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And they took photographs of themselves.
Who could blame them? This was a great occasion like no other. South Africa and the world had gathered to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. This was neither sombre funeral, nor sober religious service. This was a celebration in a football ground. They came to praise Madiba, not to bury him.
World leaders, past and present, communist and capitalist, democratic and despotic, gathered in the stands just like everyone else. There was no dais with straight-backed chairs in the middle of the pitch for them to sit on, detached and aloof from the crowd. Security concerns permitting, they were treated pretty much like everyone else. Their clothes may have been darker and more restrained, but they behaved pretty much like everyone else, too – embracing old friends, sharing memories.
Then Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a photograph of herself between a laughing Barack Obama and a grinning David Cameron and all hell broke loose.
"Within minutes the photograph went viral on the internet.
It could now become the most controversial selfie ever taken. As it flashed round the world the snap sparked a firestorm of criticism.
One person posted 'What selfish morons take a selfie at a memorial service? Oh yeah, that's right. Barack Obama and David Cameron.'
In a message directed at Mr Cameron, Sarah McDermott, using the Twitter name @toxicsayonara, said: 'You have precisely zero class or decorum'."
So wrote Jason Beattie in the Mirror yesterday – although the selfie did not go viral or flash round the world. It has not been released to the public. The source of the anger was an AFP photograph of Ms Thorning-Schmidt smiling into her mobile phone.
The Sun was so outraged that it splashed on the incident. The Mirror used it downpage, combined with a photograph of Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro. The Telegraph and the Times both used the AFP photograph as the main page 1 image.
The Mail's front was in a different league, a masterpiece.
Dave, a flirty Dane and a 'selfie' that left Mrs Obama VERY unamused
See pages 8-11
Four pages on the President of the United States posing for a photograph?
Of course not. There was the small matter of the memorial – but the name Mandela didn't feature anywhere on page one.
And who is this 'flirty Dane'? Nobody you need worry about, just some floosie who happens to be the Prime Minister of her country and Neil Kinnock's daughter-in-law to boot.
What a load of hogwash this all was.
Yes, the picture whizzed round the web, but a firestorm of protest? Hmmm. If there was, why so little variation in the tweets? The Mail and the Mirror used the same two, the Sun had a couple of others.
Perhaps @toxicsayonara is a woman of great influence, let's take a look at her Twitter profile.
OK, so maybe not that influential, although the tweet reproduced more clearly below is intriguing:
Today two newspapers published my tweet from yesterday to Cameron, yet somehow it has vanished?? How is that possible?
— Sarah McDermott (@toxicsayonara) December 11, 2013
So we have an artificial storm over a woman who found herself sitting next to Obama at a unique occasion and thought she'd like a record of it.
The redtops presented it as a gaffe, inappropriate larking about at a memorial service. For the Mail it was a gift: a predatory blonde getting too close to the most powerful man in the world – and while his wife was sitting stony-faced beside him.
Almost every other paper described Michelle Obama as 'seemingly unamused'. In the Mail she was 'VERY unamused' and 'looked icily across' at the three leaders:
"Like a bunch of giggling teenagers, they grinned as they bunched together, the Scandinavian blonde flirting and pulling Mr Cameron closer into shot."
So Britain's Prime Minister is Mr Cameron; Denmark's is a 'Scandinavian blonde'. Right.
Well, we can't have some Scandinavian blonde trying to break up the Obamas' marriage, can we? Other papers may be willing to let the story go – or at least hand it over to the commentariat – but not the Mail. There must be more mileage in it. This woman is married to Neil and Glenys Kinnock's son. It should be possible to bring them into the party somehow? Let's see what it's come up with today.
Well, fancy that…
As we know, the Mail isn't averse to spreading rumours and to be fair, it has found the source of this one – even if he has recanted. The prose is as magical as ever, so let us take a little detour from Africa to Europe to savour some of it:
"Her sexy wardrobe (and racy reputation) have earned her the nickname Gucci Helle…
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, 46, who dragged Barack Obama and David Cameron into that embarrassing 'selfie', is not a typical head of state…
How many premiers … boarded a military plane to war-torn Libya in camouflage jacket and stilettos with a bright red Gucci bag…
Not surprisingly, her sex appeal, which Miss Thorning-Schmidt seems to have exploited to the full, almost certainly contributed to her electoral success back in 2011. The word most Googled next to her name it would later emerge was 'naked'. It is not clear, however, whether voters expected to find naked photographs of her on the internet – or simply hoped to.
Danish magazines, meanwhile, claim her looks have been enhanced by Botox."
Oh dear, there's no hope for her. She's an attractive woman. Some people would like to see her naked. The reporter would have been failing in his duty if he didn't try the search, so we can assume there are no internet photographs of Ms T-S without her clothes. But there were other equally damning facts to be shared.
She wears high heels. And she has a RED handbag.
Well that seals it.
What about her finances? There was a bit of a mix-up with Stephen Kinnock's tax status, but
"Danish tax authorities later exonerated the couple…"
"But there was further embarrassment…"
"Their marriage became the subject of intense speculation…with one newspaper raising questions over Mr Kinnock's sexuality…Miss Thorning-Schmidt was forced to publicly deny Mr Kinnock was gay…"
The source of this speculation was apparently the couple's accountant Frode Holm who, curiously, told tax officials that Mr Kinnock was bisexual or gay to explain why he did not spend much time in Denmark. It might have been simpler to point out that Mr Kinnock is a director of the World Economic Forum and works in Davos.
