This Friday former Chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Strauss-Kahn (generally called DSK in France -- and now in the international media) has been released from the house arrest under which he has been for more than a month. The prosecution has found significant credibility issues with the chambermaid who claimed that he raped her on May 14th this year, first chasing her naked through the luxury suite he was occupying, then forcing her to have oral sex with him.
She is reported to have been repeatedly lying about a number of issues, including a number of bank-accounts on which she has been receiving significant cash deposits, among others from a man convicted of possession of 400 pounds of marijuana.
We do not yet know what the final verdict of the DSK case in New York will be. He may yet turn out to be guilty, even though the prosecution's case seems to be teetering. But all of us should pause for a minute to realize that, beyond all rationalizations about the public's right to know and the importance of a free press, we have primarily been privy to today's variation of the Roman Circus.
Ancient Rome's wisdom was that the masses should be ruled by bread and circuses. Nowadays democracies no longer feed people to lions; but we still have our arenas. The new victims are those who are accused of criminal misconduct. The new arenas are newspapers, websites and TV stations; the lions have been replaced by cameras. And while cameras don't tear the flesh off the victims' bones, the damage to their lives is often exorbitant and irremediable.
The coverage of the DSK affair had a strong taste of a gladiatorial event. It started with DSK's so called "perp walk" -- the procedure in which defendants are walked through a public area that allows for the press to take pictures in New York. Of course DSK is not unique in having been put through this public humiliation: since Rudolph Giuliani liberalized the rules for this practice in New York, everybody can be subject to it.
The circus continued with lurid details of the accusations spread over every newspaper in the world, starting with the precise sexual act DSK supposedly forced the maid to perform to where exactly she had spit on the carpet.
It doesn't get much juicier: one of the world's most powerful men, head of the IMF is about to enter the race for the French Presidency; polls show that he would trounce the incumbent Sarkozy. He is taken off an Air France plane about to depart from New York's JFK. He is first held in custody for a few days. His (expensive and prominent) lawyers then negotiated exorbitant six million bail to have him under house arrest.
The luxury conditions of the arrest were described in great detail: the loft he rented costs S50,000 a month; the security arrangements $200.000 a month. All this was made possible by the wealth of his wife Anne Sinclair. Once the story unfolds, previous allegations for sexual harassment surface. DFK resigns from his post at the IMF; his political career, poised to go for its pinnacle, seems to be over.
The punditry had its field day. You could pretty much predict the angles that were taken by looking at the pundit's general orientation. Feminists lambasted the ways in which French alpha males always are allowed some extra grace in their sexual behavior. In France the favorite theory was that DSK had been set up by his political rivals; other conspiracy theories linked the setup to his activities at the IMF. Then there were the friends who said that DSK certainly had a taste for women, but was incapable of rape. Feminists retorted that, of course, the coterie of powerful men would stick together.
Let us face the truth: even though DSK's ordeal is terrible, he is privileged: if he is cleared of charges, or the prosecution decides to drop the case, this will be on the front pages of papers and websites around the world. And while the damage to his life and career cannot be mended, he will at least be publicly vindicated, and there is a good chance that, at least in France, his honor will be restored.
Not all victims of the press's hunger for scandal are as lucky. Within the context of my psychological practice I have seen what happens to those sufficiently well-known to be of interest to the press when charges are pressed, but not sufficiently famous to command interest in the long run.
I have seen from close how the lives of such people have been ruined. They had been accused of embezzlement, fraud or sexual misconduct on the front pages. A few weeks later, their cases were dismissed -- in some cases with the express statement by the court that charges should never have been pressed to begin with. But this was of no interest to the press anymore. If the papers were forced to do so, there was a brief note, buried somewhere in the back-pages, reporting that X had been cleared of all charges.
I saw how they suffered, when people on the street said, 'Oh this is X, the corrupt bastard!' obviously making their comment loud enough for X to hear them. Little did they know that charges had not even been pressed against him, because the papers who had carried the suspicions -- of course making sure that they could not be sued for libel -- had never bothered to clear X's name on a spot even comparable in visibility to the original accusations.
I saw people who had been accused of rape: charges were not only dropped, but the court reprimanded the police for its carelessness in disregarding evidence in favor of the defendant. But, even years later, they felt that their image had forever been tainted, and unfortunately their feelings reflected reality. Such is human psychology that memory stores salient negative information much better than the, far less interesting, fact that somebody turns out to be innocent.
I have seen how some of them never recovered from the trauma they underwent; and never recovered their abilities to lead rich and productive lives; how their children were damaged for life because of their parent's public humiliation; and how their marriages fell apart, because the strain was too great to bear.
Let us have the intellectual and moral decency not to say that this is the price of having a free press. We should be lucid enough to distinguish between the press's essential democratic function and its provision of entertainment. Let us see reporting about the scandals of famous and the not-so-famous for what it is: the modern day circus arena that feeds the insatiable human appetite for gossip, scandal and the Schadenfreude of seeing the mighty fall. Without this destructive joy, media wouldn't have clients for this kind of material.
Of course we cannot know in advance who will turn out to be guilty and who will go free. In deciding to release the names of those indicted, we should always ask whether there is genuine public interest in releasing their identities. In many, many cases there is no genuine public interest except for the desire for entertainment and the media's hunger for reporting it.
We must remember that some of those who unwillingly provide such entertainment, because they have been falsely accused of crimes, are harmed forever, for no other reason that humans love seeing fellow humans being torn to pieces. Maybe this will raise the question, once again, whether privacy laws should not be reconsidered: the human appetite for gossip is not good enough justification for inflicting grievous harm.