiden University) noted the interesting duality of public funerals. One the one hand, they lead to the personalisation of the deceased, and a sense of closeness on behalf of the audience. On the other hand, these grand ceremonies are an attempt to connect the audience to certain grand ideas.

The day finished with a second keynote talk, by Eva Giloi (Rutgers University). In an inspiring presentation, professor Giloi talked about a German law at the end of the 19th century that made it so certain public figures no longer held their own image rights. Because the Kaiser was one such figure, companies were free to depict him in marketing or make ‘Kaiser cigarettes’, for instance.

The audience would create an imaginary version of the public figures that passed them by in day-to-day life, and would engage with these images through various media. As an example, at the end of the 19th century the collecting of lithographs that depicted a public figure like the monarch or some other celebrity became very popular. However, due to the nature of these projections, there was the inherent danger that the audience could be disappointed by a celebrity because the latter would not match up to the former’s expectations.

Through such media as these lithographs (which were sometimes even edited through a process of cutting and pasting various images together), celebrities were effectively turned into brands. By the year 1900, approaching well-known people for their autographs was becoming popular. In her conclusion, professor Giloi made the observation that the economic logics of these media was such that their subjects could not really stop their rise. Even a monarch was powerless to resist becoming a brand in this newly mediatized world.

On the third day of the conference, the final panel, ‘A New Age with New Technologies: The uses of photography, film, and vinyl in the construction of political personae in the early twentieth century’ was chaired by Nelleke Teughels (KU Leuven).

The first presentation by Jan Schmidt (KU Leuven) focused on the Japanese politician Ōkuma Shigenobu. As the owner of a Japanese newspaper in the 1880s, Ōkuma may be expected to have been media-savvy, as can be seen in the fact that he had one of his speeches recorded in 1915. This was likely the first prominent political speech recorded in Japan. Ōkuma had to rely on a number of mediatized publicity techniques in order to stake his claim on the Japanese political scene of the early 1900s, as he was not part of the clique that traditionally controlled it. For instance, he would often invite journalists into his home and have them print his various ruminations. The presentation served as an early glimpse into on-going research, in which professor Schmidt would like to find out to what degree Ōkuma’s ‘media manager’, Ichijima Kenkichi, was involved in the planning of this self-mediatization. Furthermore, one of his goals is also to find out how figures like Ōkuma gained their media-savviness in a transnational perspective.

Within the same panel, dr. Michael Auwers (University of Antwerp) displayed his dissertation’s research on the way Belgian diplomats were represented in the domestic press at the start of the 20th century. His conclusion was that diplomats could be elevated to the status of ‘hero’ in the media, much like regular politicians could. While diplomats were first perceived to be part of an overly elite, transnational world that was not in touch with that of regular people, towards the 1930s the Belgian public got fed up with its domestic politics and turned to diplomats as public figures worthy of reverence. The diplomats, in turn, tried to stay away from the media at certain times, but also went along with media logics for their own gains at others.

The conference was capped off with a concluding panel, in which Henk te Velde (Leiden University), Tine Van Osselaer (University of Antwerp), and Harm Kaal (Radboud University) each gave remarks. Mr. te Velde started off by saying that research on these matters should always combine three perspectives: that of celebrity, that of the media, and that of the politicians. Secondly, the matter of agency is a key concept. Politicians have some degree of control over their media representation but are only empowered through a dialectic with the audience. Every party is an actor in this process. On a more critical note, he added that one should be careful to jump to conclusions and name the historical period of the late 19th century a defining inflection point for politics and media. One should look for continuities as well.

Mrs. Van Osselaer wondered about the possibilities for a framework that shows how the ‘editing’ process of the media works: how was information modified to fit the needs of the audience? She also added that the ‘women were conspicuously missing’. What of the women who enabled their politician husbands? In the discussion that followed the remarks, the participants all agreed that this matter is deserving of more attention.

Mr. Kaal pointed out, among other things, that the celebritization of politicians in this period also had to viewed against a backdrop of a growing female readership, that was thought of at the time as craving more ‘human interest’ stories. He also pointed out the theoretical concepts of ‘the politics of presence’, as well as the need for ‘authenticity’ that accompanied it, which might be useful to take into account in future research.

Through this conference, a wide range of approaches to the issue of mediatized politics was shown off, and the participants gained new insights into both the methodological aspects of such research, and the universality of these processes, which show up in political contexts from Britain to Japan. The debates were an important step forward in a research field that still has many aspects which are little understood.

- Lieven Sommen