Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Presumed Innocence

In France, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn “presumed innocent” until proven guilty? In fact, he is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Or worse, he is presumed guilty, until confirmed guilty since the French media usually expect courts to confirm their own “enlightened” judgment and can be extraordinarily vindictive when they don’t. Thus, a petition signed by thousands of journalists “condemning” the court that condemned the national French TV Channel Antenne II for broadcasting unsubstantiated allegations. This post is about the media treatment of the presumption of innocence.

Consider a driver who deliberately speeds and runs over a policeman in front of a crowd of witnesses in order to avoid being checked at a road block. The driver is described in the news as the “presumed” author of the policeman’s coma. The word “presumed” here is a language automatism, an adornment, a legal curlicue. There is not a shadow of a doubt that this driver‘s car hit the policeman. No matter how grotesque, the word “presumed” tends to be repeated in such situations “ad nauseaum.”

With DSK, we are in a situation where the presumption of innocence matters because the facts are not established. Despite various forms of lip service, this presumption is resolutely trampled. In a recent talk show about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, stand-up comedian Michel Boujenah expressed uneasiness about the fact that most of the journalists around him started from the premise that DSK was guilty. He reminded them that DSK had to be considered innocent until proven guilty. “Yes, yes,” said the journalists. Then they went on with their debate. To them, the presumption of innocence was an annoying contrivance, something akin to the presence of a vocal anti-racist at certain dinner parties; a presence that proves annoying since it prevents guests from cracking race jokes. The stand-up comedian reiterated his remark. He was definitely spoiling the fun. “OK,” replied one journalist, just add an “if” to everything I say. Just put my words in the conditional!” Then he resumed the discussion as if the guilt of DSK was beyond any doubt.

Ferry’s bomb

Such a contempt for the presumption of innocence serves as a background for a “public-sphere-bomb” that has just been thrown in the ongoing debate about Dominique Strauss-Kahn by the philosopher and former Minister of Education Luc Ferry.

In another talk-show watched by millions, Luc Ferry denounced a striking example of the silence observed by the French media when it comes to high political personnel, a silence that is now fashionably described as akin to Omertà, Ferry noted that no French newspaper had reported on the fact that one former French minister had been caught with young boys in a pedophilic party in Marrakesh, Morocco. Ferry added he had no proof of what he asserted. He also stated that had learned of such a scandal from a reliable source, a top-level government member whose name he did not provide.

The first and obvious response to this statement consists in seeing Ferry’s disclosure as detestable. Ferry might have spoken out of personal antagonism, out of spite, or as a form of revenge. Or, in compliance with the current mood among the members of the French journalistic establishment, Ferry would be combating the risk of Omertà by starting an inquisitorial process through an act of denunciation. If such a scenario were correct, I would unhesitatingly condemn Ferry. I know that any accused former minister could be identified in a matter of minutes. I also know that his life would be destroyed, whether the allegation is true or false. Submitted to an almost unanimous barrage of critiques, Ferry would also be required to justify his assertions in court.

Yet, this scenario does not seem convincing to me. Not only would I like to give the philosopher the benefit of the doubt, but, I have serious doubts about the meaning of his disclosure. Ferry’s carefully worded disclosure looks as if it had been supervised by a team of lawyers. Ferry does not give a name for the supposed pedophile. The high official he describes as his source remains anonymous. He insists that he has no evidence and no proof of what happened in Marrakesh. In other terms, Luc Ferry has entirely staged his public appearance as that of a rumor-mongerer. No name, no source, no proof. What game is he playing?

A fiction and a breakfast

I propose that Ferry’s “disclosure” could be a pedagogical exercise: a demonstration by a philosopher of the way the media routinely takes short-cuts and obstructs the process of justice. Ferry provides all the elements of a tragically recurring scenario. Here is a rumor without proof; a source that is not disclosed, an innuendo that precludes any possibility of refutation. In a way, Ferry’s charade expresses in a polemical form the uneasiness of the stand-up comedian.

Of course, this is my reading of Ferry’s gesture. Ferry has become a character in a story of fiction I am making up. But perhaps my fiction is not so far-fetched. Let me spell out what this fiction means. It means answering spectacle with spectacle. It means answering media traps with other media traps. It means holding in front of the media the irresistible bait of an unproven scandal. It means turning the table on a new form of inquisition that passes itself as journalism. It means pointing to the emperor’s new clothes. Ferry is using his clout as a minister and his prestige as a philosopher to hold a mirror to the French media. “You think what I just did is disgusting? How come you do it everyday? How come you do it right now?” Ferry is starting a guerrilla war. Humor can turn into a weapon. Let me conclude by appropriating an old joke.

Ferry enters a breakfast room and calls the waiter.

Ferry: “Please give me a cup of coffee, but tepid; two rolls, but stale; please also bring me a watery omelet and burned toast. Oh, and could you manage to be very, very slow?”

Waiter: “But, sir, how can you ask that? We have no such things in this hotel!”

Ferry: Oh really? Why then do you serve them everyday?”