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OPINION

Eye on France: Pierre Péan passes away

Pierre Péan, the French journalist who died on Thursday at the age of 81.
Pierre Péan, the French journalist who died on Thursday at the age of 81. AFP/MIGUEL MEDINA

The English writer G. K. Chesterton famously observed that journalism largely consists in saying "Lord Jones is dead" to people who never knew he was alive in the first place. With that definition in mind, and with all due respects to his bereaved family and friends, Pierre Péan is dead.

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Pierre Péan was a French investigative journalist, who spent years researching his subjects and then published his findings in book form, at the rate of one book every three or four years.

He passed away yestrerday at the age of 81.

He would, I hasten to add, instantly reject the qualification "investigative journalist", insisting that he left the business of investigation to those professionally qualified, the police, while he simply inquired into people and situations that intrigued him.

His masterpiece is probably the book he published in 1994 on François Mitterrand, then president of the French Republic. Péan avoided the niceties of the biographer, choosing to focus on Mitterrand in the years between 1934 and 1947, during which period the socialist leader went from working for the right-wing collaborationist government of Maréchal Philippe Pétain to being an active resistant against the Nazi invaders.

Pierre Péan always went for the big targets, regardless of their political orientation . . . right-wing president Jacques Chirac and the populist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen also got the treatment.

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

Péan started his career as a ministerial advisor in Gabon, before moving to journalism. His first major scoop appeared in the satirical weekly paper Le Canard Enchaîné in 1979, and concerned a president’s ransom in diamonds which the Central African emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa may have given to the holder of the top French job, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The revelations did nothing to help Giscard get re-elected two years later.

Unusually in the closed world of the French media, Péan had the clout and the courage to take on some of the biggest names in the business, shining a harsh light on the workings and associations of the privately-owned TV channel TF1, and also shaking up the self-satisfied super journalists at the centrist daily paper Le Monde.

Pierre Péan also wrote about Africa, notably, in 1983, the murky relations between France and Gabon, and a 2005 volume on the Rwandan genocide with the significant title Black anger, white lies. Perhaps the highest praise that can be given that book is that it was condemned about equally by Hutus, Tutsis, French, Belgians and virtually anybody else with a vested interest in the 1994 tragedy.

The dilemma facing modern journalists

Pierre Péan believed that the contemporary journalist faced a difficult dilemma, linked to the fact that the press has become a virtual parallel tribunal, without the same legal safeguards as in the courts.

He liked to point out that, in the original 1789 Declaration of Human Rights, the presumption of innocence was the ninth article, with the freedom of the press following in article 11. He felt that we are living in a period in which that order has been reversed. And that such an inversion is bad news for democracy, for justice and, ultimately, for truth.

Contemporary journalists who wait for whistle-blowers to provide them with their next scoop earned Péan's deepest scorn. “They are the pawns of the powerful,” Péan told Le Figaro in an interview, adding that the writers risk being used by those in search of revenge or who are working out some complex judicial strategy.

And the secret of successful journalistic inquiry? Simply take your time.

Contemporary editors, compelled to attract more readers with fewer journalists, won’t like the sound of that. But Péan was categoric: his success was based his the capacity to re-invest the profits made on one book in the research for the next one. Today’s journalists just don’t have enough time.

He also warned that we can go too far in our demands for access to all sorts of information. There are some secrets that a state must be allowed to protect. According to Pierre Péan, the demand for absolute transparency is itself a form of dictatorship. Journalists have to respect the law too.

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