By Henry Samuel
A French journalist fired for accusing the country's press of blinkered anti-Americanism during the Iraq war said yesterday he had realised the extent of French bias by reading The Telegraph.
In his book, La Guerre a Outrances - Comment la presse nous a desinformé sur l'Irak (The War of Outrages - How the press disinformed us on Iraq), M Hertoghe attacked French reporters for continually predicting that the war would end in disaster for American and British forces.
French journalists were "dreaming of an American defeat", he wrote and from the earliest days of the war predicted a "new Vietnam" or "Saddamgrad" after every American casualty.
He said he realised that this pessimistic view was inaccurate by reading accounts from journalists embedded with coalition forces.
But his biggest influence was the columns written by The Daily Telegraph's Defence Editor, Sir John Keegan, whom he quotes dozens of times in the book's 200 pages.
"When you read [Sir John's] columns, you get the impression that he is describing a completely different war than the one unfolding in the French press," he said. "History has shown that his was the correct analysis."
For instance, on March 25, less than a week after the start of the allied offensive, while most French papers were giving warning of a "military quagmire", Sir John remarked that the coalition advance of 300 miles in four days was "one of the fastest advances ever achieved, surpassing that of the British liberation army in the dash from the Seine to Brussels in 1944".
M Hertoghe said: "French readers simply cannot understand how British and American forces won the war so fast."
In the book, M Hertoghe, 44, a Belgian, examined articles and editorials from his own paper, La Croix, as well as the conservative Le Figaro, centre-Left Le Monde, Left-wing Liberation and the regional paper Ouest-France.
He charges all of them with "collective misdemeanours" resulting from a mixture of journalistic and French arrogance.
M Hertoghe, the former assistant editor of La Croix's online edition, said the reasons for this failure were threefold.
He argued that, because three quarters of reports on Iraq were written from Paris, journalists were influenced by the national anti-American mood and above all hatred of President George W Bush.
Second, President Jacques Chirac's intransigence, coupled with the panache of his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, produced a collective sense that France had recovered its position as an international heavyweight.
Third, journalists were swayed by a misguided fraternity with any Arab state or regime that opposed Mr Bush or Tony Blair. "They knew Saddam was a bad man, but at least he would teach the Americans a lesson," said M Hertoghe.
"Reading French dailies, you are under the impression that America, apart from a handful of admirable pacifists, is full of unpleasant brainless, selfish and violent 'patriots'," he wrote. Some editorials even put Mr Bush on a par with Saddam.
M Hertoghe was fired on Dec 15 for a "loss of confidence" following the book's release. He said he received a letter from La Croix listing four points, including damaging the newspaper's reputation. He told The Telegraph yesterday that he was considering legal action for wrongful dismissal.
Despite rave reviews in Belgium, the book hardly raised an eyebrow in France.
Daniel Schneidermann, recently fired by Le Monde for criticising the paper's management, lamented the lack of debate over the book.
In a column in Liberation, he described the French national press as being "in crisis" over its ability to honestly inform the public.
© Daily Telegraph, January 1, 2004