Strauss-Kahn and the troubling ‘omertà’ of the French media
By Christophe Deloire
The opinions expressed are his own.
LE MONDE/Worldcrunch — The Strauss-Kahn affair which began in a Sofitel hotel room shows that writing endless editorials or making sermons predicting the future does not get us any closer to the truth. When dealing with politics, French media usually call in a troop of editorial writers, re-baptized “commentators”, whereas Anglo-Saxon newspapers, even if they have their own shortcomings, dedicate more space to investigative journalism that holds the power to make important revelations and share them with the public. A thirst for the facts has never harmed democracies.
French democracy needs a real shot of “common decency,” a remedy coined by the British writer George Orwell. It is a code of simplicity and honesty, and should be followed by politicians, “intellectuals” and journalists. Common decency, in itself, obviously means respecting people, but above all, it is a refusal to create something from nothing. Instead, one must be obsessed by the submission to facts. This decency should forbid untoward comments, which are somehow deemed acceptable because of freedom of speech.
In 2006, Christophe Dubois and I wrote an investigative book entitled Sexus Politicus about the aphrodisiac character of power, and the various low blows of political life. It included a chapter called “the DSK affair,” dealing with Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s unconventional behavior. Not yet head of the International Monetary Fund back then, Strauss-Kahn is depicted taking unnecessary risks for a statesman in his position, and being surprisingly vulnerable. The scenes described in the book did not fall solely within the realm of seduction. We and our publisher Albin Michel faced intense pressures due to the nature of the information revealed in that chapter.
Since Sunday, I have refused to be interviewed because I don’t want my comments to be mixed up with those made by specialists who have seen nothing, know nothing and read nothing. They have not even talked about seduction in politics (irrelevant to the current case), or cited the specific information published five years ago.
But once again, current affairs force us to question the use of journalists. What is the role of journalists? Some citizens think, not without reasons, that some journalists (not most of them, but some of the most influential ones) try to impose their ideas rather than seek to inform us. As a result, they form a largely pretentious class. They are like a political community that is free from difficulties of action but never deprived of speech. They resemble a media-friendly class, which neither acts (politicians’ role), nor exposes the truth (journalists’ role), but splits hairs instead.
Should we leave it to comedians to decide when and if some pieces of information should be revealed or not?
If we believe what a minor group of editorial writers has been saying over the past few months, it will be useless to vote in 2012 because the die is cast. In the second round, Sarkozy will face DSK. One of the most famous political commentators, a ubiquitous veteran journalist, thought it was a good idea to not mention Ségolène Royal in a book dedicated to the presidential election candidates five years ago. This senior journalist was sure he was right, even if the facts all around him were proving him wrong.
He has just made the same mistake again by saying that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is by far the best, the most “reasonable” choice, the Socialist Party’s only possible candidate for the 2012 Presidential election. The editorial writer has become an activist. This preacher, who is capable of making the same mistakes over and over again, would have been asked to take well-deserved retirement if he was working in any other sector.
By publishing Sexus Politicus, Christophe Dubois and I broke a taboo. Did we have to do it? The question requires careful thought, and it is quite conceivable to be offended by the principle. Were we introducing the methods of Anglo-Saxon journalism in France? Or were we bursting a bubble full of private secrets? Readers, including political figures, obviously confirmed that it was legitimate to reveal those secrets, especially because our book did not include a moralistic layer.
When the book was published, the media made many comments about the whole book, but they showed some discretion when dealing with the information on Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Obviously, if the need arose, the information should have been checked and more inquiries made. Again, many preferred to comment instead of digging for scoops.
If someday, French people — readers and voters alike — blame us for keeping a secret, for accepting that powerful people do some things, while these very same things are being denied to ordinary people, what will be our answer? That plenty of journalists did not know, and that they did not even try to find out? The question is not about the Strauss-Kahn affair, the question is simply to affirm that we must have the sole ambition to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Our duty is to be wary of spreading rumors. Letting rumors spread without having the curiosity to check if they are true is a grave mistake. We must have the common decency — a theme explored by Rudyard Kipling in one of his poems “You’ll be a man, my son…treat those two impostors just the same” — in triumph and defeat, of telling only the truth. Journalists should neither pour scorn on Dominique Strauss-Kahn nor act as character witnesses. They should get closer to the truth without thinking that an officially printed report is the gospel truth, and without ever leaving people in the dark because of a lack of trying.
The Strauss-Kahn affair, involving a man so widely praised and so quickly overcome by the present scandal, will probably make those psychological traumas worse in France. The country has gotten used to groaning. But if we take a closer look, apart from its real wounds, the country suffers from a shortage of fairness, a denial of reality, a lack of common sense. The journalists who contribute to the public debate must think about it before it is too late.
Do the media have to stop revealing incriminating facts in order to avoid electoral accidents? Or on the contrary, do they have to do it more rapidly? That is a key question for democracy. Putting a brake on revelations would be an offense that can give the impression that we are protecting the “system.” For a journalist, being a good driver means rolling forward without turning the wheel sharply. Right now, information in France has just been slammed into a long, perilous tailspin.
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