'I admit that I said it,' the accountant said when contacted by journalists. 'It was a mistake that I am still quite uneasy about today.' "
Oh dear, a dead end. Best get back to the safer territory of vanity and extravagance.
"From the very beginning Miss Thorning-Schmidt's appearance…dominated the headlines…it was not long before stories emerged of her expensive tastes. One of her handbags, from the luxury British label Mulberry, cost between £6,000 and £9,000…
Helle Thorning-Schmidt seems to revel in the attention – if it wins her votes. And especially, it seems, admiring glances from flirtatious male statesmen."
Dear oh dear. Perhaps the boys might have been flattered that she was interested in them? Maybe they were doing the revelling in the attention? Nah, move on to the serious stuff.
And there was serious stuff going on in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Remember all those world leaders turning out? Remember that significant handshake between Obama and Castro? Oh, and by the way, Obama by all accounts gave the speech of his life. It just goes to show how disrespectful he was of the occasion.
Today Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who started this particular chase, gave his interpretation of events in his AFP blog. It doesn't bear much similarity to our newspapers' reading of the situation:
"From the podium, Obama had just qualified Mandela as a 'giant of history who moved a nation towards justice'. After his stirring eulogy…I decided to follow his movements …
Obama took his place amid these leaders who’d gathered from all corners of the globe. Among them was David Cameron, as well as a woman who I wasn’t able to immediately identify…I thought it must have been one of Obama’s many staffers.
Suddenly this woman pulled out her mobile phone and took a photo of herself smiling with Cameron and the US president… All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid…
For me, the behaviour of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural…
I later read that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved… But photos can lie. Just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.
The AFP team worked hard to display the reaction that South African people had for the passing of someone they consider as a father. We moved about 500 pictures and this seemingly trivial image seems to have eclipsed much of this collective work…
It makes me a little sad we are so obsessed with day-to-day trivialities, instead of things of true importance."
The thing with newspapers and broadcasters is that they have to have a return on investment. Most of them invested a lot in covering the death of Mandela and they need to show that it's worthwhile.
The BBC, for example, has sent 140 people to South Africa (gosh, that's almost half as many as go to Glastonbury) and gone in for blanket coverage. This, in the way of these things, has brought complaints from those who don't like their Mrs Brown's Boys disrupted and silence from those who appreciate it. The objectors had better get used to it, the caravan won't be heading home before Mandela is buried in his home village on Sunday.
The papers' equivalent is to set aside columns and columns of blank paper. But when it came to it, the turnout for the memorial was disappointing, with a third of the stadium unnoccupied. It rained. The crowd was restless: people came to party, to celebrate a life and were instead treated to four hours of politics, leavened only by the opportunity to cheer Obama and boo Jacob Zuma. Desmond Tutu found himself preaching to a rapidly dwindling audience.
For the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent it was enough to tell it like it was, the selfie pictures a jolly sideshow. The Independent, in particular, did a magnificent job in eight pages (ten if you count the front-page picture and the page 3 cartoon) covering every base from South Africa's domestic politics to international relations, the celebrities, the wives, the politicians. There was a full assessment of Obama's performance – and a little pop at the selfie.
The tabs needed something more engaging and they found it in the faux outrage.
Here we had a perfect example of trivia breeding trivia. People have produced and disseminated pictures of themselves for centuries. The National Portrait Gallery describes the self-portrait as an artist's advertisement and gives examples going back to Sir Peter Lely in 1660.
Today a selfie is a liberated – and safer – version of that tentative, camera in outstretched arm 'can you please take my picture' approach to a stranger. Or, for photographs intended for a more intimate audience, an updated Polaroid.
Teenagers may be the main proponents of the art form, but that doesn't mean that grown-ups seeking a picture of themselves are behaving childishly. Or at least no more childishly than grown-ups who try to keep up – or, worse, get down – with the kids by using and even formalising their language and behaviour.
For the past ten years or so Oxford English Dictionaries has made an annual pronouncement on its word of the year. Three weeks ago we learnt that selfie was the unanimous choice for 2013, ahead of bedroom tax (isn't that two words?), bitcoin and twerk. The 2012 winner was omnishambles, the year before it was squeezed middle and in 2010 it was big society. Before them came simples, credit crunch, carbon footprint, bovvered, sudoku and chav.
Our lexicon, it seems, is developing courtesy of teenage slang, television catchphrases, advertisements and political soundbites. Of course it is. Twas ever thus. But now a team of dictionary compilers and marketing managers has to tell us what is plain to anyone with ears.
The choice of a word of the year is nothing more than a publicity exercise for the OED. It may be wrapped up in statistics and graphs and percentages and historical analysis to give it gravitas, but it is still a stunt (copied from the American Dialect Society, which was a decade or so ahead of the Brits). The word is not guaranteed a place in any dictionary, but it is guaranteed a slot in every newspaper and on every radio and television bulletin.
And so from trivial 'news' coverage of the word, we moved seamlessly to trivial 'news' coverage of it being put into practice.
It's only a bit of fun, does it matter?
Maybe. Maybe not. But it's absurd that this story was allowed to overshadow everything else broadcast or written about a unique event, and it's absurd that it is still going strong on day three.
Especially as there, before everyone's eyes, was a much better story with plenty of human interest.
How did an unqualified sign language interpreter hired from an agency with a record of 'substandard services' end up standing next to the leader of the Western world?
He could have been anyone. There were a hundred world leaders in that stadium, a terrorist's dream. Didn't anybody do any security checks?
That seems to me a story worth chasing. Thank goodness we're on to it now.