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Wednesday, January 15, 2014 

The wacky French and their wacky views on privacy.

When it comes to schadenfreude on the part of the media, it doesn't get much more pathetic than their collective opinion on France. You don't have to be aware of the Sun's headline "ZE FROGS ARE FILTHY: OFFICIAL" to know the press doesn't much care for our friends on the continent. They are, variously, dirty, weak, lazy, vain, self-regarding, womanisers, rude and good at pretty much nothing except surrendering. At the same time and contradictorily we naturally envy their very joie de vivre, their almost blasé attitude towards sex, and some even on the right grudgingly admire the bloodymindedness of their unions and farmers in sticking two fingers up to both governments and the EU.

Much as I tend to think in my more misanthropic moments that Britain is a beautiful country spoiled only by the natives, so those in the media who adore and might even have a holiday home in France itself think the same about the French. Their view of the nation and the stereotypes in which they so often paint the country, with the French then responding in kind about us "ros bifs", is especially refracted through the prism of our press versus theirs. On our side we have a boisterous, indefatigable, completely uninhibited media, which even now sees the sale of millions of copies of newsprint every day, whereas they have a cerebral, intelligent and generally respectful industry, which is precisely why in their view it sells a fraction of copies ours does.

More to the point, this apparent deference towards and respect for the privacy of even the most public figures makes a mockery of the very spirit of the free press. While the whole rest of the world is talking about president Francois Hollande and his apparent affair with Julie Gayet, a liaison which came as such a shock to Hollande's partner Valerie Trierweiler that she has been admitted to hospital, the French press limited themselves to asking about the alleged relationship in an extremely roundabout way, questioning Hollande over whether Trierweiler was still first lady, or if his security might have been loosened by the trysts. Hollande, politely as possible, insisted that private matters should remain just that.

Bashing the French and their odd little ways is of course tremendous fun. We would never allow our top politicians for instance to conduct affairs and then respect their calls for privacy, or indeed do the same when it comes to the royal family. From Fergie toe-sucking to Squidgygate, they've all been caught at it and exposed in the press. Curiously though, you don't tend to read much about the infidelities of Prince Philip himself, which seems distinctly odd. Still, the exception that proves the rule, right?

I mean, the media would never believe lies on the scale of those told by Mitterand, for instance. We draw the line surely at pursuing our representatives to the point of forcing them to resign over a blowjob, but otherwise we like to know who's shagging whom. It wouldn't take, say, the autobiography of a former minister to expose her relationship with a prime minister, for instance. Nor would suggestions that the breakdown of the marriage between a media baron and his younger wife might be linked to another former prime minister be quickly stamped on and not heard about again.  Our media is so dog eat dog in fact that even affairs between journalists themselves are reported on, especially when one of those involved was married to a soap star.  As for the exposing of those who've abused their celebrity, the record of the press is second to none, as we've seen over the past couple of years.

The fact is our media only exposes those it decides to, and even then only makes a song and dance about certain individuals, generally because they've either refused to go along with the narrative they're told to or have dared to involve their lawyers. It doesn't help that every editor seems to imagine that this latest example of infidelity by a politician could be a modern version of the Profumo affair, forgetting that one man died and another felt he had to pay penance for the rest of his days as a result of his shortlived relationship with a call girl. It also feels distinctly odd for the British media as a whole to feel so superior so soon after Leveson, when it was the very pursuit of such mundane details about celebrities and politicians that brought it so low.  Anyone would think some are trying to compensate for an ongoing trial which continues in the background.

Moreover, we're closer to the French position on privacy than the tabloids would like as it is. They might think indiscretions still sell papers, but it tends not to make us think any less of someone unless the details are especially sordid. And why should it? We only ought to know about an affair if it's affecting a politician so severely that their work has been significantly impaired. Only David Blunkett comes to mind as this being true of in recent years, while arguably Francois Hollande's alleged affair would also meet this criteria due to how it's impacted on Trierweiler. Vicky Pryce can also attest that seeking revenge via even as august an organ as the Sunday Times can go horribly wrong, not least when those you trusted turn over their source material with barely a fight.  It might also be worth remembering journalists and politicians consistently come bottom of trust surveys.  Could there possibly be a link?

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