“Belgium government crisis unfolds by SMS”

VRT1 reports about Belian gov crisis

Here is a great case of mobile phones playing a role in mass media reports, and their ‘playful’ characteristics in story-telling:

Last Friday, December 19 2008, prime minister of Belgium Yves Leterme and his entire cabinet stepped down as an indirect result of the financial crisis. The mobile phone played a pivotal role in both the prelude, as well as in the media reports about this event. How did it all start? When Belgium bank Fortis was split up, many small-scale shareholders were left with virtually worthless shares. They went to court and successfully prevented the transfer to BP Paribas. However, in a 6-page report which became public on Friday afternoon, Belgium’s supreme court wrote that members of the government had tried to influence the outcome of the case. It appeared that Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme was in direct contact with the spouse of one of the judges who leaked information about the proceedings of the case through the mobile phone. With this information Leterme was able to brief the government lawyers on a defence strategy.

Now, this is already an interesting case of how the mobile phone is used to connect supposed separate worlds. But it gets better. The mobile phone also plays a crucial role in the way these events are being reported in mass media [1]. As soon as the report comes out, the government is summoned to the parliament. It does not take long before the minister of justice resigns. It remains uncertain what Leterme is going to do. In front of the camera of Belgium national television station VRT1, one of the members of opposition wonders why he hasn’t received an SMS yet announcing the resignation of Leterme himself. At 17:10 reporter Peter Vandermeersch from Belgium newspaper De Standaard breaks in on the live news report (see pictures). He has received an SMS from an “exceptionally dependable source” claiming that Leterme had proposed the resignation of the whole government. Another reporter is interviewing indignified members of the opposition. Just a few minutes later Vandermeersch is cut back into the broadcast. Glancing at the cellphone in his hand, he withdraws his earlier statement and instead says he hears “from sources near the prime minister” that the government still hasn’t fallen but only proposed to resign. The Dutch commentator’s voice says that different parties appear to send text messages with their own version of what is going on to VRT reporters. Again reporter Vandermeersch appears on screen, concluding with an ironic smile that the different parties are “spinning” this issue. He has received by SMS yet another version of the story, stating that the prime minister does not want to resign at all. Vandermeersch concludes “we are almost physically co-experiencing what is happening a few buildings further”, immediately followed by a remark of the other reporter “if it weren’t so dramatical, we might call it a soap”. Finally we see Vandermeersch for the fourth time. It is then 17:56. He is glaring at his cellphone, saying once more that from an “exceptionally dependable source” he has received the following text, and starts to read from his phone screen a message that seems to be written in very official language, stating the entire government has offered its resignation to the Belgium king. After the report is over, the presenter of Dutch actuality program Nova remarks on the item that “the Belgium government crisis unfolds by SMS”. A bit later she calls the affair of the minister of justice, who first stepped down, a “Shakespearian drama”. This term is later repeatedly used by the director of Belgium newspaper De Morgen in his reaction to the affair in Nova.

VRT report gov crisis

Why is this interesting? First, mobile phones are used to uncover and report backstage affairs from court and parliament directly to the outside world. Not only has a judge leaked inside information to the outside world, also members of the parliament leaked via SMS to the press what was being discussed inside. Second, because of this mode of reporting directly from the cellphone screen, the events are narrated as an ongoing sequence of events without much overall coherence. As a result, the whole affair is understood as being “like a soap” and a “Shakespearian drama”. Indeed this is a very apt description. The instant updates, the sequential way of ongoing story-telling (“and then.. and then..”), and the sudden and dramatic plot turns are all very soap-like. Moreover, the journalist at some point becomes acutely aware of the fact that he was being played (“spinned”) by the different political parties which all texted their own version of the events. Politics as theatre, mobile phones as tool for play and being played, great stuff for the ‘playful identities’ thesis.

[1] The following description is largely based on a television special on the issue by Dutch actuality program Nova on Friday December 19 2008, which in turn is largely compiled from live reports by Belgium national television VRT1.

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