Is the political scandal over?

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By SANDRA BITENCOURT*

Perhaps we need new theories to understand why our anesthetized consciences are no longer scandalized by the infamy

March 11, 2021. The record of 282.127 deaths caused by the Coronavirus on that date puts Brazil at the forefront of deaths from the disease in the world. At live weekly on Facebook, the channel that the Presidency uses to communicate with citizens, the unimaginable. Thin lips, disturbed eyes, poor diction and, for the first time in history, a president of the country reads a letter from an alleged suicide, a street vendor in the interior of Bahia. The purpose of morbid reading is to criticize restriction measures against Covid-19 imposed by mayors and governors. The letter would have been written to the boy's mother and relates the death to the economic difficulties caused by the closure of commercial establishments. The same content was also published by his son, federal deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL-SP), on Twitter, along with images of the stallholder's body. Astonishment. Feeling that repeats itself with each exceeded limit. With each insult, with each offense, with each conscious negligence, with each necrophiliac recommendation, with each repeated lie, perplexity emerges: how long will this scandal be tolerated?

This is the object of this analysis. Is there still political scandal in Brazil? Because the occurrence of a scandal requires that a certain fact, conduct or event revealed has the capacity to provoke offense, revolt, indignation of people and institutions. That is, it is necessary for people to be scandalized by the revelation or by the hidden lie. And this construction, including of an aesthetic and news nature, with well-defined routes, shapes public opinion and strains the actions of politicians, erodes reputations and, not infrequently, makes staying in power unfeasible.

A quick Google search with the words scandal and Bolsonaro yields 1 million 360 thousand results. That is, it is a recurring search and with abundant material. But this is not evidenced in the news. The word scandal associated with the current government does not appear when the search is made in the news category. The journalistic coverage of the reference media is far from being favorable to the President. However, even in what could be classified as a corruption scandal, a flag so wielded by the right and embraced by the media, the names found in titles and headlines do not use the term scandal.

This week, the allegations of “setbacks” in preventing and combating corruption presented by Transparency International to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the FATF (Financial Action Group against Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) ) were not accompanied by that name, although it is an international scandal, with strong repercussions on the country's image and relations. The entity cited the inquiry in which Bolsonaro responds for crimes such as passive corruption for alleged interference in the Federal Police to protect friends and family, such as his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro; the lack of explanations for deposits in the bank account of the first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, coming from the family of Fabrício Queiroz, an agenda linked to what was conventionally called “crack”, which in fact, due to its precision and seriousness, could be characterized as an embezzlement scandal.

Englishman John B. Thompson is one of the leading contemporary scholars of the social impact of electronic media and author of the book The political scandal: power and visibility in the media age, which proposes to study the phenomenon of political scandal and how it “affects the concrete sources of power” – since power, in electoral democratic regimes, is subjected to pressure from public opinion and is linked to reputation. There would be, nowadays, a strong presence of the scandal in the media coverage, not because of an alleged reduction in the quality of political leaders, but because of the transformations of their public visibility, observing, according to the author, a gradual decline of the ideological and political a growing importance of the politics of trust, related to the current pre-eminence of scandal in the political sphere (THOMPSON, 2002, p. 146-7). Another factor is that the change in journalistic culture in the 1960s and 1970s broke the barriers that prevented the disclosure of certain secrets of power.

Scandal is applied today to actions or events involving certain types of transgressions that become known to others and reach a status serious enough to provoke a public response. The course for the formation of a scandal implies that the transgressions can be related to certain values, norms or moral codes; they must contain an element of secrecy or concealment (known to the non-participant); generate offense and disapproval from non-participants; occur through public denunciation of the event and finally the disclosure and condemnation can damage the reputation.

In the specificity of the political scandal that feeds on struggles for symbolic power, such elements are even more decisive, since reputation and trust are at stake. What characterizes them as political scandals, therefore, is not the naturezthat of the transgression committed, but the effects they produce. Hence the unavoidable question: what else would the current president of the country need to do or say to characterize the succession of scandals that he is starring in, provoke disapproval and have the term scandal associated with his actions or inactions in the headlines on a daily basis?

A very important aspect in the description/understanding of the phenomenon, according to Thompson, would be second-order transgressions, when in an attempt to deny, block or remove revelations and accusations, the political figure uses lies and causes an even greater offense, that is, the attempt to cover up the initial crime generates new transgressions, in general more serious ones.

The author uses historical examples. John Profumo's affair with Christine Keeler would certainly not contribute to his career, in a United Kingdom that still hasn't fully swallowed the new standards of sexual morality, but the determining factor for his downfall was the revelation that he lied to Parliament by denying the affair. . Richard Nixon would have been more complicated with the network of denials and obstruction of the investigation than with the denouncement of the spying to the Democratic Party. The same goes for Bill Clinton, whose image for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky has not suffered as much as the accusation of lying to justice, which almost led to his impeachment.

Would it be reasonable, however, to say that lying is no longer a serious offense today? Or that truth has become a manageable category, with tailored versions for consumption by the different groups in dispute? How else to explain that the repeated lies of a president do not provoke revolt, do not scandalize?

In 804 days as president, Bolsonaro made 2.568 false or distorted statements. The data are in a base that aggregates all the declarations from the day of his inauguration as president, with the verification done by the agency's team. The Facts weekly (https://www.aosfatos.org/todas-as-declara%C3%A7%C3%B5es-de-bolsonaro/).

The most repeated lie, 87 times, is that a STF minister determined that social isolation, quarantine, suspension of activities and trade restrictions are the decision of governors and mayors. The statement is false because the STF has not delegated responsibility for combating Covid-19 to governors and mayors, much less exempted the Presidency of the Republic from acting against the spread of the disease.

The defense of hydroxychloroquine as an effective early treatment was a lie repeated 32 times. An unsustainable defense due to lack of scientific evidence.

Thompson discusses the role of hypocrisy as a central component of many scandals, in which the most serious is not so much the transgression of a shared social norm, but the contradiction between the actions discovered and the public image of that character – as the leader of a moral crusade caught in adultery. But in the case here concrete, it is not about jumping a fence or a hypocritical moral conduct. These are positions and measures with the potential to disorient and cause death. The frightening numbers every day show that the lies and manipulations are scandalous not because of a moral bias, but because of the frightening loss of life and possibility of survival, if we also count the serious social crisis, hunger, unemployment and hopelessness. Not to mention other areas, such as the environment, science, culture, all thriving in examples of destruction and setbacks.

We could say that it is a scandal that the word scandal has been retired from the headlines. Or that perhaps we need new theories to understand why our anesthetized consciences are no longer scandalized by infamy.

* Sandra Bitencourt, journalist, PhD in Communication and Information, is a researcher at the Núcleo de Comunicação Pública e Política (NUCOP) research group.

Originally published on Public Communication Observatory (OBCOMP)

Reference


THOMPSON, John B. The Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age. Petrópolis: Voices, 2002.

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