Picture this in today’s American media: an Edgar Hoover-like chief of a major police agency cozying up to veteran reporters of Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker. To these cronies, the chief feeds dirty information, unverified gossip, unproven suspicion of corruption of X or Z, all of it “dug up” by federal investigators paid with taxpayers’ money. In return, the happy recipients share the loot with their handlers. And if they don’t, they quote “anonymous sources”.
This is exactly what happened in France, up to Yves Bertrand’s 2004 retirement. For 12 years, he was the director of a special branch of the French police (les Renseignements Généraux — General Intelligence). His carefully maintained and amazingly chatty notebooks have been subpoenaed in a recent slander case involving former prime minister Dominique de Villepin.
A book published last week, “Les Carnets noirs de la République“, pores over 2000 pages of the Gallic Hoover’s notebooks. The deciphering was done by Patrick Rougelet, a former deputy of this special branch who was fired when he began to investigate his boss’ financial dealings (don’t do that).
One of the most delightful chapters exposes the relationships between this police branch and the Who’s Who of French investigative journalism. The hooverish Yves Bertrand weaved close relationships with people at dailies such as Le Monde or Libération, and weeklies such as l’Express, Le Point, Marianne, to name but a few. In those organizations, regular correspondents — the book calls them “the perfused” – traded information on a regular basis. Yves Bertrand also fed the French PR goddess, Anne Méaux (today, she advises French billionnaire François Pinault, but also Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Banque Lazard). If that wasn’t enough, Frédéric Ploquin, one of Bertrand’s correspondent, had the nerve to be the interviewer for the self-justifying book, Ce que je n’ai pas dit dans mes carnets, published by the former skunk-police chief. Ploquin, the self-appointed “Grand Reporter”, works for Marianne, probably the most sermonizing French weekly (how come a newsroom can tolerate such a living journalistic accident remains a mystery to me).
Yves Bertrand’s former perfused are genuinely annoyed by this unpleasant coming out. But they are numerous and quite active. Actually, a good indicator of their penetration is the scarce number of reviews the book has got in the French medias. Omerta is an Italian vocable it seemed…
In the bad breadth journalism category, a special award must go to the Canard Enchaîné, an old-fashioned, old-managed weekly that remains a must-read in France. Not because of its investigative grasp, but because of its capability to aggregate well-connected (anonymous) whistle-blowers and tipsters. In a nutshell, the Canard Enchaîné is the spillway for government or corporate officials’ frustrations, it carries very juicy pieces of information. If Le Canard’s “Page 2″ were set in the US, you’d read a detailed account of tensions among Barack Obama’s closest advisors: Valerie Jarrett bashing Rahm Emmanuel, Larry Summers quarreling with Ben Bernake, and the President himself, commenting one cabinet officer’s blunder with the utmost vulgarity (a Sarkozy trademark). Here, the investigation part — classic journalism footwork, is marginal. Over the years, the Canard has been able to weave a vast network of sources, fed by the endless reservoir of frustration in French politics. Of course, as the notebooks show, Le Canard Enchaîné was well-placed in Yves Bertrand’s ecosystem. Its managing editor Claude Angeli was an assiduous correspondent. The old goat must also have some kind of deep throat in the military intelligence establishment: every week, we have prurient accounts of coalition’s turpitudes in Afghanistan and Iraq, why Israel is about to attack Iran, etc.).
That’s French for “investigative journalism”. For a significant part, it relies on a great deal of passivity, on a bunch of dubious, agenda-driven sources. All that is needed is a fax machine, an e-mail address or, for the most dedicated, an expense account (French restaurant are expensive, you know). All the while, these media dinosaurs keep bashing the blogosphere, the internet pure-players, the free papers, all considered as low grade journalism.
And, by the way, this brand of journalism is a great business model : the Canard Enchaîné is the most profitable French weekly with €34m in revenue and a net after-tax profit of €7.8m for 2008 (no ads, no presence on the internet). Good for them. —firstname.lastname@example.org