Wednesday, February 20, 2008

La Guerre du SMS n'aura pas lieu

According to Bakchich, the Paris prosecutor's office is refusing to search the premises of Le Nouvel Obs for evidence regarding the famous texto that Sarkozy is alleged to have sent his ex-wife agreeing to forgive all if she returned. The article asserts, moreover, that Sarko's lawyer won't make a fuss about this, because he wants to accredit the idea that there is no original message, that the reporter, Airy Routier, merely printed a rumor, that Sarkozy knows where the rumor originated, and that the whole point of the exercise is to expose the left-wing weekly as a scandal sheet.

Who knows how much of all this is true? Certainly not I. But look at the picture of French institutions that it paints: a president whose private life has invited scandalmongers; a respectable news magazine that has reduced itself to flogging tawdry rumors; a justice system that is instrumentalized by the president to attack a hostile press organ; a prosecutor whose independence is nonexistent; a prosecutorial staff that engages in a fronde not to defend the law but to thwart the allegedly vindictive will of a president it dislikes; and a readiness to wrap all this politique de basse cour in an endless series of high principles: the sanctity of private life; a government of laws, not men; freedom of the press; independence of the judiciary; republican resistance to elective monarchy, etc.

True or not, the picture is plausible because it is a calque of so many previous entanglements of presidency, press, and police. The scandals of the Mitterrand and Chirac administrations have accustomed the public to the pattern of charges and counter-charges, parries and thrusts, manipulation and "resistance," provocation and retaliation. Of course I'm not about to hold up the United States and its subservient Justice Department as a counterexample. The serious question that arises transcends boundaries: democracy in the media age is increasingly mediacracy (not to be confused with mediocrity), by which I mean not that the media rule but rather that government is effected through a symbiotic relationship of elected officials and the media through whom the public is informed (or inflamed). This relationship has developed any number of pathological characteristics, of which the case of Sarko's SMS is but the latest example. Hence it is a relationship that needs to be regulated by some sort of "counter-power," to borrow a term from Pierre Rosanvallon's Contre-démocratie. And it needs to be regulated on both sides--on the side of the government and on the side of the media. How is this to be done if the justice system cannot be counted on to be independent, or if its independence cannot always be counted on to serve the cause of justice? The "liberal" answer is regulation through competition, but as the present case demonstrates, competition for the big scoop may be as much a cause of excess as a cure.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I may be nitpicking, but the text message Sarkozy is accused of having sent says "If you come back, I cancell everything" (everything being obviously his planned marriage a couple of days later).
Although asking her to come back probably means he'd forgive everything, that's not exactly what the message was, so I just thought I'd comment on that.
Doesn't really change anything, though.