The French don't do sex well. Political sex scandals that is. But a sea change does appear in the offing for French journalism that may change all that. The widely known, but only lately reported, personal misconduct of Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) appears to have provoked a fit of conscience.
This has not always been so. When the President of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York last May, the French philosophes went bananas.
Writing in Le Monde, Pascal Bruckner said:
America obviously has a problem with sex that stems from its protestant heritage. … It’s not enough though to describe the country as puritanical because what governs here is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry. What we have here is lubricious Puritanism.
Libération sounded the same theme, though in a muted key. It complained the DSK affair had produced France's
first “Anglo-Saxon” sex scandal and brutally forced France to enter a zone of public debate which, until now, because of cultural exception, “Latin” identity or democratic weakness, was hitherto confined to rumors and gossip amongst a select circle of insiders."
Times have changed. Disdain for Anglo-Saxon ethical standards has moved on to an examination of French media morals. But the question of what will inform these morals does not appear to have been asked.
"Transparency, how far?" (La transparence, jusqu'où?) is the headline on the front page of the 28 February 2012 issue of Libération. An editorial and a report on the publication of the book Sexe, Mensonges et Médias (Sex, Lies and Media) by Jean Quatremer, the newspaper's Brussels correspondent, follow on pages 2 and 3.
The article "Sexe et politique: la presse sur le divan" (Sex and politics: the press on the couch) recounts the press's failure to investigate the private lives of the powerful -- from François Mitterrand's prostate cancer and second family to the antics of DSK.
Libération reports that its reporter
had been one of the few who dared to say publicly that DSK had a problem with women. His appointment to the closed world of Washington had been a high risk and had been a perfect illustration of the press's bad habits. "The lies, the refusal to investigate ... the taste for colluding with the powerful."
Following DSK's appointment to the IMF in 2007 the article stated that Quatremer wrote:
the only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship to women. Too pressing, he often comes close to harassment. This is known throughout the media, but nobody talks about (we are in France). But the IMF is an international institution where morals are Anglo-Saxon. An inappropriate gesture, an allusion too specific and the press will have a field day.
These words went unnoticed until the front-runner for the French Socialist Party's candidacy for the 2012 presidential election was arrested in New York and charged with attempted rape.
Nicolas Demorand, the editor of Libération wrote that in the wake of the DSK affair a journalist must examine his conscience and ask
if he has done his job properly or, for reasons good or ill, totally missed a "subject" who obviously deserved scrutiny? Who has not thought about the uncertain border between privacy ... and a potential political problem, about whether he must inform his readers?
The French press is entering a post-DSK era, Demorand said,
Our media's all too timid modus operandi can now be seen with a new eye. It is true that journalists are friends with politicians. 'Stay away from power!' is the primary principal, an American journalist used to say. In France, we have dinner together, we go on holidays together, we have love affairs, we are graduates of the same schools, and so on. There is no tradition of investigation into the private world of politics. .. The public consequences of the president's private life have remained in the shadows. This is because of a preference for commentary over cold facts. And also because of the lack of independence of public television stations. Let us point out that the President of the Republic appoints the station's heads and chooses with his royal hand the journalists who will be allowed the privilege of interviewing the monarch.
France must find new ways of reporting on the powerful, the editorial concluded.
Not by moralizing or by voyeurism, but simply informing its readers when it is appropriate to do so. Investigate each story case by case and bear the burden of publishing. In short: become a working journalist.
All in all this is great stuff. Libération -- a center left newspaper founded in 1972 under the aegis of Jean Paul Sartre -- is seeking a revolution in the standards of French journalism. I hope it succeeds.
But in reading these reports, I was struck by a ghost, obliquely identified by Libération as an American ethic where "morals are Anglo-Saxon." The tone of these stories is that virtue, at least as it is understood in the Anglosphere, is too religious too foreign for France. The French press's failure to challenge the powerful was a failure of utility, not of virtue.
The religious, or moral element, is not completely absent. The French Catholic daily La Croix has argued the DSK affair "poses the question of the quest for coherence between public and private life," and "virtue, a word that has gone out of fashion, could become the new prerequisite" for political life. Yet few other newspapers have pressed the issue.
La Croix has called for the return of morality to civil life -- a virtue formed by a Catholic sensibilities of goodness and truth. This call should also be sounded to the press in France.
But I would hope that morals as understood in the Anglo-sphere, not the dreaded "moralizing" condemned by Libération, be brought to the table as well, for they inform our (English language) understanding of the truths of journalism.
In a 1943 study of the English novelist, E.M. Forester, Lionel Trilling coined the phrase "moral realism." Trilling sought to overcome the Marxist binary view of the world in literary criticism, to overcome the "old intellectual game of antagonistic principles."
Moral Realism [was] not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life. .. [not simply the knowledge of] "good and evil but the knowledge of good-and-evil.
This ethic applies to reporting as well. The absence of reporting on the sin and human failings of political leaders should not be replaced with a 24/7 inspection of their private lives. Rather a sensibility that paradox, complexity and ambiguity are part of the human condition.
Is this too much to expect? Is it possible to use nuance in an age whose critical faculties have been dulled by reality TV and people who are famous for being famous? Where should the line between public and private be drawn?