Andreas Whittam Smith: A tale of power, privacy and pictures in 'Paris Match'

The editor published pictures of Cécilia, the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, with her lover
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The Independent Online

The famous rule that "all political careers end in failure" applies equally to football managers and to editors of national publications. For a dramatic example in relation to the press, one must turn to Paris, where last week the editor of Paris Match and the editor of Libération were given the sack. The two cases moved me in their different ways.

I have great sympathy for Alain Genestar, who had been editing Paris Match for seven years. He was not fired because France's leading news magazine, with a weekly sale of 730,00 copies, was doing badly. On the contrary M. Genestar is a widely admired editor who must have felt very safe in his job. For the tradition of Paris Match is that editors remain in the post for many years. The magazine took its present form in 1949, when it was relaunched after the war as a French version of the American magazine, Life. It has always specialised in what it calls "grands reportages" and exclusive sets of news pictures.

All the great portrait and news photographers have worked for it, including Karsh, Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Salgado. The nearest British equivalent was Picture Post, which ceased publication many years ago. Paris Match is not solemn - Brigitte Bardot still holds the record for the most covers, 39 appearances. Nor is it respectful, and that is what has led to the dismissal of the editor.

M. Genestar published pictures of Cécilia, the wife of the Interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, with her lover in New York. This naturally enraged M. Sarkozy, who turned to his friend Arnaud Lagardère, the owner of Paris Match. M. Lagardère said M. Genestar had broken an agreement to let him know in advance if he was planning to publish embarrassing photographs - which is the same thing as giving the owner the right of veto. Deprived of this privilege, M. Lagardère decided to exercise an even greater power: dismissal.

Any astonishment felt at this turn of events should be tempered by the fact that France, unlike Britain, has legal protection for privacy. The tort of privacy was first recognised in the middle of the 19th century and was formally added to the Civil Code in 1970. A French Court recently ruled, for instance, that e-mails sent over the internet were covered by the country's privacy laws, and awarded damages to a student who had had his mail tapped by university officials.

What I most admire about M. Genestar is his manner of leaving. He made no public complaints. And, above his final column, he placed a photograph that he had kept on his desk throughout his editorship. He revealed that it was taken in Budapest in 1956, during the uprisings against occupation by the Soviet Union. It shows a young man, a rifle slung round his shoulder, standing in a street full of rubble, reading a newspaper. The photographer was killed soon after by a Russian soldier. M. Genestar told his readers that he always looked again at this image before writing his weekly piece. He tried to imagine what the young man was reading, what he was thinking, what were his feelings, were they determination, pride, anger, rebellion?

Serge July, who founded the French daily newspaper, Libération, more than 30 years ago and has been editor ever since was in a very different situation. He was fired for refusing to make further cuts in staffing demanded by a new leading shareholder, Edouard de Rothschild. M. de Rothschild said he would not invest further while M. July remained in charge. As M. July explained to readers in his farewell article: "We have not been wasteful, we've made many cutbacks, reduced staff, outsourced certain activities, frozen salaries, not replaced staff who left." But nonetheless the loss for the year is now forecast to be three times what was originally forecast. As always, money talks.

In terms of his relationship with his colleagues, M. July was also facing a difficult situation. The newspaper itself described a nightmare meeting of staff that M. July held earlier this year. He started to speak. This time there was not the usual passionate debate, but total silence. Then, before he had finished, everybody left the room without saying a word. Only M. July was left. He had never experienced that before. Looks, anger, raised hands, clenched fists, but not icy rejection. These events vibrate in my mind. In his last piece, M. Genestar added this advice for his successors: "To write for Match makes sense only if it is accompanied by a photograph or inspired by one."

For those of us who love photojournalism, which daily newspapers can practise only in part, these are stirring words. We wait for the miracle picture which does the whole job and provides aesthetic satisfaction at the same time. A recent example was the photograph of John Prescott playing croquet at Dorneywood. It was perfectly composed, as if by a master artist. Words were unnecessary.

As for M. July, at least his angry colleagues could say this about him: he never once asked a writer to change an opinion, not even by a phrase or a word. All views could cohabit in his newspaper, even to the point of contradiction. "But what is your political line," the reader would ask. Answer: no line. None at all. Only shared values: "le respect et la fraternité". Or, as I would put it, "respect the reader; trust the writer".