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Colin Randall wrote here on France, things Anglo-French and more......but has moved

February 19, 2007

Pride, prejudice and the press

This site has now moved to Salut!

Reading about the life and times of Maurice Papon, the Vichy collaborator who signed French Jews' death warrants, I felt the glow of distantly reflected pride.

Here, and over at Roy Greenslade's Guardian blog, there has lately been talk of how ritualistic prejudice againt the press leads to grotesque libel awards that (should) bring shame to the countries and courts in which they are made.

Not everyone agrees with me or the similar, though hardly identical, views expressed by my fellow blogger.

But turning to Papon, let us start with the proposition that his exposure as a war criminal was no bad thing.

That will not seem too controversial a point to most of those who stray into Salut!.

But how did that exposure come about, given that Papon proceeded from being the second most senior French official in wartime Bordeaux to a very prominent post-war career in public life (though that career was scarcely without disgrace)?

It came about because the press (newspapers) did what it is - they are - best at.

In May 1981, France's satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchainé, revealed documents establishing Papon's culpability in the deportation of nearly 1,700 Jews from Bordeaux to the Drancy internment camp on the outskirts of Paris between 1942 and 1944.

Many of these unfortunates went from Drancy to Auschwitz. Very, very few came home. As the Allied victory neared, Papon saw what was coming and switched sides, reinventing himself as a Resistance informer and later collecting an honour from General de Gaulle for his pains.

Ultimately, he was jailed for 10 years for crimes against humanity. He fled to Switzerland but was returned to serve all of three years of his sentence.

As a self-confessed liberal on penal issues, I have no real complaint about his release in 2002 on health grounds. But Papon goes to his grave having never found the courage or humility to admit to his wrongdoing.

He insisted to the end that he was the blameless victim, as (with variations to the theme) is so often the case among those who dislike how they portrayed in newspapers, of "unprecedented media pillorying made up of lies, insults and infamy".

Great stuff, Le Canard Enchainé! I have said the French press is more decent but also more dull than the British variety, but here it managed to be both immensely decent and a long way from dull.

And so it is on the other side of the Channel. The press, from ruthless proprietors to individual journalists, makes plenty of mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are serious and, much more rarely, they have serious consequences.

But often, the press is punished disproportionately for its mistakes; the rich, powerful and merely fortunate would be horrified at how low I'd cap libel awards, while insisting on due - OK, French-style - prominence for apologies or corrections.

And almost always, the press attracts far less praise than it deserves when it acts in its own loftier traditions.

Leave aside the unmasking of war criminals or the spotlights trained on government and corporate injustices.

For every unfairly criticised politician, pop star and supermodel, there are scores of ordinary people who have been assisted, by local and national newspapers alike, towards some semblance of fair treatment in their David vs Goliath battles with gas boards, insurance companies, banks and other private or public bodies.

Unfashionable, especially on a blog, and probably unnecessary since I no longer have a newspaper job, but true.

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This site has now moved to Salut!


At February 19, 2007 10:13 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Nobody's touching this one with a barge pole. I wonder why?
Today's ads: "distance learning from LSHTM Europe's school of public health" and "Sell your business." All things considered, I'd rather buy Austrian groceries or meet Italian singles. Still no interest in Deanna Durbin, though, on or off DVD.

At February 19, 2007 11:53 PM, Blogger Xavier Kreiss said...

Concerning Papon: when you say "he signed French Jews' death warrants". He did no such thing - unless you are using a figure of speech. He just arranged transport for them, little caring where they were bound.

A French historian once told me "Papon said he didn't know what was going to happen to them. But if you cram people in sealed railway cars normaly used for freight or cattle, men, women children, elderly people, all standing up, with a single bucket for the calls of nature, do you really think they're going to be given lollipops (sucettes) on arrival? "

Also, Colin, are you sure those unfortunate Jews were French ? Some may have been foreign. All were betrayed by a country which was theirs, or which they had trusted. Betrayed by - among others - efficient civil servants who provided the means to send them to a horrible death.

Things could have been worse: at least he was finally dragged before a court and his trial served as a useful (we hope) lesson for the younger generation.

