Sunday, October 10, 2010

French Political Media & Scandal

by Jessica Posey

PAPATHANASSOPOULOS, “Politics in the Television Age”

Papathanassopoulos argues that media are not just “a channel for transmitting messages” but instead “follow their own rules, aims, constraints and production logic” that do not always coincide with those of politicians (125). He asserts that many European societies have entered a “videocracy” (125) in which television plays a large role and in which politicians lose power and status because of these changes to the process of political communication. He divides his discussion into the following four categories: television and politics, television and election campaigning, television and politicians, and television and politics in the era of modernization and digitalization.

First, Papathanassopoulos asserts that television would seem to be the most important medium for politicians due to its “position as a dominant source of news and entertainment and its ability to reach a mass audience” (127). However, he continues that television actually “fails to inform us about politics and also distorts our understanding of both governance and citizenship” and that its growth has “coincided with a gradual abstention from electoral practices” (128). He offers the idea of “videomalaise,” which asserts that dependency on television journalism can be directly connected with “feelings of political cynicism, social mistrust and lack a political efficacy” (128). Papathanassopoulos writes, “[N]obody can argue convincingly that television is the main cause that mobilizes or demobilizes the public to participate in politics and electoral practices” (131). He asserts that “the growing indifference of the public towards politics should be attributed to the decline of politics in a new post-Cold War era rather than being considered as the outcome of television’s dominance” (125-6).

Second, Papathanassopoulos argues that the use of television in political campaigns has “transformed…traditional party campaigns into media campaigns” and made politicians’ “images” the concern of “image-makers” (138). Political parties have also had to succumb to the “logic of the media,…giv[ing] preference to spectacular and sensationalist coverage of political events and the images of the political leaders rather than to hard issues” (138).

Sarkozy giving his Davos 2010 Keynote Speech

Third, he asserts that many politicians, realizing that they can “deflect the electorate from judging them by political record” (140), have increasingly made use of television appearances.However, in choosing the politicians who are more “attractive, interesting, clear and brief in their statements,” Papathanassopoulos argues that we are behaving “more as TV viewers than as responsible citizens” (140). Also, he points out that politicians seem to have simultaneously suffered a decline in authority due to overexposure, which results in a loss of political aura, mostly in the form of televised debates (140).

Socialist Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac in 1995 political debate

Fourth, Papathanassopoulos asserts that “the rise of a ‘modernized’ relationship between the media and politics is not seen as making a positive contribution to the health of democracy” as “the European public now regards political institutions as dysfunctional and untrustworthy” (144). He writes that in the “political-media complex,” politicians and the media “battle to control public’s perceptions” but that the two must work together to achieve their individual and often conflicting goals (144).

CHALABY, “Scandal & the Rise of Investigative Reporting in France”

Investigative reporting developed much later in France than in other countries as the revelation of scandals did not become journalistic practice until the 1980s. Before the 1980s, only L’Express and Le Canard Enchaîné launched investigations into the country’s political scene. L’Express began its investigations in the early 1960s when journalist Jacques Derogy joined the “left-leaning opinion weekly” (1195) and became responsible for the revelation of numerous scandals that hurt the de Gaulle presidency.

Founded during the First World War by “a group of radical journalists against censorship and governmental propaganda” (1196), Le Canard Enchaîné has served to embarrass politicians regardless of political affiliation. The weekly was involved in what Chalaby refers to as “the first significant moment in the history of French investigative reporting” (1197) in which the government had employed “builders” to bug their offices. This incident of “Le Canard’s plumbers” added legitimacy to the genre of investigative reporting because of the government’s interest in the publication. In 1979, the genre gained more credibility when Le Monde followed Le Canard Enchaîné’s lead and launched its own investigation of President Giscard d’Estaing’s acceptance of diamonds from Bokassa, an African dictator. Shortly thereafter, some outlets began to form investigative units. What Chalaby calls the “most consequential affair of the period” (1199) did not come until 1991 when an article in L’Evénement du Jeudi proved that hemophiliacs were given blood contaminated by HIV under the knowledge of a public health body.

Today, investigative reporting in France is regarded as a legitimate and even prestigious journalistic practice; however, the genre is still faced with several issues. Few publications have the resources to fund in-depth investigations, and the popularity of the revelation of scandals has been responsible for numerous false accusations. In addition, politicians have worked to develop legislation that prevents such damaging information from being published.

The late development of investigative reporting in France was due to the following factors: literary and political influences on French journalism, a lack of competition in the media field, the venality of journalists, social and cultural values, and wider developments in politics and the judiciary field. First of all, French journalism, as it was often intertwined with the field of literature, often included commentaries and opinions instead of facts alone, which did not encourage journalists to uncover the truth. As the fields of politics and journalism were closely linked with many newspapers still today being partisan, journalists were certainly not encouraged to embarrass those in “the world to which they belong” (1202) and were expected more to interpret political and social events. Second, investigative reporting stems from a desire to increase sales, which was not a significant concern in the relatively uncompetitive pre-1980s French newspaper market. Third, many journalists in France were paid heavily by politicians not to report their embarrassing affairs. Even if those who were not paid in exchange for silence could report on an affair, there would not be enough journalists to investigative and turn the affair into a scandal. Also, it is possible that a large percentage of journalists would not have a problem with such corruption if they themselves were being paid to keep them hidden. Fourth, because French social theories have emphasized the system itself instead of the individual, there does not exist in France the idea that an individual is solely responsible for his or her deviant acts. Therefore, the revelation of a deviant act, perhaps through the work of investigative reporting, is less crucial than understanding the errors of the system that contributed to that act as individuals “do not choose but face their fate” (1205). Fifth, the increasing cost of political campaigns has often caused politicians to succumb to illegal means of obtaining capital, and the homogenization of those involved in politics had rendered their morality a political issue in and of itself. In addition, the tradition of opposing parties in high-profile trials often using different outlets to gain support, and the increasing number of female and low middle-class individuals, who are typically more sensitive to ethical issues, serving as magistrates have contributed to the recent development of investigative reporting.

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