Last Tango in Paris
My quota of three grave professional errors – erreurs graves professionelles – had been used up.
It was the end of a quiet night shift, the slot (duty editor) and I were half asleep. An item came through about Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime In Iran executing three corrupt judges. American and British reporters were not welcome in Iran. The French, however, were viewed with sympathy since the Ayatollah had spent exile from the extravagant bon viveur Shah Reza Pahlavi in France. Agence France Presse was the only western news organisation in Teheran.
Voice of America picked up on the corrupt judges and said it showed that splits were already appearing in Khomeini’s fundamentalist Islamic administration and this signalled the beginning of a purge within his regime.
Unfortunately, they weren’t corrupt judges at all. What I had lost in translation was that three people had been judged corrupt and executed. A small crackdown on the Shah’s legacy. Trois juges corrompus. I had lost the acute accent, making judges a noun and not the past tense of the verb.
The pasdaran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, surrounded the Teheran office and threatened to kill everyone inside for lying to the world. The crisis was diffused but I had been fingered as the guilty party and the Ayatollah was howling for my blood. Fortunately, in all the palava, the French foreign ministry found it rather amusing and a portent of what might well be on the cards in the new Iran.
French, the language of treaties and diplomacy has two confusing verbs: réparer, to repair, and repérer, to identify, spot or locate. I had an American space shuttle repaired and beginning countdown. But the fault had only been located – it took another week to mend it before blast off.
It was a mistake anyone could have made.
The third and last grave professional error arose from the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson made his comments about the bloodbath at a miltary parade outside Cairo. I had Cheysson calling Sadat a stumbling block to peace in the Middle East. What Cheysson actually said was that “some would say Sadat was a stumbling block to peace, but his initiative to fly to Israel to meet Menachem Begin was the action of a truly courageous peace-maker.”
In the deluge of tributes pouring in like a tsunami the duty ‘slot’ hadn’t picked it up at first. The Desk Anglais sent out an urgent correction and fired me. The foreign ministry wasn’t amused this time.
‘Je suis desolé,’ said the chef de service in the language of treaties and diplomacy where desolate means sorry and has nothing to do with feeling desolate about letting me go.