Ditching Transparency Germany's Pirates Batten Down Hatches

Germany's Pirate Party gained unexpected popularity by championing transparency, but then it was used to expose scandals and wage war within the party. Now it has opted for hard-nosed media handlers and internal muzzles.
Pirate Party chief Christopher Lauer (center): "We wanted to be transparent ... but reality caught up with us."

Pirate Party chief Christopher Lauer (center): "We wanted to be transparent ... but reality caught up with us."

Foto: Ole Spata/ dpa

The conversation has only just begun when Ms. Linke calls out, "Just a moment!" Linke, sitting on a sofa next to Christopher Lauer, head of the Pirate Party's  parliamentary group in Berlin's state parliament, waves her hand in the air. "Before we start talking about the issues, let's clarify a couple of questions."

Hearing politicians' media handlers call out "Just a moment" is nothing new to political reporting. But they're something new when it comes to the Pirate Party.

Linke wants to clarify what sort of article will come out of this conversation between journalist and Pirate. What will be its subject, its focus, when it will be published -- and what will the procedure be for quotations? She sounds strict, and if the atmosphere in the room turns a bit frosty, it's not just because of the unpleasant weather outside.

While Linke clarifies the ground rules for the conversation, Lauer looks away toward the floor, as if even he finds this new strictness a bit unpleasant. Visits to Christopher Lauer are now much like visits to Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), if a little more tense. For someone familiar with how natural and at ease Lauer was a year or two ago, it's hard to recognize this as the same man.

In the beginning, the Pirates wanted to do politics differently from "the established parties," as they called their competition, a term that always expressed a measure of contempt. Part of being different was communicating openly via Twitter and making committee meetings public, as well as streaming them over the Internet.

Interactions with journalists were supposed to be different, too. The Pirates had little interest in bothering with silly distinctions of how freely to speak and how much to allow journalists to quote directly. They didn't want to stage their political speeches and actions, test out sentences beforehand or fall back on typical politicians' phrases about "constructive talks" and the like. They felt there should be no difference between what took place within the party and what made it to the public's ears. In addition to Internet freedom, the core of the Pirate movement was the call for transparency.

After a bit of back and forth, Linke, who previously oversaw public relations for the artist Daniel Küblböck, has established how this will go: Every quotation from Lauer used in this article must first be submitted for approval. Now the conversation can turn to the issues. Now Lauer is finally allowed to speak.

Erring on the Side of Caution

How much transparency, then, can politics take? When does transparency bring progress, and when does it get in the way of functioning politics?

"Of course, with our calls for 'Transparency! Transparency!' we in the Pirate Party have created expectations that are difficult for us to meet," Lauer says. To his credit, Lauer never called for transparency quite as loudly as his fellow party members did. He's a hard-working and clever politician, perhaps the most talented of the Pirates. He reflects, and he learns from his experiences.

"We wanted to break with the tradition that journalists only ever get press releases," Lauer continues. "We wanted to be transparent, even at the risk of showing sides of ourselves that we don't like. But reality caught up with us to an extent."

Now, Lauer explains, he no longer meets journalists in cafés for fear of being overheard by someone at the next table. And if he has an interview with a journalist and Linke isn't able to attend, Lauer records the conversation just to be on the safe side.

None of this sounds particularly healthy. Lauer has tumbled from one extreme to the other, with control now more important than transparency. "I find it sad myself, that we have to be so cautious," he says.

The question is: What remains of the Pirates if they distance themselves from the idea of transparency? Isn't that akin to the Internet suddenly only appearing in print, or the Green Party calling for the construction of nuclear power plants? The Pirate Party's very character, its raison d'être, would be gone.

The general public has seen many sides of the Pirates that they would have preferred not to show, and that includes Lauer. The party has experienced several scandals in a very short space of time, all of them having to do with misunderstood transparency.

In February, Lauer sent a text message to the party's political director at the time, Johannes Ponader. It read: "If you don't resign by 12:00 tomorrow, we're going to have a serious problem." Ponader replied with an ultimatum: If Lauer didn't retract his demand, Ponader would release his text message to the public. And that's precisely what happened.

"My text was a private message," Lauer later said. "I wanted Ponader to resign so we could finally have the calm we needed to do actual political work."

Highly Public Spats

A desire for calm is something typical of the "established" parties, for whom their party's image is generally more important than discourse within the party. This attitude is symptomatic of a fear that democracy will disrupt calm and that voters will punish a party for this disruption.