At February 20, 2007 1:24 AM, Anonymous fmk said...

colin - as a news consumer and not a proper journalist, perhaps i could make this point.

the media is liked *and* disliked. clearly it's liked, otherwise we wouldn't keep buying the papers, watching the tv. listening to the radio or surfing the net. but that does not mean it has to be liked unconditionally. it *is* liked warts and all, but you can't get too upset when the general public start suggesting something be done about the warts.

the case you cite above is good example of the press doing what they *should* be doing. but roy greenslade's recent restraunt example ... well from what i've since heard, it seems the newspaper *did* make an error or two in the revie, *were* asked to correct the review but refused. you can't possibly be suggesting that that is perfectly acceptable behaviour, can you?

if newspapers want to be congratulated for the times they get it right, they're going to have to accept the times they get it wrong, and admit their errors.

At February 20, 2007 1:59 AM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

fmk is right. If a newspaper makes an error, it has an absolute responsibility to correct it in print and apologize. This is standard practice among North American newspapers. Many of the bigger ones, including the Washington Post and the Toronto Star, have an ombudsman who handles complaints, takes appropriate and timely action where warranted and usually also writes a regular column commenting on the way the paper is functioning and what it is doing right and wrong. To ensure impartiality and freedom from newsroom influence, the Post's ombudsman is, I believe, an independent contractor. The Star's is employed by the paper's parent company and is answerable only to the publisher.

At February 20, 2007 8:02 AM, Blogger Louise said...

It is very difficult to comment on the case of Papon, especially being English and not living in France during the last War. Living in occupied France cannot have been easy, either for the civil servants or the ordinary man in the street. Unfortunately, if it hadn't been Papon signing papers, it would have been someone else French ... this is how the Germans worked the system in France at that time.

Papon, like many of his countrymen, quickly became a resistant when the tide started turning - everyone was trying to save their bacon. And 'bacon' is probably the operative word here - a documentary a few years ago asked people in France what was their main worry during the War and it all came down to getting enough to eat - people were denounced to the German authorities for blackmarket operations, people wrote anonymous letters if a neighbour they didn't particularly like seemed to be fairing better than themselves - in short, an ugly period that the French are not proud of.

I am particularly a supporter of Papon, but I reckon he was made a scapegoat and when he came to trial, I imagine that many of his contempories trembled in their boots.

At February 20, 2007 8:04 AM, Blogger Louise said...

Soory - that should have read 'I am NOT particularly a supporter of Papon' - lapsus there!

At February 20, 2007 8:32 AM, Blogger Colin Randall said...

Taking the points made by Xavier and fmk in turn:
* Xavier, I think, answers his own assertion. Literally, of course, Papon did not sign death warrants. But what else was he doing, in effect? At his trial, the judges found that from the first operations against the Jews in the Gironde, Papon "a acquit la conviction que leur arrestation, leur séquestration et leur déportation vers l'Est les conduissaient inéluctablement a la mort".
* fmk: I have not seen reports that a correction to known errors was sought and refused by the Irish News. If this is the case, then of course the newspaper would have been wrong. In my ideal world, it would still not have been punished for a reviewer's honestly held opinion (even if the opinion was based on errors of fact) beyond being required by law to publish a correction and pay the restaurateur's costs.

At February 20, 2007 1:24 PM, Blogger richard of orleans said...

The typical apology in an English newspaper at the bottom of page 35 is inadequate.

It should not only be cost but lost business as well. If proper deontology is not followed there should be a punitive fine. Almost every other profession has understood that getting rid of the cowboys is necessary,why not journalism? Retaining some of the low standards is in fact hurting ‘free speech’. Bill Taylor’s comment that we ‘shouldn’t read ‘ the tabloids is like saying we shouldn’t stand next to a smoker.

When I walk past the soft porn, with young children, at the entrance to an English supermarket have I gained in free speech or lost my liberty to bring up my kids in a decent society?

Papon was also involved in unacceptable practices during his time as the Prefet of Paris and the suppression of certain Algerian demonstrators; he was definitely not a nice piece of work though no doubt an efficient administrator.

