Reporting live from the moral high ground

The Chevaline Murders

Yet again a news story and the particular nature of its coverage seem to reveal the chasm between British and French worldviews. For once, though, the issue at stake is not our respective attitudes to sex, but to murder. Today’s Daily Mail headline on the ‘Chevaline killings’ as they are referred to here in France, offers a hint of the fairly widespread British indignation at the perceived disconnect between our two nations: “Story of the brutal murders of British family driving in the Alps buried by the French Press.”

Having suggested that the French media are somehow trying to ‘bury’ the story, the article goes on to infer widespread callousness in the face of mass murder: “The shocking Alps massacre was dismissed as nothing more than a trivial news item by the French media.”

The evidence for these deductions is two-fold: (i) in the aftermath of the crime, no French papers chose to lead with the story but ‘relegated’ it to the later pages and (ii) that the murders have been widely described as a ‘fait divers’, which the Mail obligingly translates for us as ‘a trivial news item.’

Later in the article there is actually a suggestion that one reason for the ‘relegation’ of this story might be that the murder victims were foreigners. But no. The Mail goes on to observe: “Even when one of the victims was on Friday named as French local Sylvain Mollier, a father of three, only local papers and national tabloid,  Aujord’hui (sp.) put the story on the front page.”

So it is that in the space of a few lines we get the heady whiff of French dishonesty, callousness, and xenophobia. One would be forgiven for assuming that this is just The Daily Mail succumbing, as usual, to the delights of French-bashing but today’s Guardian carries the almost identical headline: “How French press buried the story.”

It would probably be useful to start by explaining the term, ‘fait divers.’ It does not actually mean ‘trivial news story’ but refers to the section of a newspaper that is traditionally devoted to anything that cannot be put into the various sections that tend to divide French newspapers: National, International, Politics, Economics, Sport etc.  In the Fait Divers section, you will find mostly ‘tragic’ news stories such as crime, accidents and robberies. More than French callousness, the location of the fait divers section points to France’s entrenched preference for ideas over reality and its slowness to modify its traditions.

British coverage has once again shown the French how deeply they are disliked across the Channel. L’Express notes with a kind of brave resignation, the hostility and schadenfreude behind much of the reporting of this story in Britain and includes a link to Colin Randall’s rather thin exposé in The Telegraph of “the violent underbelly beneath France’s bucolic charm.”

Surely no one seriously believes that French people are any less shocked and appalled by this crime than their British neighbours? France certainly has much to learn from Britain when it comes to investigative reporting but let’s not use this as an excuse for yet another moral campaign.

A version of this piece appears in today’s Independent


12 thoughts on “Reporting live from the moral high ground

  1. Hi – I was so cross about this mis-reporting that I emailed the Guardian but no response. As I was typing, there was a live broadcast from the TF1 correspondant, in Claygate Surrey, and this was the lead item of their 13:00 news. It was given a lot of TV time.
    In fact it reminded me of more mis-reporting when the new requirement to have a couple of alco-tests in the car (hopefully to keep lowering the number of fatalities on the roads here) was spun in the Daily Mail as: French police to make money out of British tourists to France. I just wonder how these so-called journalists can be so myopic.

  2. The Chevaline Murders and Journalism on the Two Sides of the Channel


    So it,appears that the story got just as much coverage in France and UK = The Guardian girl got it wrong = no story= no ‘chasm (chasm!!! pls!!) between the British and French worldviews’

    LONDON — Headlines to compare and contrast: Sept. 7, on, “Annecy killings: French media hunt for answers in murder case;” Sept. 9, on, “Alps shootings: how French press buried the story.”

    Both related to the coverage of a grisly murder of a British family and a French cyclist last week near the village of Chevaline in the Haute-Savoie region of France, also covered by my colleague Harvey Morris here on Rendezvous. But could the level of French interest in a murder of Britons on French soil really have changed that much over two days? Not at all, said my colleague Richard Berry in Paris, referring to wide coverage by French newspapers and television stations, which sent reporters to the Alps and to the family’s home in Britain.

  3. Hi Lucy,

    1. There is no ‘widespread moral indignation’. How would you know anyway?
    2. Apart from the silly Randall piece, I haven’t seen/heard any anti French stuff in any medium (internet, radio, TV, newspapers). No schadenfreude. Seems to be you/the French press that is stirring it up. ‘ Proves how deeply disliked the French are across the Channel’. What rubbish! Actually, focus is more on the family and search of their UK house
    3. Also a bit confused, are you saying the French coverage is less/more or about what you would expect, or are you trying to explain its relegation from the headlines?
    4. Inclusion in the ‘fait divers’ section and the location of that section’ shows the French preference for ideas over reality’ What on earth can you mean? Did the Osama Bin Laden or recent Libyan Ambassador killings appear in the ‘fait divers’ sections for the same reason?

  4. Lucy, as an American in London I can assure you that the British press is just as bad as the French press albeit in a different way (and the American press is also not great in its own way). That said, I think that there is a genuine criticism to be made of the lack of “curiosity” of the French press, not only on matters such as this but I also have the impression that many things are kept out of the press by the rich & powerful with reporters very willing to acquiesce.

  5. Lucy, I was in France with my French husband when the Chevaline murders hit the news and I have to say that I thought the French coverage was exactly what you’d expect of such an event and very comprehensive, especially on the TV news channels. I’m surprised the Brits have been so harsh on the French, who seem genuinely shocked and even embarrassed by the fact that this horrific crime took place on their side of the Channel. Only time will tell why this happened, but in the meantime, the French should NOT be criticised for their reporting of this tragedy; au contraire, mon frere!

  6. The Guardian fragment today is odd, as only the other day one of their journos reminded us of how little reaction was elicited here in UK by that murder of two students in London (for some reason I think of them as Brazilians). I’m getting the feeling the story is a gift for editors scrabbling for big stories to fill the void left by the winding down of London 2012.

  7. Lucy – bravo. I had the same thought myself this morning when I read this canard in The Guardian of all places but frankly couldn’t be bothered to post a comment at the bottom of the article. You have done my work for me, which suits me. I would only suggest that the British press is as terrible as the French press. I am not sure there are many investigations in the British press. And I am not sure that either is much but propaganda and the prejudices of editors who have no contact whatsoever with reality, existing in a media bubble which corrupts the media as much as the scandalous behaviour of treacherous journalists. The other point about this story – beyond sentiment – is that this case has had massive coverage in France. Massive. So these reports are just a lie using carefully selected factois, merged with pure invention, to produce total bullshit.

  8. Excellent post. Because the case involves British nationals, the UK press is focusing on it. If it had been two foreigners shot in a deserted layby in Scotland, I doubt the national papers would have carried it on their front pages.

  9. Totally agree – similar story with the British expat who has allegedly been murdered by her gardener. UK Daily Express said this shows a “more sinister side to expat life” – because of course there is that hidden but prevalent side to life here where we’re all at it with our gardeners, handymen and cook! (I wish!). I think it reflects the feelings of journalists rather than average Joe – jealousy perhaps?

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