Donald Trump has undoubtedly made his disdain for the media part of his political agenda. As the adversarial relationship between the White House and the press intensifies, many look longingly to Europe for an example as to how things should be. But, that’s shortsighted. The relationship between members of the government and the press in Europe, where constitutional protections of free expression aren’t as rigorous, is now even more worrisome than in the United States.
The European media believes Trump’s fake news attacks to be so damaging that they are no longer holding back on their rhetoric. From calling him a clown to a dictator, to the fact that The Guardian ran a cartoon depicting the White House in the shape of a KKK robe.
The question here is not whether the Trump administration deserves the criticism it gets, but what its reaction to the criticism has been. Trump has repeatedly called CNN, “fake news.” So what? Imagine the outburst of indignation if any member of the US president's cabinet were to sue a left-leaning media outlet because he did not the approve of the content? Needless to say, if Donald Trump would like to sue for defamation the same way he’d be able to in Europe, he’d have quite something to work with.
The Holiday Scandal
The newly elected French President Macron cannot be all too happy about this new scandal.
Last week, the French media agency Mediapart broke a story about the extravagant vacations of France’s Minister of Public Action and Accounts, Gerald Darmanin, and Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition Sébastien Lecornu. No, I did not make up those titles. On its website, the left-leaning Mediapart reveals that the two government ministers were spending their holidays on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, in a house owned by Miss Corsica 1993, Christelle Godani. Godani is the girlfriend of Gilbert Casanova, a Corsican secessionist activist who, in 2005, was convicted of asset misappropriation fraud (to the tune of €2.5 million), and drug trafficking, serving eight years in prison.
Both ministers have denied having any knowledge of a convicted criminal owning their holiday resort. On Facebook, Darmanin explains that they booked the villa via an online booking platform and were unaware of the landlord’s identity. The article, however, claimed that both ministers “received a warm welcome from the couple upon their arrival on Sunday night.”
But upon revelation, Darmanin took to Twitter to announce that he and Lecornu were filing a lawsuit "Defamed in an article by Mediapart, we will sue [the outlet]."
The newly elected French President Macron cannot be all too happy about this new scandal––both he and his government have been dropping significantly in the polls recently. These low numbers are likely related to the president’s own gaffes, as well as the fact that multiple members of his cabinet had to resign over accusations of misusing public funds. François Bayrou, Macron's minister in charge of “the moralization of politics,” fighting fraud and patronage, had to step down over accusations of clientelism on his own. Bayrou also angrily called a newspaper office, threateningly telling them to stop reporting on the issue.
There is a difference between adversarial rhetoric, and using your executive standing to pressure media outlets to not report the news.
In France, the lawsuit regarding the two ministers being hosted by a convicted criminal means that two members of the executive are suing a media agency in a country known for its heavily politicized court system. In the constitutional council, the supposed watchman for the respect of the values of free expression enshrined in the French constitution, two-thirds of the members are either appointed by the president himself or by Parliament, which is overwhelmingly in the hands of Macron's party La République En Marche. Unlike in the United States, politicians have quite the hold on the judicial branch. It is common practice that the courts follow the lead of policy makers, making them very subjective to whoever is in power. This makes lawsuits by politicians ultimately more threatening than calling a news website “garbage.”
Two members of the French cabinet are being hosted in the villa of a convicted fraudster and drug dealer, and now they sue a news agency for revealing it. Where is the outcry? There is a difference between adversarial rhetoric, and using your executive standing to pressure media outlets to not report the news.
Conistency Is Key
Press freedom remains essential to the fabric of a free society. It is not a tool to be politicized towards the goals of a certain ideology. When it comes to the restriction of free expression or the intimidation of journalists, people should stand together in opposition to whoever is in charge. Indignation is only helpful if it is consistent. Europe may be more courteous in its political dialogue, but in the absence of a First Amendment, it is a more dangerous terrain for journalists to launch inquiries into those who are in power.
Be upset if Donald Trump insults journalists. Be horrified when Macron’s ministers start to sue them.