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