The sight of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man so rich that he wears $7000 dollar suits, a man so powerful that he could make or break countries with a single policy, being forced to sit in a New York courtroom, handcuffed, unshaven, disheveled and mute has inevitably unleashed a torrent of comment on both sides of the Atlantic.
There has, of course, been a large element of schadenfreude in the response, malicious glee at seeing a powerful figure cut down to size. Anglo-American commentators especially have relished the fall of a haughty, Gallic champagne socialist seemingly unable to keep his pants up. There has also been, in some circles, a rush to convict DSK before a shred of evidence has been laid before a court.
There has also, however, been genuine shock and, particularly in France, bewilderment, even outrage, at the treatment meted out to DSK. ‘Nothing’, the French philosopher, and leading public intellectual, Bernard-Henri Levy wrote, ‘permits the entire world to revel in the spectacle, this morning, of this handcuffed figure, his features blurred by 30 hours of detention and questioning, but still proud.’
This shock and outrage at DSK’s treatment derives partly from the fact that we are still in thrall to the idea that crime, especially sordid, violent crime, is the work primarily of the underclass. Those who live on council estates or banlieus may rape and rob and rampage. The elite, however, lives to a different moral code. Strauss-Kahn, his friend BHL wrote, cannot possibly be ‘this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere.’ He was ‘Charming, seductive, yes, certainly; a friend to women and, first of all, to his own woman, naturally, but this brutal and violent individual, this wild animal, this primate, obviously no, it’s absurd.’ None of us know yet, of course, whether or not DSK is guilty as charged and we should regard him as innocent until proven guilty. But there is a sense in much of the outrage about his treatment not just that he is innocent until proven guilty but that he is innocent because – well, because he is well-heeled, educated and refined. And someone like that could not possibly be so brutal or monstrous.
The shock and outrage derives also from the discomfort of seeing the rich and powerful be given equal treatment before the law. If you and I had been arraigned for the crime DSK is alleged to have committed, and had been handcuffed, refused bail and incarcerated on Rikers Island, no one would have batted an eyelid. And certainly if a black man or a Latino, had been so charged, and so treated, it would have seemed entirely normal and acceptable. The social and political elite, however, thinks that it should be treated differently. ‘I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other’, wrote BHL. Well, yes, that’s exactly what justice means: treating every defendant, irrespective of wealth, power or political connections, ‘like any other’.
The US justice system is deeply flawed and institutionally biased – witness the disproportionate numbers of African Americans in prison and on death row. And yet when it does treat a rich defendant in the same way as it might treat a poor one, there is shock and bafflement. For all our celebration of the idea of equal treatment before the law, there is a pervasive expectation of, and indeed demand for, unequal treatment.
The French response to DSK also throws light on the debate about privacy which is now taking place in many European countries. There is growing concern about the unacceptable intrusiveness of the tabloid press, and about what should be done to rein it in. Perhaps nowhere has this debate been more intense than in Britain where there have been calls for the introduction of strict French-style privacy laws to protect the private lives of celebrities and politicians from a particularly intrusive press.
There is certainly something deeply unpleasant about the culture of news in Britain (and not just that of tabloid news). Much of it is little more than idle gossip that is often embarrassing, even distressing, to the subjects concerned. The fact that newspapers, and newspaper readers, seem so obsessed by the sex lives, drinking habits, and party antics, of footballers and actors and pop stars reveals something distasteful about British culture. And yet, we should be wary of the calls for the kinds of privacy legislation that we see in France.
What the French response to the DSK affair suggests is that a defence of ‘privacy’ can all too easily become a cloak for deference to authority and a failure to put public figures under scrutiny. It is true that the extra-marital affairs of DSK or of any other public figure are of no relevance except to the people involved. But it is equally true that privacy laws in France have helped create a culture in which the media has taken a ‘hand off’ attitude to public figures.
The British press in no champion of investigative reporting. It is not just too intrusive, but intrusive in the wrong areas. It confuses sex scandals with investigative journalism, and salaciousness with public interest. It is often strongly conformist in its attitudes, vicious and personal in its campaigning, and pursues a strident political agenda. There is little proper probing of issues from Iraq to immigration. Yet, given the choice, I would much prefer to live with the intrusive, trivializing British tabloids rather than with the deferential, hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, look-the-other-way attitude of much of the French press. Far better to have a nasty, abusive but potentially open press than a civilized media, constrained by laws, that has forgotten the role of independent journalism and has become the pliant creature of those in power.