Ever since the outbreak of the Strauss-Kahn affair I’ve been puzzling: why the press in France had no qualms about publishing the name and then the photos of the charwoman, who is the main witness and the victim, in the case against the former IMF chief, while the media in America and Britain have refrained from doing so on ethical grounds. And with that, the French are lambasting the Anglo-Saxon media for their treatment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself.
I was glad to find that I am not alone in this puzzlement. In comparing the way Anglo-American press treats the Strauss-Kahn affair with the situation in France nothing is more startling than France24, the news and analysis TV channel. It has both English and French language versions. The English is run according to 'Anglo-Saxon' standards, but the French follows customs of the country's press.
'What you almost certainly won't know, as a viewer of France 24's English-language output, is the accuser's name', writes Douglas Herbert, the International Affairs Editor. 'That's because neither I nor, to the best of my knowledge, any of my anglophone colleagues will utter it, wittingly, on air.'
'Zap over to our French-language channel, however, and be prepared to enter a parallel broadcast universe. There, Strauss-Kahn's alleged victim is named with the same insouciance as one might tick off the name of the day's stage winner in the Tour de France cycling race. To be sure, there is no formal ban against media organisations naming rape victims in the United States. But most newspapers and TV and radio outfits choose to refrain from voluntarily outing the identities of victims, alleged or otherwise.
'The basic argument against naming is a standard one: rape is different in nature from other crimes, and many victims, despite some advances, are still blamed for what happened to them. I can't help but feel that there is something gratuitous about the mediatic naming of victims. Nor can I discern any compelling public interest in doing so.
'On the other hand, I can clearly make the opposite case: that naming victims, and splashing their photos across the front page, as France's Le Monde ignominiously did earlier this week with Strauss-Kahn's accuser, feeds our voyeuristic cravings and little more.
'In a week when everyone is waxing indignant over the scruples-proof practices of Britain's tabloid media, perhaps a little more indignation is in order over the way much of the French media has outed Strauss-Kahn's accuser. It's a shame that the "Everyone is doing it" mentality is so pervasive in the French media that most journalists here see little need for any ethical debate on the issue. Those who suggest there may be room for such a debate open themselves up to being pilloried as righteous, or smug.'
In America one recent study found that about nine out of 10 women would be disinclined to report a rape if they feared their names would be published by the press. According to activists, the situation is similar, if not worse in France. Julie Muert, a spokesperson for Osez le féminisme group, says in theFrenchPaper:
‘Today, one woman in 10 dares to press charges; two percent of the 75,000 rapes a year end in a sentence, in a country where rape has been recognised as a crime since 1980, but is still not taken seriously and where suspicion is still directed at the plaintiff. Daring to press charges still takes enormous courage. We would like to see the police and justice system given more training to deal with sexual violence, an improvement in the support given to victims, but also prevention measures through learning about respect between girls and boys from a young age.’
Photo of Strauss-Kahn by Stephen Jaffe, from here.