In cases where conflict absolutely can't be avoided, the established parties thus try to settle the matter unnoticed and behind closed doors. The Pirates, on the other hand, have behaved more like monkeys in a zoo, embarrassed by nothing despite the visitors watching from the other side of the glass.

Party leaders, including Lauer, have insulted each other via Twitter. In one tweet, Lauer made a disparagingly pun on the name of out-of-favor fellow party member Marina Weisband, calling her "Martina Weinbrand" ("Weinbrand" means "brandy"). Then he tweeted: "The Ponader interview in SPIEGEL is a catastrophe." Anyone with an Internet connection could follow along as the mud was slung.

It was total transparency, all right, but it also showed how cruel transparency and how low it can go. What the Pirates wanted was to use Twitter to enter into dialogue directly with voters, bypassing the circuitous route of local meetings and the detours through spokespeople and journalists. Instead, they ended up demonstrating how to use Twitter to tear each other apart. It began to look as if the Pirate Party would collapse because of the very culture that was supposed to set it apart and make it more attractive.

Using Transparency as a Weapon

Lauer is far less active on Twitter these days. He can also be reached by email, he says. And, of course, through Ms. Linke.

On the heels of the "text message scandal" came the "mother-in-law scandal." Lauer's opponents within the party's parliamentary group apparently began spreading rumors of nepotism. As Lauer himself states, he has been in a relationship since December with an employee of one of his parliamentary group colleagues. His girlfriend's mother happens to be Linke, the woman sitting next to him on the sofa and keeping watch over what he says. Now, as the conversation turns to her, Linke waves her hand energetically again. "Shall I?" she asks.

She proceeds to explain once again the state of things: that she became a spokeswoman for the party long before Lauer and her daughter became involved. That there is nothing objectionable about the situation, and that the criticism over it is thus effrontery. The word "assholes" comes into play as well, though it is not later submitted for authorization. Linke is no longer just the professional minder, but also one of the affected parties. Lauer excuses himself to go to the bathroom.

Linke's outrage here seems warranted. It appears that Lauer's opponents within the party decided to play a dirty game with him, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's mother, disguised as transparency. The public would actually rather not know the details quite so precisely. There's such a thing as transparency that becomes terror.

When the Pirates' parliamentary group decided to meet and work through the "mother-in-law scandal," one of Lauer's fellow party members proposed conducting the discussion without guests present and switching off the usual live stream, since the matter concerned members' private lives. The decision was nonetheless reached by a very narrow margin, with seven votes in favor of forgoing the usual transparency in this case and six against. The word after the meeting was that it had been a "constructive" conversation -- a classic line used by the established parties.

Disappointment and Resentment

The question is, says Lauer, now returned from the bathroom: "Does political debate benefit when we stream five hours of parliamentary group sessions online? Who exactly is going to watch that?"

The Pirate Party still lacks a guiding principle for its handling of transparency. It makes sense in the political sphere that politicians disclose their additional sources of income or their meetings with lobbyists, as Lauer and the other Pirates do. It also makes sense to have checks in place to prevent shadowy figures somewhere deep within the Defense Ministry from running riot and making a mess  of a multi-billion-euro drone project, for example. Attempting more transparency than this, though, runs the risk of destroying both politics and those who engage in it, as the Pirates have painfully shown. There is a difference between voyeurism and transparency.

"I'll read you something," Lauer says, searching for a document on his iPhone. "Oh, come on, where is it?" At the parliamentary group's last session, he says, the members agreed on certain procedures. "We do press relations and public relations together, through the press office. No one goes it alone," reads one item. "We inform each other before we inform the press," reads another. The document continues with other sensible rules that could indeed make cooperation easier. But they also increase the degree to which party members can monitor and control each other's actions, detracting from what is pirate-like about the Pirates.

This is nothing wrong, of course, with the Pirate Party learning lessons from experience or becoming more similar to the established parties. The problem is that the party initially raised a very different set of expectations, promising not only more sensible Internet policies, but also that a completely different type of politics was possible. It was that promise which allowed them to wake a large number of voters from their snoozing approach to democracy.

Resentment toward Pirates at this point may be even greater than it was in the days when the word was associated with Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, rather than with Christopher Lauer and Johannes Ponader.

"This isn't about sealing ourselves off," Lauer says, after reading aloud the new "behaviors" from his iPhone. "It's about internal transparency." Of course, that's one way to describe it.

Linke nods.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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