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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 16:15 GMT
'Media Chancellor' loses magic touch
Gerhard Schroeder
Showing the strain: Schroeder is battling media

Gerhard Schroeder is at his best when performing in front of a live audience.

He really comes alive.

The other day, I attended a particularly tedious press conference at the Chancellory in Berlin - and thought: this man really has it.

That je ne sais quoi that can lift a politician head and shoulders above his or her competent - but dull - peers.

To many in Germany, Mr Schroeder is known as the "Media Chancellor".

Never one to miss a photo-opportunity, he is one of the new breed of national leaders - see Britain's Tony Blair, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and former US President Bill Clinton - who successfully brand themselves.

The Schroeder image is that of a straight-talking, beer-drinking (within reason of course), football-fanatic, family-loving man of the people.

Court battles

But his love affair with the media has gone sour, to be replaced by a series of "Schroeder versus the media" court cases.

It began in spring last year when the chancellor sued a German news agency for suggesting that his brown hair was dyed.

Then came a battle over regional newspaper claims about his private life.

Doris and Gerhard Schroeder
Doris Schroeder helped on the campaign trail
Now Mr Schroeder again has gone to court to defend his private life, and has attacked what he called "new tendencies in the press" to intrude into his private life.

The UK's Mail on Sunday newspaper yesterday repeated claims about Mr Schroeder's marriage, despite a court order against this in Germany.

On Wednesday this week, Mr Schroeder's lawyers face a German regional daily, the Maerkische Oderzeitung, in court to try to prevent it from also running a story about problems in the chancellor's fourth marriage.

Critics accuse the chancellor of pettiness and of losing his sense of humour and perspective.

Family 'used'

And they say Mr Schroeder cannot complain when the media take an interest in his private affairs, because the chancellor used his family to help him on the campaign trail.

His journalist wife Doris appeared in a poster campaign to illustrate how Mr Schroeder's Social Democrat Party helps working mothers.

The Maerkische Oderzeitung's lawyer, Johannes Weberling, thinks the paper has a strong case for printing its story.

Gerhard Schroeder in 1998
Schroeder had a magic touch with the press in early days
Firstly, he says, because the chancellor has himself brought aspects of his private life to public attention for political ends.

And secondly, he tells me firmly, it is important to defend the freedom of speech in a democracy.

Public opinion here in Germany is mixed, though.

German privacy laws are much tougher than in many other countries.

Rightly so, say many members of the public -a politician's private life has nothing to so with his or her professional capabilities.

Politicians here have got rather used to the fact that the media steer clear of their private lives.

'Pop star' chancellor

It is usually pop and sport stars that are the target of the popular press.

But the caberet performer Der Blonde Emil, alias Thomas Nicolai, says the Media Chancellor is a kind of pop star.

He describes the chancellor as a well-dressed, witty, good-looking, well-educated but vain man.

That is his weak point, says Thomas. And that is where comedians know they can get at him.

So what happened to the charming chancellor, once famed for his relaxed attitude and sense of humour?

The press criticised him for his failed policies and he became serious, lost his sense of humour. This is a new and completely different Gerhard Schroeder.

Juergen Hogrefe
Schroeder biographer
His biographer, Juergen Hogrefe, also a journalist for the respected news magazine Der Spiegel, says he believes Mr Schroeder is undergoing a U-turn in his attitudes.

The reason? Disappointment, says Mr Hogrefe.

He tells me about the fabulous relationship Mr Schroeder once had with the media.

"They loved him," he says. "He was like a dancing bear. Always laughing, joking.

"He knew the media better than the journalists who came to talk to him. But then, before the last elections he saw it wasn't enough.

"The press criticised him for his failed policies and he became serious, lost his sense of humour. This is a new and completely different Gerhard Schroeder."

These are certainly not easy times for the Media Chancellor.

In the good old days, Mr Schroeder may have chuckled about the whole thing

Elmar Brandt
Schroeder impersonator
Unemployment in Germany is up and the economy is struggling. Mr Schroeder has been tumbling in the opinion polls.

The Steuer Song, a pop ditty penned and sung by a Schroeder impersonator, satirising the chancellor's tax policies, has sold more than a million copies.

"In the good old days," singer Elmar Brandt tells me, "Mr Schroeder may have chuckled about the whole thing."

Not now though.

There is a paradox in all this.

The clever handling of the press undoubtedly helped Chancellor Schroeder to power in the first place.

Yet now he is taking papers to court.

And the people who voted for the Media Chancellor are using the media to display their displeasure - asking radio stations to play the Steuer Song to make their point.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Torin Douglas
"In Germany it's being claimed that the Mail on Sunday could be fined more than 150,000"
See also:

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