The open mic gaffe is a phenomenon far less interesting than the reaction to it. At last week’s G20 summit in Cannes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, apparently unaware that nearby microphones were live, vented to US President Barack Obama vis-à-vis his frustrations with Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. “I cannot bear him,” Sarkozy said, “he’s a liar.” A sympathetic Obama replied “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
The ensuing furore – such mishaps are always ensued by a furore – has been as predictable as it has been bogus, a quacking hubbub of press and polity stoking and/or feigning outrage for their own ends. It isn’t – or shouldn’t be – surprising that heads of government occasionally find each other objectionable. It is ridiculous to insist, as the participants in these brouhahas implicitly do, that those who govern us should be perpetually above the expression of irritation. Consider how much more peculiar it would seem if microphones picked up Sarkozy and Obama conversing privately in the meaningless rhetorical pabulum that dominates the official communiques of diplomatic bunfights.
The novelty really should be wearing off. A modern politician is on camera and on microphone to a degree only dreamt of by their predecessors in their worst cheese-fuelled nightmares. The chances of any politician –especially a committed and passionate one – negotiating a long career without perpetrating a single such indiscretion are now vanishingly remote. Yet the dominant storyline of the most recent general election in the United Kingdom was the ritual excoriation of then prime minister Gordon Brown, after a microphone caught him making disobliging reference to a member of the public. Again, it was hard to imagine who was genuinely scandalised by this. Even the subject of the invective can’t have believed that Brown was the first tired, hassled politician who, thinking himself beyond earshot, had muttered darkly about a vexatious constituent.
There will, unfortunately, be actual political consequences of what someone who needs to get out more is almost certainly referring to as G20-gate. Obama will be battered with it by opponents seeking to depict him as treacherously equivocal about Israel. Sarkozy may find that it fits rather too well a popular image of insincerity and duplicity. And it is scarcely likely to mollify the siege mentality which has been the regrettable motif of Netanyahu’s premiership.
But if it sticks, it will endure for the same reason as other legendary off mic excursions – Ronald Reagan’s jovial threat to bomb the Soviet Union, Prince Charles’s pouting at royal correspondents, Jacques Chirac’s sneering at British cuisine, Jesse Jackson’s pathetic spite at the rise of Obama himself. These unguarded moments only confirm what we were pretty sure we already knew.