In his films, Stephan Lamby precisely documents how political decisions come to be made. We meet Lamby in his cutting room and speak to him about the German Government, journalism in turbulent times and the competition posed by social media.
You followed the election campaign closely. In your opinion, what did Olaf Scholz do better than the others?
Scholz’s nomination as candidate for chancellor and his subsequent election campaign went smoothly and were virtually faultless, whereas his competitors made a lot of mistakes. I think that you should focus on the big political challenges in an election campaign, but if a candidate on the big stage is found to have plagiarised parts of her book, then that is fatal in a campaign that’s all about trust. If, when more than 100 people have died in floods, a candidate is unable to keep his facial expressions under control and laughs inappropriately, then that’s also harmful to a campaign. By implication, though, this also means that if Armin Laschet and Annalena Baerbock had not made these serious mistakes, we might not have a Chancellor Olaf Scholz today. After all, the race was very close for months.
The coalition agreement says “dare to make more progress”. How long do you think a government has to be judged on its delivery of this promise?
The momentum at the start is extremely important, a combination of stability and change is needed. It’s all about taking the public with them when it comes to the radical measures that lie ahead. Then I think there is an opportunity to embed major changes in society. If we continue living the way we have done for over 100 years, we will leave behind a less liveable world for our children and grandchildren. There is growing pressure for change. It is a paradox, but it makes sense: We need stability just as much as we need change.
All of us, our children and grandchildren included, are currently experiencing the war in Ukraine. From your observations, how does politicians’ behaviour change when stability is threatened by an external event like this?
Government officials are walking a tightrope. One the one hand, they are trying to calm the public. They are assuring us that Germany will not actively intervene in the war and that our energy supply is secure. They want to give the impression that there is no cause for concern. On the other hand, government officials can’t predict how the military and economic conflict will develop. That’s why they are preparing the public for hardship, like the rising fuel and gas prices, like turning down the heating. In order to maintain the sanctions against Russia, the government has to make sure that its own population accepts the consequences in their own country. That will only happen if the government regularly and carefully explains its decisions.
What do you make of Olaf Scholz’s communication style so far?
I was with him when he went to Washington and his political communication style was very different to what we normally see: A Federal Chancellor who is flying to Washington in a government plane for his first official visit comes over to speak to us journalists in a loose-fitting sweater and faded jeans. I would occasionally accompany Angel Merkel – she never did that and we journalists were never able to take photos of it. He wanted to send a signal. He wanted to fight the image of the “Scholzomat”.
If we, as journalists, are the fourth estate, then it is up to us to hold the other three estates accountable.
What do you think about Wolfgang Büchner and Christiane Hoffmann, two experienced journalists, now speaking for the government?
I think there are opportunities and risks. The opportunities stem from the fact that we can work well together, and they understand our craft. However, I also see the allegations being made in pubs across the country, accusing the political media class of being in cahoots with the government. If we, as journalists, are the fourth estate, then it is up to us to hold the other three estates accountable. So there has to be a red line. I understand why some colleagues cross this red line. But a word of caution: This shouldn’t be happening too often, and journalists especially shouldn’t then return to the media. Ulrich Wilhelm made this mistake. He worked for Bayerischer Rundfunk early on in his career, then went on to become the government spokesman for Minister-President Stoiber, followed by the government spokesman for Chancellor Merkel, before returning to the media as the director of Bayerischer Rundfunk after a very short break. Absurd.
What are your expectations of Friedrich Merz?
Friedrich Merz is a politician from yesteryear who, in my opinion, has spent too long outside of active politics. Friedrich Merz knows that he has this reputation, and so he has done a couple of things rather well. He has said that he will challenge the government on domestic policy issues, not foreign policy. Internationally, he advocates Western solidarity. Merz deserves a chance. The relationship between the CDU and CSU will become even more interesting. I watched the struggle between Laschet and Söder at close range and know how they operate.
In a SZ article, you were once called the “back-room chronicler”. Why did you not like this title?
Political communication and decision- making processes must be transparent. Back rooms imply secrecy. And if I’m the chronicler, then I’m suspected of being part of this back-room politics. Although my work does require me to get close to politicians so that I can obtain information, it is equally important to maintain and re-establish distance from them. Proximity alone doesn’t make good journalism.
What is it about your work that interests you?
I was born in Bonn. My father was a junior lawyer in the Federal Chancellery when he was younger. When we were little, my older brother and I were invited to the Chancellery towards the end of the 1960s to perform the nativity. I was Mary and my brother was Joseph. So I grew up close to power. That’s why I started to engage with the political class in a different way. For me, the political convictions and life stories of politicians are inextricably linked. It is a privilege to be able to observe the conditions under which politics emerge from close up. But, for me, it’s never about revealing private lives or home stories.
Has there been a change in how open politicians are towards journalists?
In my case, they have become more open. With one exception: I have interviewed Angela Merkel seven times and noticed that she has become more mistrustful – not towards me individually, but towards all journalists. The interviews became shorter and less informative each time. Most politicians I engage with are more than happy to talk to me. These are confident individuals who – I get the impression – want to be challenged by me on an intellectual level.
If a politician communicates mainly via social media, then they are not respecting our primary task, which is to provide opposition and be critical.
What’s your view of the competition posed by social media?
We journalists must inform, expose and examine. If a politician communicates mainly via social media, then they are not respecting our primary task, which is to provide opposition and be critical. I can understand why politicians do that. But both can coexist. I see danger in authoritarian forms of government. With this type of government, there is a very strong temptation to communicate via submissive media without critical journalists. The benefit of social media is, I think, that it enables citizens to actively participate in social discourse as well. Rezo is a good example of this. He made a very well-researched video which racked up 10 million views in a week, and as a result he influenced the outcome of the European elections in May 2019.
If they only engage on Instagram and TikTok, then I think that political communication will be all the poorer for it.
We have seen that people use platforms like TikTok and Instagram to learn about politics. The “Tagesschau” news programme now also has a TikTok channel, which it uses to try to communicate. What are your thoughts on that?
The marketplaces used to exchange information are changing dramatically. In the past, we had this campfire-style event TV. Nowadays, this happens occasionally with the Football World Cup or when Thomas Gottschalk makes a comeback. I see with respect that the “Tagesschau” reaches an average of 10 million viewers. But I also see that a lot of younger people no longer watch conventional TV at all. It’s hard to explain social, climate and fiscal policy on TikTok. Instagram and TikTok work well with visual stimuli, but there’s a risk that this will dumb down political discourse. I said earlier that politicians want to be challenged. The reverse is also true: They shouldn’t shy away from challenging the public. If they only engage on Instagram and TikTok, then I think that political communication will be all the poorer for it.
At the end of your book, you write that this new government has earned the right for the public to give it a chance. How do you see your role as a journalist observing the new government?
I believe that my responsibility as a journalist is to observe, to inform about developments, to expose mistakes and to describe them critically. My job is not to make suggestions on how to bridge divides, but rather to examine what caused these divides in the first place. I’m a critical observer, not a bridge-builder. We should give this democratically elected government a chance, but if it does not achieve its goals and if it pursues strategies that are unsuitable for the task at hand, then that’s where I come in as a journalist. The government deserves a chance, but it must be held to account if it does not seize it.
The interview was conducted by Antonia Meyer and Cornelius Winter.
Stephan Lamby is a film-maker and author. In his documentaries, he gets closer to policy makers than virtually any other journalist. His subjects have included Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. He has won many awards for his films. Lamby is currently working on a documentary on the traffic light coalition.