The Strange Case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Questions of Accountability and More

Atul Singh argues that corrupt and meek French media, bureaucratic and callous administration at the IMF, and a mediocre global media are the reasons why allegations of sexual harassment against Strauss-Kahn went unexamined and ignored for so long.

The sight of the chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) being marched off in handcuffs has triggered a frenzied media furor across the world.  Many international figures have raised questions, ranging from discussions of pervasive sexism amongst powerful men, to debates on who should head the IMF. However, the one fundamental issue that has not been adequately addressed is accountability.

Accountability is, to put it very simply, the notion that that those in power should be accountable and answerable for their actions.  In any democracy, citizens have to hold those in power in check for there to be a rule of law and some sort of a just society.  The media, in particular, has a duty to hold the mighty to account and for that reason is called the fourth estate.

Regardless of whether Dominique Strauss-Kahn, “the great seducer”, is guilty or not, what is worrying is the fact that for years the media stayed silent on a number of allegations about his sexual misdemeanors.  Three parties were culpable of this silence – the French media, the IMF and the global media.

The first party, the French media, has simply abandoned its duty of questioning the powerful for many decades.  Media ownership is concentrated far too narrowly in the hands of a few politically well connected proprietors and, if journalists displease the powers that be, they can bid their careers adieu.  The media proprietors are in bed with the political elite and both of them form part of an incredibly narrow social elite.  Ironically, the Socialist Party, of which Strauss-Kahn was a member, is even more elitist than its rivals and has leaders who are all alumni of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – Martine Aubry, Segolene Royal and Francois Holland.  The concentration of power in such a small number of players has meant that the media is obsequious to those in power.  French Presidents have revised interviews as a matter of right. Journalists did not report on Mitterand’s use of taxpayer money to support his mistress and illegitimate daughter.  Similarly, Chirac’s corruption and abuse of power went unreported and, even though he is finally being tried for corruption, he has not had to face the type of media scrutiny that exists in the US or Germany.  Perhaps most scandalously, the serving culture minister, Frederic Mitterand, nephew of the erstwhile President, still continues to occupy office despite describing in his book about how he paid to have sex with “boys” in Thailand.

In Strauss-Kahn’s case, what is worrying is that the French media not only did not cover the allegations against him but also went to the extent of almost covering his tracks.  The most quoted story these days from The Economist to The New York Times is that of Tristane Banon.  In 2007, during a television show broadcast, she alleged that Strauss-Kahn tried to rape her after luring her into his apartment when she was 21-year-old trainee journalist.  Strauss-Kahn’s name was beeped out during the broadcast.  Aurelie Filipetti, a respected French Socialist MP, said in 2008 that she was groped by Strauss-Kahn and would 'forever make sure' she was never 'alone in a room with him'.  Again the French media routinely ignored this allegation.  The French explain this reticence through privacy laws and a more tolerant view of sex but the fact of the matter is that allegations like these need to be aired and heard instead of being swept under the carpet.  Furthermore, this reticence did not stop the French media from revealing the name, address and other details of the American chambermaid whose allegation has led to Strauss-Kahn’s arrest.  This action is highly hypocritical and reveals that it is not respect for privacy but fear of those in power that dictates coverage in the French media.  France, in more ways than one, still remains a pre-modern society with a veneer of modern institutions lacking will and ability to hold the powerful accountable and, in many ways, is more akin to third world corrupt polities instead of robust first world democracies like Finland, Germany or the US.

The second party, the IMF, does not appear in flattering light either.  Strauss-Kahn had an affair with Piroska Nagy who alleged that the relationship was not entirely consensual.  In her letter to the IMF written in 2008, she stated, "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t… [DSK is] a man with a problem that may make him ill-equipped to lead an institution where women work under his command.”  The IMF board, upon hearing about the affair, hired a law firm to investigate it.  The scope of the investigation was narrowly defined in terms of whether Ms. Nagy had received any advantages in promotion or pay as a result of her relationship.  Needless to say that with such a narrow scope of investigation, the board could safely conclude that Nagy had received no undue benefit from her relationship, and while Strauss-Kahn’s behavior was inappropriate, it was not an abuse of power.  Nagy resigned from the IMF in August 2008 and it is ironic that she faced such a situation despite the IMF’s Internal Evaluation Office admitting that the organization lacked “clear and protected arrangements for reporting possible misconduct” by its boss and “clear disciplinary arrangements” in case misconduct were to occur.  The IMF comes across as an old boys club where the boss can still exercise primitive prima nocta rights and get away with it.

The third party, the global media, has to shoulder much of the blame too.  An institution like the IMF that presides over the global economic architecture needs to scrutinize candidates who are propped up to head the institution.  As an institution it has clearly shown itself to be unable to carry out such scrutiny and, like many institutions of an earlier era, chooses to function behind a wall of opacity.  In light of this fact, it is the responsibility of the media in other countries to examine the actions of the head of the IMF.  The IMF is located at Washington DC and the US media should have investigated Strauss-Kahn’s affair with Nagy more thoroughly.  Furthermore, the rest of the world media has scores of foreign correspondents in the city who did not investigate the affair either.  The global media bought into what increasingly seems to be an IMF cover up and abdicated its fundamental duty to hold the mighty accountable.

The reasons for media gullibility or timidity are many.  Young journalists are under increasing pressure to feed the incessant 24/7 news cycle.  Furthermore, while blogs have proliferated and there is a lot of extreme opinion, traditional media outlets have declined and have few resources for analysis or investigation.  For an increasingly complex world to have more accountability the media model has to be reinvented.  Journalists have to relearn how to investigate, analyze and keep a check on those in power.

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