Sunday, February 10, 2008

Media Run Amok

My defense of Ségolène Royal against a perfidious attack by Le Figaro has been translated into French and taken up by several pro-Ségo Web sites (e.g., here and here). Having attacked a newspaper of the right, I now turn my attention to a magazine of the left, whose journalistic standards in one recent article strike me as equally deplorable.

I already mentioned yesterday my astonishment that Le Nouvel Observateur had stooped to publishing what purports to be an SMS message from Sarkozy to his ex-wife. I am still more astonished, indeed dismayed, to hear the explanation offered by the journalist responsible, the editor-in-chief of Le Nouvel Obs, Airy Routier, which can be viewed here. Routier concedes that the content of the texto was entirely of a private nature, yet he claims to have served the public good in publishing it because "the President has his finger on the nuclear button." He goes on to say that since the president has made a point of mingling his public and private life, anything goes.

I find this explanation absolutely flabbergasting. To be sure, the president has commoditized his private life, and the media have found it to be a product that sells well. How they handle the transaction between supplier and retailer is up to them. But if I have a garage sale and sell you the shirt I wore yesterday, I'm not authorizing you to break into my house and steal all my suits.

As for Sarkozy's nuclear powers, apparently Carla Bruni found them attractive. She said that after Jagger and Clapton, she "wanted a man with a nuclear bomb." But the tangles of Sarkozy's love life have nothing to do with the privacy he is due, and the fact that he chooses from time to time to compromise that privacy in ways that one may find regrettable has no moral force against his right to defend the privacy of his personal communications. Yesterday a commenter remarked that Sarkozy is probably enhancing the credibility of the story by filing a criminal complaint against the reporter. That may well be, but the reporter deserves to be prosecuted, because his justification for his decision is vacuous, and the principle he has violated is one worth defending: even public figures are entitled to respect of their private lives.


MYOS said...

Plenel had an interesting point yesterday. It seems indeed that the anonymous 'source' is the ex-wife to whom the SMS was sent. He said that a good journalist would have shown a picture of the SMS along with an interview from the former "First Lady".

The contents of the SMS indeed would indicate such high volatility and a conception of human relations that one might not overlook in a major politician.

If the SMS is real, then there's a real question about Sarkozy's mental stability (or, at the very least, his maturity and general state of mind.)
If the SMS is a fake, than I hope the magazine will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Unknown said...

If the source is the ex-wife, I am equally appalled that NO would publish it. That would put it on the level of a scandal sheet.

MYOS said...

Earlier this year, when a magazine published the contents of a letter that the president held, on the grounds that another magazine's blanking out the writing was "censorship", I had been as appalled as you currently are. In my opinion, President Sarkozy's personal letters are private and should not be revealed, regardless of the information they contain - (unless they are of vital interest for the country, in which case some care should be taken, etc). Whether he received a letter from his mistress or his best friend is of zero interest. He's entitled to respect of his private life, as you stated.

However, in this case, my reaction stems from the fact the texted message shows a disturbed mind, reminding me of a stalker's. It does worry me if indeed the "SMS" is true since we're not dealing with any ex-husband, but with a major politician.

To be honest, essentially, it'd be simpler if the SMS were a fake.
It it is real, it broaches serious questions about President Sarkozy's stability and state of mind.

I admit I disapprove the NO's way of presenting the SMS, though.
In addition, I'd alter my previous comment - I don't think the journalist who divulged the alleged SMS should spend 3 years in jail (that'd be the fullest extent of the law), although I do believe that if it's a fake, strong sanctions should be applied (to him personally and professionally, but to his magazine also.)

@si has more on this - it's apparently been used as a 'scare tactics' by the presidency before, and in that case the complaint was dropped in exchange for an apology that wouldn't be published.

Schneidermann wrote about "roquefort v. camembert" or how does a journalist handle a situation when both sides stink equally?
(it's worth noting that Schneidermann and Plenel are mortal enemies yet come to similar views in this matter.)

Unknown said...

Thanks for your very interesting comments.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... it says here that Sarko's lawyer is justifying the criminal complaint by claiming "une altération frauduleuse de la vérité, qui cause un préjudice". If those words have their dictionary meanings (and aren't some kind of legalese), then the lawyer is claiming flatly that the story is false. And I don't think he'd say that unless he really believed it --- if there's any chance at all that NouvelObs could prove the story true, then the case might evaporate, leaving his client even more embarrassed. (Then again, if Sarko was crazy enough to send the thing in the first place, he might also be crazy enough to lie to his lawyer).

On the propriety of the whole thing --- I certainly agree that having journalists snooping around in other peoples' purely private business is deplorable. On the other hand, I also think people have a right to discuss their own private matters however they see fit, including the choice to discuss them in public --- and if, by some strange chance, Cecilia is the source, it's at least arguable that that's what's happening. It's her life too.

Mary Fernandez said...

Well, I would separate what is morally right from what's legally right. They are (unfortunately) two different things. I can't comment on French law (which I know is much more strict), but I do know American law. Under our system the following is true:

1. Truth is an absolute defense to the complaint brought againt the NO. It doesn't matter about how they got it or the propriety of printing it.

2. Clients lie to their lawyers ALL THE TIME. [I'm sure this is equally true in France.]

3. The burden of proof is on Sarkozy to prove that the story is false not on the NO to prove that it is true.

4. People getting divorces do crazy, emotional, illogical things all the time. It boggles the mind.

5. Cecilia has just as much right over her private matters as Sarkozy has over his.

6. Journalists should not be jailed for being disgusting lowlifes, but only for breaking the law. It is dangerous for democracy if we jail journalists because we don't like what they say. [Although I entirely agree that the invasion of privacy by the tabloids has gone way too far.]

7. When I said that Sarkozy lent credibility to the story, I meant it in this sense. My first reaction upon hearing it was, "Sure, were you standing over his shoulder when he typed it?" I just dismissed it.

By filing a criminal complaint, the matter is not longer confined to the NO but spreads to all the papers and will be repeated daily for months. Everyone will hear the story. Even if Sarkozy wins, how many will hear the ultimate results? There will always be a sizable part of the population who will think, "Where there's smoke, there's fire" or "Methinks he protests too much" Even if he wins, he still loses.

If he loses, he REALLY loses. Remember Oscar Wilde.

No it's not fair. Life isn't fair.

Mary Fernandez said...

Your earlier blog noted earlier that the same reporter, Airy Routier, was the one who came up with both the Kerviel and Sarkovy SMS messages. In the British tabloid story I noted earlier, it was also one reporter who had figured out this trick of accessing his targets personal cell phone accounts. That person was criminally charged under British Identity Theft laws.

It could be we have a replay of the same situation happening in France.

Mary Fernandez said...

Since I've referenced this twice, I'll leave some links:

The BBC:

The Telegraph actually explains it a bit:

"Unscrupulous journalists have been illegally picking up mobile telephone messages for many years.

It is relatively simple to hack into someone's messages by calling their voicemail and using a four-digit "default" code that is standard to most phones.

Unless the phone owner has changed the code, the handset will release voicemail messages when someone uses the default option."


Also, I'd like to apologize for the repeated use of 'earlier' in the previous post. More editing, next time. :-)