Le Canard enchaîné, a model for investigative journalism in the internet age?

The title of this post is both ironic, and not.

Few people outside France know about Le Canard enchaîné. But in France, this weekly 6 8-page newspaper has the power to bring down politicians and CEOs. It is a uniquely French institution, and I don’t know of any other outlets worldwide that are even remotely comparable. It has no website, carries no advertising, and is recession-proof.

Le Canard, as it is universally known, has existed since the early 20th century. It is wholly owned by its reporters, who may not sell shares to outsiders. Its journalists are better paid than any of their peers, in exhange of which they may not own shares in other companies, or receive gifts, awards or medals (a big deal in status-obssessed France). Even though it has always been very profitable, it holds enough cash in the bank to run for three years with no revenue. Even though it is under no legal obligation to release financial information as a small private company, it appends its financial statements to its last issue of each year.

So what justifies the respect and even fear it inspires, these onerous constraints and a profitability so unusual these days that it practically seems like an insult? Well, to put it bluntly, Le Canard is the only newspaper in France that practices investigative reporting (of a sort, at least). Practically every political and economic scandal of the past 30 years (and many before that) was originally broken by Le Canard. Each weekly issue includes priceless little nuggets such as off-the-record quotes by prominent politicians, behind-the-scenes dirt, that sort of thing. Le Canard describes itself as a “satirical weekly newspaper” ; every bit of news is reported in a very harsh mocking style, and the newspaper includes a section of political contrepèteries, a typically French form of graphic sexual pun.

The scandals broken by Le Canard are too many to list, but they include then-President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s acceptance of diamonds as gifts from the ruler of Centrafrique, a scandal which contributed to the failure of his reelection bid ; the Elf Affair and the Affaire des Frigates, political kickback scandals that reverberated throughout the 1990s and ended the careers of many politicians on both sides of the aisle ; Jacques Chirac’s numerous corrupt dealings… More recently, after the eight Bulgarian nurses held by Lybia were liberated in part thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy’s lobbying, and the French government assured that no bribes were part of the deal, Le Canard printed a classified copy of the deal, which included arms purchases, oil concessions and the like.

When I was working in politics, we young staffers who shunned the printed press in favor of the wires and blogs all spent our Wednesday mornings reading that week’s issue of Le Canard (oui, with croissants and bitter espressos). It’s an entertaining read and simply includes too much information that you can’t do without. But the real reason politicians and CEOs read it is because they fear it. They don’t know on any given week whether Le Canard will print something that will make their next week hell, or worse. It’s hard to overstate Le Canard‘s aura. In the 1970s the President tried to have their offices wired, but thanks to a source Le Canard broke the news of the attempted tap that same week, bringing the operation to a close before it had even begun. Since then, politicians haven’t tried to touch it. It routinely prints false information but despite France’s tough anti-libel laws it is never sued, in part because the people concerned are wary of attracting publicity but mostly because they’re afraid of reprisals. It is never even sued when it leaks classified military information, which it has done several times before (most recently, about French troops’ equipment, or lack thereof, in Afghanistan).

For there’s a dark side to Le Canard. Despite a clear hard-left bias it claims to be non-partisan, and it certainly breaks embarrassing news about left-wing figures. But the only big scandal of the past decades that it did not break was the existence of then-Socialist President François Mitterrand’s love child, even though it now admits it had the story. It claims it did so because “Le Canard stops at the bedroom’s threshold” but they had no qualms about exposing e.g. fornicating Catholic ecclesiastics and now they certainly make much hay of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s (admittedly public and tumultuous) private life. The same strict rules that serve to protect Le Canard‘s independence also ensure its unaccountability.

I say that Le Canard is the only French newspaper to practice investigative journalism of a sort. There are two clauses in there. It is the only French newspaper to practice investigative journalism: it’s a sad and unfortunate fact that French newspapers don’t do investigative reporting. They simply don’t. The French press has a proud tradition of commentary dating back to Emile Zola but no tradition of investigative journalism, at least not in the press (to be fair, France features investigative writers much more prominently than other comparable countries). When the press do break news, it is news that is leaked to them, not news that is actively investigated by the muckracking, rogue reporters who are so much part of our collective imagination. Which brings us to the second clause: Le Canard does investigative journalism of a sort. Where does Le Canard get all its scoops?

Le Canard‘s reporting consists of, as an insider told me, “opening the mail.” Le Canard doesn’t seek out news, the news comes to them. Insiders and connected people leak news to it all the time. Sometimes for moral reasons. Mostly for the reasons people leak stuff to the press: to feel important, to get back at someone. Because they have an axe to grind. This has two woeful consequences for Le Canard.

First is that fact-checking is not really a priority at Le Canard. When they print true stuff, it’s damaging, but they also print a lot of bull.

Second is that Le Canard is often instrumentalized. Le Canard‘s main sources are not politicians who try to shoot down other politicians (I think they’re too scared that Le Canard would break it as “A tries to leak X about B”) but the powerful technocrats who reside within the bowels of France’s gargantuan democracy and obstruct reform. These mandarins often try to take down overzealous ministers. Strikes are popular, but so are targeted leaks to Le Canard. This was the case of Hervé Gaymard, a very talented, young, reformist Finance Minister whose career basically blew up mid-air because of revelations about his lifestyle in Le Canard, leaks that had the fingerprints of the very powerful Finance Ministry that he had taken a stab at reforming all over them. This, it seems to me, runs in contradiction to Le Canard‘s mission as an independent bulwark that holds the feet of the rich and powerful to account. Practically no politicians and few CEOs (especially in these bailout-begging days) have real power in France these days, such is the power of the bureaucracy and the unions. But Le Canard is not interested in the work and less attention-grabbing headlines that come with bringing accountability to those.

So: Le Canard, a model for investigative journalism in the internet age?

The only media outlet that I can really compare Le Canard to is something like Gawker or Valleywag, with its tone, its vibrant tipline, and its sometimes cavalier approach to facts and actual reporting (ahem). I’m not sure that a newspaper like Le Canard could exist in a country that doesn’t have France’s idiosyncrasies, but if it did, I’m convinced it would exist in blog form. For all its flaws, I think France is better off with Le Canard than without it, and a blog that fulfilled the same purpose in the U.S. or elsewhere would probably be a good thing.

It also shows something that an outlet like The Economist shows: print media that offer true value for money can be profitable, and even very profitable, and remain so for the foreseeable future. So, who knows, maybe a 6 8-page newspaper with no webspite printed on crappy paper with fingertips-staining black ink is the future of reporting. Or at least a future. I wouldn’t be surprised.