So the President of France has proved what my old mum used to say along the lines of, ‘if one woman’s not enough twenty isn’t too many’. The already historically unpopular Francois Hollande is now the centre of what our tabloid press would bill as a ‘scandal’ because of his apparent liaison with an actress while still sharing the Elysee Palace with the First Lady who, in her turn, replaced his previous partner and the mother of his children.
You might ask ‘what’s that to do with us? And it’s certainly what Francois is asking. He’s threatening court action over a breach of his privacy against ‘Closer’ the magazine that had the nerve to break the story.
Normally I wouldn’t comment on the personal lives of politicians – even the head of the world’s fifth largest economy – but there is a serious point behind this squalid little tale and it holds lessons for our journalism and attempts to control the excesses of our media. We will come to that serious bit in a moment but, of course, there’s nothing like a story about problems among our European partners to bring out our best efforts at national stereotyping. In today’s Daily Mail Quentin Letts leads the way with his description of French journalists at yesterday’s Hollande media briefing as: “a salon of oyster munchers, the powdered, poodling, truth-smothering trusties of polite Parisian opinion.” There’s a turn of phrase that deserves this week’s ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ accolade and at least a chuckle but it is a delicately wielded blade that cuts to our point.
The fact is that by any standards the performance of those French journalists fell well short of what their readers and audiences should have a right to expect. It may be his ‘private life’ but M. Hollande’s behaviour should be held up to scrutiny. Here is a man about to launch a new strategy to save France’s still ailing economy (not to mention his failing Presidency) and yet his mind is elsewhere. You do not even have to imagine what the reaction would be here if David Cameron was conducting himself in the same way, you simply need to go back as far as the banking crisis and RBS boss Fred Goodwin’s affair, coverage of which helped hasten his demise. On a lesser level it is worth knowing how much our Prime Minister spends on his hair do as it tells us something about him in relation to those of us he governs. (In the interests of balance I pay £20 and looking at DC I can say ‘You’ve been robbed mate.’)
Perhaps Sir Fred and Mr. Cameron’s barber would have preferred a more Gallic approach to privacy but, let us not forget, that it was just that approach which allowed senior French politician Dominique Strauss Kahn to continue to prey on women while the French political class – and the journalists covering their official activities – remained silent about what they knew because they felt unable to intrude into his privacy.
We are still squabbling about whether we prefer the ‘Hacked Off’ group’s idea of independent press regulation, along the lines recommended by Lord Justice Leveson, or the newspaper publishers’ creation of the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Whichever finally holds sway it has to ensure we maintain a healthy, questioning journalism that will hold politicians and others to account even if on occasions that means treading into areas they would like to think of as their private lives.
When it comes to the issue of privacy, I say: “Vive la difference!”