In an extraordinary decision, a French court has ordered Mediapart to remove all transcripts of the infamous 'butler tapes' that helped spark the massive Bettencourt affair that is still continuing to this day. This is despite the fact that those tapes, whose content was exclusively revealed by Mediapart in June 2010, were last year accepted as admissible evidence in the judicial investigation into alleged 'abuse of weakness' against the billionaire L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. They were also widely seen as the catalyst that transformed the Bettencourt affair from a family wrangle into a full-blown political and financial scandal.
The tapes were conversations secretly recorded by Pascal Bonnefoy, the long-serving butler to L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, who made them in a bid to protect his employer from people he claimed were doing the family harm. The conversations, mostly between Liliane Bettencourt and a string of advisers and confidantes, disclosed evidence of money-laundering, tax evasion, influence-peddling at the highest levels of society and improper interference in judicial procedures.
However, Thursday's judgement (see below), made by the first civil chamber of the court of appeal at Versailles near Paris, following legal action by the mentally frail Bettencourt's legal guardian Olivier Pelat and her former wealth manager Patrice de Maistre, ruled that publication of the tapes and their transcripts is an infringement of the 90-year-old heiress's privacy.
Overruling two lower courts that had ruled in the news site's favour, the appeal court said Mediapart has eight days to withdraw from its site “all publication of all or part of the transcript of the unlawful recordings made at the home of Liliane Bettencourt”. The news site will be fined 10,000 euros per day and per offence if it fails to comply. The court has also banned Mediapart from publishing “all or part of these recordings on any media, electronic, paper or other”.
Mediapart has already announced that it will appeal to the Cour de cassation – France's highest appeal court for civil and criminal matters – on the grounds that the judgement contradicts European legislation on freedom of information.
Mediapart editor François Bonnet attacked what he described as “Stalinist” censorship that represented “not just an unacceptable attack on freedom of information and a staggering reading of the European Convention on Human Rights” but which was also “wiping out one of the most important events of the five-year term of [President] Sarkozy”.
He said: “This has become a page of our country's history: how the richest woman in France, at the head of one of the biggest groups in the world, was defrauding the tax authorities, hiding her assets and negotiating with the political authorities, which in turn put pressure on the justice system. That existed – now it's forbidden to speak about it.”
Bonnet said of the judgement: “It has very real consequences for Mediapart with, let's say it, the real threat of causing our demise.”
The editor of Mediapart said the judgement made it impossible for the news site to do its job. He gave the example of how on July 4th, the very day of the Versailles court judgement, it was announced that in one of the separate strands of the Bettencourt affair former budget minister Eric Woerth and Bettencourt's former wealth manager Patrice de Maistre are to stand trial for alleged 'influence peddling'. This is despite the fact that the prosecution asked for the case to be dropped.
The claim is that in return for De Maistre hiring Woerth's wife Florence to work for Bettencourt, the minister obtained for the wealth manager the Legion of Honour, claims they both deny. “To understand this decision by the judges you have to refer to the recordings,” said Bonnet.
Bonnet noted: “This article is now banned, or it will cost us 10,000 euros a day. Except that not to quote the recordings makes the facts incomprehensible.”
The editor of Mediapart said he wondered how the website could operate under such censorship. “Will we have to insert the word 'Censored' in article after article in place of these quotes? As newspapers did under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the Ceaușescu regime in Romania, or as some foreign correspondents did in Moscow in the Soviet era?” asked Bonnet.
He said: “The absurdity – to say the least – doesn't stop there. Here we are forced to remove every quote from these recordings, and not just in our articles. We must also do that in the tens of thousands of comments that have accompanied them, in the thousands of blogs that the readers have written.” Bonnet adds: “A simple search for 'affaire Bettencourt' in our search engine shows 894 articles and 1,615 blogs. A little calculation: 894 + 1,615 x 10,000 euro fines = 25,090,000 euros a day. Or 752 million euros a month! Mediapart's managing director Marie-Hélène Smiejan has confirmed to us: 'We don't have that!'.”