Germany used Nazis and France collaborators in the post war period. Without these individuals, some unsavoury, the rapid post war reconstruction would not have been possible. A lesson that the Anglo Saxons failed to learn in Iraq. But then they always know best don’t they?

At February 20, 2007 2:14 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

My comment that we "shouldn't read" the tabloids? I don't remember making such a comment. When and where was that, Richard? My memory may be at fault here but I don't think so.

At February 20, 2007 3:36 PM, Anonymous fmk said...

colin - maybe in an ideal world, you'd be right. but too many newspapers get away with delaying tactics, hoping to outspend the offended party rather than issue a retraction. that the jury feel the need to make an example of the irish news (as in the case of denis o'brien and the daily mirror in ireland) ... well, you can hardly be surprised, can you?

At February 20, 2007 4:45 PM, Blogger richard of orleans said...

Bill This is what you said

"It's usually those who read the tabloid media most voraciously who also complain about it the loudest (the people, for instance, who professed to loathe the coverage of Princess Di's death could invariably quote it verbatim) and want to rein in the papers and punish their staff. So the likelihood of this jury being "avid consumers of the press" was never anything more than a very mixed blessing."

i e those that complain about the tabloids are those that read it. So don't read them.

At February 20, 2007 5:05 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Now there's logic stretched to breaking point. What I said and how you interpret it bear no relationship to one another.

At February 20, 2007 5:22 PM, Blogger richard of orleans said...

OK Bill, I apologise if I have misinterpreted you.

But let's have your opinion on the British tabloids.

Mine is that they do journalism, free speech and decency serious harm and its time for the journalist profession to start cleaning them up if they want to be taken seriously.

At February 20, 2007 5:35 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

As a one-time tabloid journalist (and a good one, though I say so myself), I see tabs and non-tabs as two fairly distinct breeds of newspaper -- taking into consideration that some of what we used to call "the heavies" have shrunk in size.
I would read the classic tabloids for entertainment, rather than information. That said, once in a while they do pull of a notable scoop and leave everyone in their dust. And if you're into gossip, royal or otherwise, they can be hard to match.
If you look at them like that, rather than taking them too seriously, it seems to me that their effect on journalism, free speech and decency shrinks into perspective.

At February 20, 2007 5:51 PM, Blogger richard of orleans said...

What perspective do you have on camermen going around Holywood sticking a camera up a young ladies dress to see if she is wearing pants and splurging the results across the front pages.
I don't say all tabloid stuff is bad, but it needs to be cleaned up. Responsible members of the profession should take a stand. Or are they afraid for their jobs? (and I don't sneer at that last problem we all have to eat)

At February 20, 2007 5:56 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

If we're talking about the same Hollywood incident, then there was no need to stick a camera anywhere. What was photographed was very clearly on display. And, as I recall, the really graphic pictures were on various (non-newspaper) websites but didn't appear in the press, not even the tabloids. But, like it or not, there is a huge appetite for this kind of thing and the tabs can hardly be blamed for feeding it. And is one newspaper responsible for cleaning up another newspaper's act? I don't think so.

At February 20, 2007 6:16 PM, Blogger richard of orleans said...

The worst stuff may not have appeared in the British tabloids but some of it did. Quite honestly I don't spend too much time looking. The woman, rich she may be, is obviously ill, it's a disgrace and despicable to exploit her in this manner. I do blame anyone and everyone for feeding this dark side of humanity, are they better than drug pushers?

Every proper profession has deontology and disciplinary procedures to ensure that standards are respected. If journalists feel they have a duty to protect free speech (Colin obviously does) then they have a duty to protect the standing of their profession. So yes in my book you do, as a body, have to clean up another newspapers act in order to maintain credibilty and to properly protect free speech. Otherwise you will suffer more and more the backlash of public opinion and don't come whining when it happens.

At February 20, 2007 7:26 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

Public opinion is a fickle thing. And the tabloids must regulate themselves -- or allow market forces to do the regulating; in which case the paparazzi will continue to thrive because that's what the tabloid readers want and, as I've said before, a newspaper's first duty is to make money for its shareholders.


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