There are two classic fascinations to being in another country: noticing what's different, and noticing what's the same. Now the internet brings a third, at least for exiled news addicts like the present writer, and it is this: noticing how the same thing looks different from different national viewpoints.
Those of you with a tight attention span and good eyesight may recall a story that fleetingly flickered in the Scottish news media a few weeks back about the arrest of a French murder suspect at Glasgow Airport. You may even remember that, 24 hours later, it turned out that the plod had nicked the wrong bloke, and he was duly released.
Now, here in south-west France I'm reliant on the internet to keep track of the Scottish media, so I apologise in advance to the respective newsdesks if the signal lack of interest evident in this story was the fault of their website dorks rather than their editors. It was signal, all the same.
On the day, the arrest itself ranked 19th in The Herald's
online news list. It fared slightly better at BBC Scotland, where it appeared in the number six slot, though not for very long. Given that the Beeb's lead item at that point was about a porridge-making contest, we may reasonably deduce that Pacific Quay didn't much rate the story either.
Whereas in France, the events at Glasgow Airport were simply huge. A couple of tabloids gave it their whole front page, while the heavies carried backgrounders and blow-by-blow accounts of what had (and hadn't) taken place. Small wonder. This was the latest twist in a story that has riveted the French nation for eight years, and now can continue to do so.
By nightfall, rumours were afoot in France that the rozzers had the wrong guy. Next morning it was confirmed, and he was finally released. BBC Scotland, to its credit, reported the volte-face as third item in its online version. The Herald
online, bafflingly, didn't trouble to report the dénouement at all, just leaving the initial arrest story to sink to number 43 on its list. Le Monde
, meanwhile, ran a gloriously smug piece about how wise it had been to hedge its bets from the outset.
The man the cops thought they were huckling off the Paris flight was one Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès. To say that he is wanted for killing his family does not begin to convey the fascination here surrounding his whereabouts. He is, quite simply, the French Lord Lucan.
It's a story that begins in April 2011, with the disappearance of the de Ligonnès family: father, mother and four children aged 13 to 20. Neighbours believed they had gone abroad. On the 21st, police found the bodies of mother Agnès, her children, and their two Labrador dogs buried in the garden. All had been drugged, shot in their sleep with .22 bullets, and buried in lime. There was no sign of Xavier who, it would emerge, had recently bought a .22 rifle and some lime. His car turned up abandoned, but he was never found. Some think he is dead, others that he has claimed sanctuary in a monastery. There have been more than 1,000 'sightings' in numerous countries, all fruitless.
The Glasgow fiasco gilds his legend. A spirited discussion was soon underway in the French media as to who was to blame for it. Glasgow's finest appear exonerated, at least in respect of the initial blunder. The tip-off reportedly came via Interpol's London office, who told the French authorities that de Ligonnès would be boarding the Glasgow flight with a stolen passport. With time short, the gendarmes asked the polis to lift him as he came off the plane. This they did.
Here accounts fragment. According to French police, as reported in the French media, Glasgow triumphantly told them they had got their man. Police Scotland would later insist that they never claimed – publicly or privately – that it was de Ligonnès in the cells, a denial contradicted by French journalists covering the story. Perhaps Scottish reporters, had they been more interested, might have been able to clarify.
The more interesting question is what happened next. Some reports here had the Glasgow police refusing to send the French the fingerprint evidence they took from the suspect. Others, more worryingly, questioned the quality of this evidence. France, according to the France Info network, requires 12 'minutiae', or detailed points of similarity, to establish a fingerprint match. The Scottish police were said to have been satisfied with just five. Again, nothing has been confirmed by authorities in Scotland: which begs once more the question of why they were not more seriously pressed by Scottish journalists.
Imagine if the suspect had been wanted by the Americans, rather than the French. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think the UK press would have been brim full of it. British readers seem to have an inexhaustible taste for American crime, no matter how grubby, grievous or trivial. US networks pump pictures and words into a grateful global maw. One can imagine the Daily Mail
thunderously demanding to know how those dimwit Jockos had managed to confuse a Canadian with an American, or a Texas drawl with a New England twang, and coupling it with copious backgrounders on the suspect's family, neighbours and childhood.
I have to confess that as the first suggestions of mistaken identity surfaced, I found myself privately hoping that the man the cops thought was Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès from Nantes would turn out to be Wee Mental Kevin from Camlachie. Sadly, it was not to be. According to Le Parisien
, the blameless victim of this 'theatrical misunderstanding' is a Portuguese pensioner with a Scottish wife who was waiting for him in the arrivals hall. This, if true, implies rather alarmingly that Glasgow police cannot tell a Portuguese man from a Frenchman without recourse to the laboratory. Certainly, he had to spend a night in custody before a combination of fingerprinting, DNA testing and the arrival in Glasgow of a squad of French investigators finally got him sprung.
Which tells us what, exactly, about Scotland's understanding of our neighbours? That continentals all look and sound the same to us, just as Westerners were once said to be unable to tell Orientals apart? There are echoes, happily with a less tragic outcome, of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician that the Met thought bore sufficient resemblance to a Middle Eastern terrorist to be worth shooting dead at Stockwell tube station after the 2005 London bombings.
None of it speaks well of our capacity for, or interest in, knowing about other people. One shies away from the idea that ours has become a society where, when push comes to shove, one foreigner is much like any other. But you need only glance at, say, The Spectator
to see how reactionary opinion still views the world in general, Europe in particular, through the prism of Britain's doughty isolation in 1941. We really ought to move on, and get to know our neighbours better. It is hard to be confident that such is the direction in which Brexit Britain is headed.