DC Week in Review: DSK and the Presumption of Guilt

Jeff

As I reported last week, Daniel Dayan and I had a nice lunch in Paris on the terrace of a little restaurant at the Palais Royal. He ate blood sausage. My wife, Naomi, and I had couscous with chicken. I followed Daniel’s recommendation and ordered mine with olives, a dish that was his grandmother’s specialty back in Morocco. We discussed what proved to be the theme of last week, looking at North Africa and the Middle East from the point of view of Europe. But of course, we couldn’t and didn’t ignore the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, then raging in Paris. The following evening, he extended his side of the conversation in a crisp essay, which we posted on Monday. Here I continue my side of the conversation.

My first response came in the form of an email I wrote him upon receiving his piece:

I don’t agree with you on all points, centered on two issues: the way the distinction between private and public moves (the most general issue), and how the presumption of innocence necessarily varies from one institutional sphere to the next, from the judiciary to the police to the press, for example. Consider the case of a child molester and how the presumption is enacted or not by different people placed differently in the society. This is an empirical and normative issue. More soon. Again it was great seeing you and great receiving the post.

In the case of a child molester, the police look for a suspect and attempt to confirm guilt, while in court there must be a presumption of innocence. Before, during and after a trial, the press and the general public judges, independently of formal legalities, and explores whether they think justice is done by the police and the courts, sometimes in a sensational way. The spheres of public activity and the press are different from the professional activities of the police and the courts. And quite clearly, when the issue is child molestation, the public and the press are predisposed, often without regard to the solidity of the evidence, to believe the police, given the nature of the crime . . .

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Presumed Innocence

DSK's apartment on 153 Franklin St, New York City © 2011 Patsw | Wikimedia Commons

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 . . .

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