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Sun 20 September 2020
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John Mitchinson reflects on what may be the finest moment in print journalism – the use of the press as a channel of truth and justice

It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of the French novelist Émile Zola’s decision to go public on the miscarriage of justice concerning Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer of Jewish-Alsatian heritage, convicted of treason in 1894. 

At the time, Zola was France’s most famous and successful novelist. His recently completed 20-volume sequence of Rougon-Macquart novels was considered the crowning achievement of the naturalist school, scandalising bourgeois taste by holding a mirror up to the life of the poor and dispossessed of French society and transforming their sufferings into great art. 

In 1893, he was feted in London as a literary hero. Huge crowds attended his public lectures and a firework display captured his portrait in light in the skies above Crystal Palace. 

On 13 January 1898, Zola put all that on the line. 

The greatest novelist of his generation chose journalism to make his point when it mattered most.

On the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore he published a 4,50 -word open letter to the President of France, Félix Faure, under the headline ‘J’Accuse!’ 

It not only revealed a conspiracy in the upper echelons of the French army to forge incriminating evidence but also supplied the reason – anti-Semitism. Dreyfus, Zola made clear, had been framed as a traitor because he was Jewish. 

This was incendiary stuff – a direct challenge to the army and the political establishment behind it. 

“It is a crime,” he wrote, “to poison the minds of the meek and the humble, to stoke the passions of reactionism and intolerance, by appealing to that odious anti-Semitism that, unchecked, will destroy the freedom-loving France of the Rights of Man.”

In the short-term, his intervention probably served to stoke these passions more. The newspaper sold 10 times its normal circulation on that day and the Dreyfus case became the Dreyfus Affair, dividing the country and dominating politics and conversation for years to come. The military powers closed ranks and Zola was convicted of libel, sentenced to a year in prison and fined 3,000 francs – the maximum sentence possible. His popular reputation was shredded, he received death threats and had to be offered police protection during his trial, as violent anti-Dreyfus riots raged outside, encouraged by the virulently anti-Semitic popular press. 

In a move that only added to the scandal, Zola disappeared before the sentence was passed. He re-emerged in Upper Norwood in south London where he spent an unhappy year in exile, missing Paris, loathing the food and reflecting on the damage his bold decision had wreaked: ”So this is where 40 years of work have led me, with a whole wretched country at my back, shouting me down and threatening me.”

It was eight years before Dreyfus was fully exonerated but Zola didn’t live to see it. 

He died in 1902, aged 62, of carbon monoxide poisoning. It seems likely he was murdered. Years later, Henri Buronfoss – a chimney sweep and ardent anti-Dreyfusard – confessed on his death-bed that he had blocked Zola’s chimney intentionally. If true, it was the tragic fulfilment of the key point of Zola’s famous letter: lies can be fatal. 

In an address to the youth of France written not long before he died, he offered an even darker premonition about where such hate-fuelled populism might lead: “They will begin the century by massacring all the Jews, their fellow citizens, because they are of a different race and a different faith.” 

Unsurprisingly, watching a country that had prided itself on its belief in freedom and equality descending so quickly into mobs baying ‘Death to the Jews!’, the Austro-Hungarian foreign correspondent Theodore Herzl, was soon to formulate his plans for a separate Zionist state.

It is not hard to see contemporary parallels. When the historian Katrin Schultheiss writes that the Dreyfus Affair showed “how longstanding beliefs and tensions can be transformed… into a juggernaut that alters the political and cultural landscape for decades”, she could be writing about Brexit or the divisions currently disfiguring American public life. 

But there’s an important lesson in Zola’s heroism too. 

The greatest novelist of his generation chose journalism to make his point when it mattered most. Not the journalism of the salaried columnist or the jaded leader writer: he made himself the story by putting his reputation and career on the line to lay down a challenge to the Government and the whole self-serving, corrupt establishment it represented. And it worked (more or less). It might be the finest moment in the history of print journalism. A century later, his words are as clear and relevant as ever. 

And the criminals are still in power: “It is a lie, all the more odious and cynical in that its perpetrators are getting off free without even admitting it. They stirred up all of France, they hid behind the understandable commotion they had set off, they sealed their lips while troubling our hearts and perverting our spirit. I know of no greater crime against the state.”

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI


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