Amidst calls for tougher press regulation in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, Professor Jeremy Jennings takes a look at the repercussions of state involvement in journalism in France.
Towards the end of last May I received a set of proofs for an article on Nicolas Sarkozy I had written for Daniel Johnson’s Standpoint magazine. My conclusion had been that Sarkozy’s best chance of victory in next year’s presidential elections rested upon the incompetent behaviour and infighting of his socialist party opponents. However, as I switched on my computer that Sunday morning, little did I expect to read the dramatic news that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had been arrested for rape in New York.
The initial reaction in France was that Strauss-Kahn’s arrest must be a plot (although no one seemed sure whose plot it was). This was followed by national indignation. How could such an eminent Frenchman be treated like a common criminal? And what was the fuss about? Everyone, it seems, had always known that Strauss-Kahn was a womaniser. As former socialist minister Jack Lang commented: no one had died.
Yet, in the days that followed, this consensus started to crack. Articles appeared in the press reminding the French that this was not a victimless crime and that, in this case, the victim was a black female immigrant. Several women were brave enough to report that they had been subject to similar treatment from France’s over-sexed politicians. One announced that she had been sexually molested by Strauss-Kahn some years earlier.
The question then arose as to why this predatory behaviour had been allowed to thrive for so long and why the French press had not exposed it? Newspaper offices throughout the land suddenly had some soul searching to do.
I recall these events because, as politicians, celebrities and left-wing journalists in this country call for a more regulated press, they might give us pause for thought. As my colleague Raymond Kuhn shows in his excellent study of The Media in Contemporary France, the French press has been both heavily regulated and subsidised by the state. For example, no company is allowed to have more than 30% of total newspaper circulation. Not only this, but France has the toughest privacy legislation to be found in any western society. What has been the result? The virtual absence of investigative journalism and compliant journalists. Who has benefited? Not the public, but those with power. To take but two examples: that François Mitterrand when President had two families, the second composed of his mistress and daughter, was kept hidden from the public. Mitterrand also concealed the fact that he had prostate cancer from the early days of his first term in office. Both were subjects of legitimate public interest and both were known, but not disclosed, by journalists. Many similar examples could be cited.
Yet something like the French system is exactly what writers such as Henry Porter of The Observer are advocating. Rupert Murdoch’s “humiliation”, he tells us, provides the opportunity “to limit the ownership of national newspapers and broadcasting companies by any one individual or concern” and to introduce “fully functioning privacy legislation”. Of course, he adds that “firm and intelligent regulation” should not “allow politicians to use this to hobble a free press and so become even less accountable”, but this is precisely how it operates across the Channel.
It would be hypocritical of me to mourn the passing of The News of the World. I never read it and never had any desire to do so. But I am inclined to see what has happened not as a failure of press regulation but as a failure of the rule of law. Crimes were committed and the police should have investigated them. Nor should this be taken to excuse the disgraceful behaviour of journalists. Britain’s press has to be reminded, as Peter Oborne did recently, that its function is not to destroy private lives or be subservient to those with power and money but to fight “for truth and decency”. Whether the hacks will heed this message is far from certain – we have, after all, been here before - but this is no reason for rushing headlong into legislation designed to appease Steve Coogan or, God forbid, make our politicians feel virtuous. Least of all should it be an excuse for the settling of scores. We could, if we are not careful, finish up in a worse situation than we were in before. When Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidential election in 2007, he spent the next few days relaxing on the private yacht of Vincent Bolloré, chairman of Havas, one of the world’s largest communication companies. The drinks parties of the Chipping Norton set look very innocent by comparison.