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Sunday, January 19, 2014

French Politicians and the Press

Writing about the Hollande affair last week I said, "The Powers That Be in this country seem to be a bit behind the times. Sleeping with the mainstream media (and I mean that both figuratively and literally) no longer means that you can keep the lid on your private affairs if you are a public person."

That's a statement that merits explanation because what I am alluding to is a real problem in the Hexagon:  a much bigger problem than a politician with a complicated love life.

What I'm referring to is the incestuous relationship between French politicians and the mainstream media.  A large number of high-level politicians and bureaucrats have spouses or love interests who are also journalists.  That, in and of itself, would not necessarily be a problem - whenever two groups get close it's not unusual that bonds are formed and that relationships become personal as well as professional.  One of my favorite authors Robert D. Kaplan, for example, has very strong ties to the U.S. military.  His long acquaintance with that institution and the people in it surely impact his writing.  But this is well-known and those who review his writing pull no punches when they point out that he is serving certain interests when he publishes yet another well-written (but very sympatique) piece about the U.S. Marines.

Such exposure of the interests of the writer and his or her relationship to his subject is not the order of the day here in France.  When a French journalist writes an article about a politician, or a talking head interviews one, the context is rarely revealed.  Does it make a difference?  Yes.  Knowing that this or that politician is the lover, spouse, god-father or a very close friend is relevant to what is being said by that journalist about that person.

In the supposed defense of la vie privée is the press here really arguing that it isn't?  That it makes no difference whatsoever when a journalist wife is writing about or interviewing her politician spouse?  As an American I am often accused of a certain naïveté, but asking me to believe that nonsense is really to take me for an imbecile.   There is a clear conflict of interest and you don't have to be an énarque to see it.

We have seen the result of these semi-hidden relationships between members of the press and the political class.  In Jean Quatremer's book Sexe, mensonges et médias he demonstrates how much damage this does to the French press and just how poorly it serves the French public:  story after story killed; an outright refusal to even investigate when that might do political damage; and gushing interviews with no serious questions asked.

Quatremer says that it even goes so far as to silence many who want to do real investigative journalism - the kind that (in that now trite anglo-saxon phrase) "speaks truth to power."  All this gives the impression that the press in France is, in fact, complicit in its own subjugation  and has exchanged liberty for security.

Two days ago in his blog Coulisse de Bruxelles Quatremer once again wrote about this old deal 
with the devil and its implications for the future of the press in the Hexagon.
"Manifestement, et c’est sans doute l’une des clefs de la crise gravissime que la presse d’information traverse, les journalistes continuent à faire des journaux du XXème siècle au XXIème siècle, des journaux où il est normal de remercier le Président de la République de vous « permettre » de poser une question, des journaux où la déférence l’emporte sur l’irrévérence, des journaux où l’on n’a toujours pas compris que le net avait fait exploser la sphère privée et la façon dont se fait et se traite l’information. La presse française a été justement moquée au lendemain de la dernière conférence de presse présidentielle par ses collègues étrangers: comment, voilà un beau scandale sexuel dont les salons parisiens raffolent et dont les implications politiques et sécuritaires sont multiples et les questions sont aussi rares que précautionneuses?" 
("Clearly, and this is undoubtedly one of the keys to the very serious crisis facing the news media, journalists continue to write twentieth century news in the twenty-first century. News where it is normal to thank the President of the Republic when he "allows" you to ask a question; news where deference outweighs irreverence; news where they have not yet understood that the Internet has exposed the private sphere and the manner in which information is made and managed. The French press has been justly ridiculed after the last presidential press conference by their foreign colleagues: Here is a wonderful sex scandal (adored by Parisian salons) where the political and security implications are many, but the question are both rare and cautious.")
The great journalist Edward R. Murrow once said "To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable, we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful." The French press frequently fails this test on all counts.  Lying by omission is still lying.

3 comments:

Blaze said...

Add this to the craziness. A straight, married, feminist anglophone Canadian journalist has fallen in love with Julie Gayat.

http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2014/01/17/attracted_to_franois_hollande_anythings_possible_mallick.html

Tim said...

The journalist Blaze is referring to, Heather Mallick has long been a defender of France in North America. She was frequently spared with American conservatives back during the Iraq War.

Tim said...

I do think in Europe despite its "progressive" reputation in many areas still has a very traditional mindset vis a vis gender roles. On a twice month basis for business reasons I am at the hotel near where I live that the Air France, Lufthansa, and Swiss Air flight attendants stay overnight. I have to say there is quite a bit of "lookism" in hiring flight attendants from European(especialy Cont. EU) Airlines.