There is little doubt that the powerful and famous in France have an easier time of it - in both the eyes of the media and the public - than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts when it comes to their private lives. The scandals of recent and less recent years involving senior French politicians, sometimes involving the sort of baffling sexual complexity and clandestine intrigue that wouldn’t be out of place at Louis XIV’s Versailles, would have felled their British or American equivalents before they could say ‘Je suis désolé’. Yet Hollande is still in the Élysée, Mitterrand was President for 14 years without the existence of his ‘secret family’ ever being acknowledged, and it would be rash to bet against a comeback from the famously indefatigable Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
The British and American press has tended to treat both Gallic insouciance over sexual malpractice and the famously strict privacy laws aiding those in the public eye either as a bit of a joke, or else rather disturbing. When the Daily Telegraph solemnly observed, in its report on Strauss-Kahn’s indiscretions, that ‘after DSK’s high–profile 2008 affair with Piroska Nagy, an IMF economist, Anne [his wife] is said to have told a friend, ‘Well, they worked together. Et alors?’’, you can almost sense the British journalist and his conservative readership raising an eyebrow and suppressing a giggle. Judith Warner’s more serious contention in Time magazine was to identify what she called the ‘complicit attitude toward inappropriate, sometimes predatory sexual action on the part of powerful men, normalizing it, even occasionally romanticizing it, under the catchall cliché of Gallic seduction’.
Much of the press comment in the US and the UK, particularly after the DSK revelations, tutted loudly that his history of harassment and sexual predation towards women was well-known, clearly relishing the spectacle of the corps of French journalists doing some serious soul-searching after years of, as Warner puts it, ‘enjoying the delicious privilege of keeping DSK's — and other politicians' — sexual peccadilloes to themselves’. What is beyond doubt, however, in light of the slew of journalistic failures to have recently emerged both in the UK and on the other side of the Atlantic, is that instead of sniggering about sexual incontinence and press incompetence abroad, there are some equally serious issues arising uncomfortably closer to home.
‘BBC in crisis over Jimmy Savile scandal’, runs today’s Sky News headline. ‘Lance Armstrong – an epic failure of American journalism’, states Adrian McKinty in a recent blogpost, following today’s announcement that the disgraced athlete will be formally stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles. Both of these stories have, at their heart, the inconvenient truth that journalists and news organizations failed to expose that which was, we are continually told, widely if informally known. ‘Oh, we all knew, everybody knew, it was common knowledge, but what could we do?’ etc etc. Only now that it’s all too late comes the flood of self-criticism, self-justification and self-flagellation. Today we learn that the editor of Newsnight has resigned, or been ‘forced to step aside’; we have veteran correspondent John Simpson’s contention that this is the ‘BBC’s worst crisis in 50 years’; and, in the Armstrong case, this fascinating piece by Steve Maddon, erstwhile editor of Bicycling magazine (2002-2008).
Taking the Armstrong case first, it is hard to argue with McKinty’s analysis that Armstrong was not only a user of illegal drugs, but ‘the organiser, pimp and enforcer of a massive, sustained and extensive campaign of doping’. In fairness, some of the answers that Maddon gives to the question he is repeatedly posed – ‘so why didn’t you take him down?’ – are plausible and entirely reasonable. He notes that the combination of cycling’s ‘omerta’ code of silence (with Armstrong as Don Corleone), the enormous burden of proof needed for a conviction, the legal vengeance exacted on defectors, not to mention his global status as philanthropic cancer survivor, made any journalistic exposé like trying to nail jelly to the wall.
Nonetheless, there was a minority who kept at it, notably the Sunday Times reporter David Walsh and – ironically, given how this piece began – the Frenchman Pierre Ballester, alongside both Le Monde and L’Équipe newspapers. Clearly the problems in this case can be partially attributed to the burden of proof, or to overly stringent libel laws. Nevertheless, the lack of any crusading American journalist on his case, combined with the willingness to dismiss French reports as anti-American rants and the DSK-esque reaction after the event (‘we knew all along’), makes for uncomfortable reflection in the land of the free.
The Jimmy Savile case is more severe. Experiences such as that of Savile’s former director on Jim’ll Fix it, who walked in on Savile having sex with a young girl, reported it, and was told simply ‘That’s Jimmy’, make any excuse based on lack of evidence ring rather hollow. Currently the row is centered over a documentary examining such claims, which may or may not have been spiked by the BBC before his death. Whether editorial malpractice is uncovered or not, the deafening silence from those working at the corporation over Savile’s lengthy television career seems to amount to anything from cowardice, to gross negligence, to there being numerous accessories to criminal paedophilic behaviour at the heart of a public service broadcaster. When you put it like that, France's episodes of blind-eye-turning don't seem so bad after all.