An article on Mediapart’s website revealed that any delay or failure to comply with the ruling would see the two publications penalised 10,000 euro per day. The court also forbade the future publication of “all or part of these recordings on any platform, electronic, print or other.” Both Le Point and Mediapart have also been ordered to pay 20,000 euro in damages to L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettancourt, and 10,000 euro to her former financial advisor Patrice de Maistre, one of several figures accused of taking advantage of Bettancourt’s increasingly frail state of mind.
Known in France as ‘L’affaire Bettencourt’, the scandal that rocked French high society first errupted back in 2007, when Bettencourt’s daughter Françoise Bettencourt-Meyer accused socialite and photographer François-Marie Banier of “abus de faiblesse,” after discovering that he had received €1 billion worth of gifts in the form of art works and insurance policies. Things took a far more dramatic – and politically significant – turn three years later, when it became known that Betancourt’s butler Pascal Bonnefoy had secretly taped meetings that took place in the heiress’s household for a year. Interviewed by Le Point shortly after the contents of the tapes was made public, Bonnefoy claimed to have amassed the 41 hours of recordings because he feared that unscrupulous individuals were aiming to benefit financially from his employer’s frailty. Among those implicated in extracting money from Bettentcourt was then President of France Nicolas Sarkozy, alleged to have received illicit payments from the L’Oréal billionaire to fund his successful 2007 campaign.
Mediapart, the online investigative news site founded by former Le Monde journalist Edwy Plenel in 2008, was the first news outlet to publish key elements of the tapes in June 2010. Before getting hold of the recordings the site, which places all of its content behind a €9 per-month paywall, had only 25,000 subscribers, half the amount it needed to break even on its €2.5 million start-up investment. After beating Le Point in the race to be the first to broadcast the fruits of Bonnefoy’s labours, Mediapart attracted 5,000 new subscribers in that month alone. The site built on this success over the following three years, uncovering some of France’s biggest political scandals and ended 2012 with a profit of $1.5 million. Describing Plenel, media sociologist Divina Frau Meigs told NPR: “He’s playing a sort of independent watchdog role. So he’s denouncing whatever is not working in the French system, and there are quite a few things and quite a few problems in France in terms of transparency of politics.”
Central to the present debate is the question of an individual’s right to a private life and the media’s duty to publish and investigate stories deemed to serve the public interest. The court at Versailles pronounced that “the [question of] public interest […] does not legitimise the transmission, even in excerpts, of recordings obtained in violation of the right of an individual to have his/ her private life respected.”
Elements of the French media however were quick to raise their voices against the ruling, on both ethical and practical grounds. Libération‘s Sylvain Bourmeau called it ‘unacceptable‘, asserting that the material in question was not private, but related to “eminently public matters.” Co-founder of popular French news site Rue 89 Pascal Riché published an editorial in which he calls the ruling “an act of judicial censorship” and states that “[n]either Mediapart nor Le Point are the source of the recordings […] They limited themselves to listening to these tapes and to isolate within them extracts to illustrate their articles, the value of which is contested by no one.” Indeed, the recordings are key pieces of evidence in the on-going investigation into the management o Bettancourt’s finances. The website Numericable has openly wondered how reporting of prosecutions in the Bettencourt affair is to be pursued without reference to the very proof that made them possible, and also wonders how effective the law can be in censoring information in the age of the Internet. Within hours of the court’s pronouncement, all of Mediapart’s coverage of the Bettencourt scandal, complete with the recordings, had found its way on to Pirate Bay.
De Maistre and Bettencourt, who has always denied being the victim of any sort of abuse or manipulation, first began proceedings to force Mediapart and LePoint to remove and halt the publication of the recordings and all articles mentioning them in 2010. At the time Paris’s Court of Grand Instance (tribunal de grand instance) ruled in favour of the two news organisations. A year later that ruling was turned over on appeal and the case was sent to the Cour d’appel de Versailles.
Plenel has already announced his intention to appeal the decision, and Riché is convinced the European court of human rights would eventually rule in favour of the freedom of the press. Though the events of Thursday afternoon were a blow for Mediapart, this latest controversy could raise consumer interest in the site, in the same way its earliest coverage of the Bettencourt family, and see mediapart.com hit 100,000 subscribers even sooner than originally hoped.
Photo: Mediapart Twitter account