The Crucifixion of 

Alain Hertoghe

France’s Unfree Press

During the war in Iraq, the French press revealed its ugly anti-Americanism. What one reporter discovered, to his cost, was that it also exposed its corruption, incompetence and blatant disregard for the truth.

A free press, however horrible, stupid and crass its opinions, is ultimately the first guarantor of an individual’s freedoms. But France, as Alain Hertoghe found out with a shock, really has no free press at all.

Hertoghe should have known better. He is a Belgian, educated in France, and a seventeen-year veteran staffer on La Croix (The Cross), a respected Catholic daily where he is, or was, a senior editor.

During the recent war in Iraq, Hertoghe was very much onside with the 87% of French public opinion and 100% of the French media that opposed the conflict. All the major newspapers, not only opposed the war, which was simply a question of their opinion, but they also predicted a savage, swift defeat for the Americans and the British, which they presented as a matter of fact. 

Hertoghe happily mucked in, leading with graphic pictures American casualties when they arrived, subbing the copy coming in from the heavily censored French correspondents in Bagdad and headlining the op-ed pieces highlighting the Iraqi people’s hatred of the coalition and the heroic struggle of Saddam (always referred to as M. le President de l’Irak). 

Then, after three weeks, it was all over. Baghdad was taken, the regime fell and, a little later Saddam was found hiding in a hole. Hertoghe just could not understand it. Neither could the rest of the French Media.

“Five days into the campaign the press was already talking about a quagmire, then about Vietnam”, Hertoghe remembers. “They said the Pentagon’s plan was wrong, there weren’t enough soldiers, the military equipment was too sophisticated for this kind of campaign and the Americans were stuck 80 km from Baghdad... Of course what happened is that the Americans were at the gates of Baghdad by the 2nd or 3rd of April. The French press didn’t explain why this happened; they began to announce that the battle of Baghdad would be a new Stalingrad. And of course that didn’t happen either.”

In fact, Hertoghe had already begun to question the systematic misrepresentation of objective fact by the French media. He had been made uneasy about cartoons showing US troops stamping on dead babies and by editorials accusing President Bush of racism. As a journalist he had read the wires coming in from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse services and become confused at the disparity between their information from the spot and the stories that were appearing in Paris. He realised the story was not about the Coalition’s victory in Iraq but about the defeat of the French media. 

So he wrote a book about it. In October 2002, he published La Guerre à outrances: Comment la presse nous a désinformés sur l'Irak (rough translation, War of the Wor(l)ds; How the press lied to us about Iraq). It explored how the major French newspapers covered the three-week war. His survey took in his own paper, the Catholic La Croix, the centre-left Le Monde, the conservative Le Figaro, the communist Liberation and the regional daily Ouest-France, which has the largest circulation in France. 

The book is a damning compilation that confirms not only the press’ systemic anti-Americanism (for example, during the three weeks of war, the five papers carried 29 headlines condemning Saddam's dictatorship and 135 condemning Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair) but its systematic disregard of basic fact. 

Simply put, the French press was dishonest and incompetent across the board. “When Baghdad fell, the readers couldn’t understand how the Americans won the war," Hertoghe wrote, "because the French press was so carried away. The journalists dreamed of an American defeat.”

Hertoghe’s attributes this deception – and self-deception – by the press to two core reasons. The first is an intellectual and therefore, by French reasoning, moral anti-Americanism. Fair enough, that is a really a political decision which any newspaper is free to make. The second reason is more ominous; the French press followed the anti-war line of the French government because it was essentially controlled by that government through massive pay-offs (€400 million in 2004 alone). 

In essence, the French press was not only unable to report the Iraq war with balance, even if it had the will to do so, but any issue because it is subsidised by the state. Prices of newspapers are controlled by the government. If a publisher wants a new printing plant, the government pays up to 15% of its cost. Working journalists get an automatic 30% deduction on their income taxes as an expense allowance.

The relationship between the government and the state is even more incestuous, as Dennis Boyles, a long-time journalist and US expat in France reports in his book Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese (2004). 

“It turns out that journalists were routinely helped by the government, to find cheap apartments, fix traffic tickets, get free transportation, gain entrance for their kids into prestigious schools. That relationship hasn’t changed in the last thirty years.”

Stanley Hertzberg, a retired director of Wall Street Journal Europe, agrees that the daily press, including the qualities like Le Monde, have no tradition of independent reporting. “The problem is, they are afraid. Journalists here are afraid to do good journalism because they could lose their jobs, their credentials, their contacts. It's hard to get a good job in the French press. They know that if they break a story, they will get into trouble.”

And trouble is what Hertoghe got. Just before Christmas 2003, he was confronted by his editor, Bruno Frappat, who told him that he had “committed an act of treason” and fired him.

Hertoghe’s silencing was not a one-off. The French media has a tradition of silencing those who pipe up about its institutional bias and corruption. In 2002, La Face cachée du Monde (The Hidden Face of Le Monde) was brought out by Pierre Pean and Philippe Cohen. respectively France’s leading freelance investigative reporter and a business editor at the weekly Marianne. This investigation into the journalistic and editorial practices of the 400,000-circulation newspaper uncovered business malpractice, government control and flamboyant campaigns designed to pay off old scores (The authors recount how Le Monde, followed by the rest of France’s media, trumpeted a highly dubious accusation of sexual harassment against a prominent intellectual, brought by a close friend of one of the paper’s directors.)

Daniel Schneidermann, an editor at the paper who is also a prominent television personality, submitted a piece on the book and was immediately fired by the editors, who reacted furiously. "We have to know where you stand, Schneidermann”, he was told. “Are you in or out?" Then they fired him. Schneidermann at least was able to defend himself on his own TV show.

As for Hertoghe, his removal from La Croix was met with absolute silence in the French press. His book was not reviewed by a single mainstream newspaper and he was unable to get any other job in the French media. The rest of the world media was more disturbed and Heroghe’s sacking was reported by the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly even tried to get Hertoghe for an interview which he declined (“I thought it would be just about French bashing”, he said). 

“The message was clear”, concludes Denis Boyles. “The elite French press had lied to their readers and when someone called them on it and blew the whistle, they buried him in silence and public ridicule, all of which adds more tarnish to the cheap metal pot that constitutes journalism in France.”


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