Jean-Paul Marthoz: Commercial interference in the European media

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”81193″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Commercial pressures on the media? Anti-establishment critics have a ready-made answer: of course, journalists are hostage to the whims of corporate owners, advertisers and sponsors. Of course, they cannot independently cover issues which these powers consider “inconvenient”. Actually such suspicion is widely shared: In France, according to the 2017 La Croix barometer on media credibility, 58% of public opinion consider that journalists “are not really able to resist pressures from financial interests”.

The issue is not new. In 1944 when he founded the French “newspaper of record”, Le Monde, Hubert Beuve-Méry fought to guarantee its independence from political parties but also from what he called “the wall of money”. “Freedom of the press belongs to the one who owns one”, New Yorker media critic A.J. Liebling famously said. However, “while media academics have long looked at the question of commercial pressure, ownership (…) in shaping coverage”, writes Anya Schiffrin in a 2017 CIMA report on “captured media” press freedom groups’ focus had been mostly on the governments’ responsibilities and on criminal non-state actors.

In June 2016 Reporters Without Boarders made a splash with its report on oligarchs in the media. Proprietors’ interventions may have indeed a very negative impact on journalism’s proclaimed commitment to report the news without fear or favour. Pressures are particularly acute when the media are owned by conglomerates who dabble in other economic sectors. In France, for instance, a military aircraft manufacturer (Dassault), the luxury industry leader (LVMH), telecoms giants (SFR, Free), a powerful public works and telecoms company (Bouygues) directly own key media companies.

Ownership provides a powerful lever to influence media contents. Cases of direct intervention or of journalists’ self-censorship are not exceptional, even if they are often difficult to prove. In France, Vincent Bolloré, owner, among others, of TV channel Canal+, has been regularly accused of using his powers to determine content. It led the French Senate’s culture commission to invite him to a hearing in June 2016, but he firmly denied all allegations of censorship.

In other European countries, the landscape is much clearer. In Turkey, during the June 2013 Gezi Park events, major TV stations failed to report police repression live. They chose instead to broadcast animal documentaries, for which they were rewarded with the nickname of “penguin media”. In fact, they turned into “proxy censors” for Erdogan’s government who had the power to determine their economic fate by rewarding them -or not- with public works contracts or financial favors. The worst of the worst flourishes in some former communist eastern European countries where major media outlets have been snatched by oligarchs allied with political parties or even, allegedly, with criminal organisations.

Big companies may be ruthless. Advertising budgets can be cut when a media covers “inconvenient news”. In November 2017, according to satirical weekly Le Canard enchainé, Bernard Arnault, the boss of LVMH (luxury products, owner of Le Parisien and Les Echos), canceled his advertising budget in Le Monde until the end of the year after his name appeared in the Paradise Papers global investigation, which named people who had offshore accounts in tax havens. LVMH denied it was cutting all advertising in the paper, adding that it was currently “reflecting on its advertisement policy in classical media”.

The unraveling of the legacy media’s business model has increased their vulnerability to outside pressures. Advertising money is shrinking, therefore increasing the temptation to dismantle what was presented as an impassable wall between “church and state”. Differences between advertising and the news are also being diluted into ambiguous advertorials, sponsored content and “native advertising”.  

Such pressures however are not automatic. “Suffering pressures does not mean ceding to them”, says Hervé Béroud, director general of leading all-news TV channel BFMTV. Due to the way journalism actually works, the freedom to report, even against the owners’ interests, cannot be systematically crushed. In fact, as a former editor in chief of Belgian newspapers and magazines I was confronted with radically different forms of “advice” from my successive owners. While some were very protective of editorial independence others were blunter and ready to compromise with advertisers’ “wishes”. The existence of journalists’ societies, co-owners of the so-called “ethical capital” of the paper, provided some protection, but much was left to individual wrestling between the editor and the proprietor.

At the end, this issue comes down to defining who “owns freedom of information”. In 1993 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated that “the owner of the right is the citizen, who also has the related right to demand that the information supplied by journalists be conveyed truthfully, in the case of news, and honestly, in the case of opinions, without outside interference by either the public authorities or the private sector”. A far cry from A.J. Liebling’s sentence…[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Survey: How free is our press?” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|title:Take%20our%20survey||”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-pencil-square-o” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Are you a working journalist? Do you want to see better protections and freedoms for reporters?

This survey aims to take a snapshot of how financial pressures are affecting news reporting. The openMedia project will use this information to analyse how money shapes what gets reported – and what doesn’t – and to advocate for better protections and freedoms for journalists who have important stories to tell.

More information[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook) and we’ll send you our weekly newsletter about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share your personal information with anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1513691969537-ee852610-8cb0-8″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

France: Vincent Bolloré’s takeover of Canal Plus sparks concern for press freedom


Vincent Bolloré is known for business takeovers. Now 63, he has built an empire in energy, agriculture, transport and logistics.

The billionaire is also a media mogul with expanding interests. His investment group Bolloré, named for its president and CEO, has a majority share in Havas, a leading French advertising and PR group. It owns the cable television channel D8 and the daily newspaper Direct Matin.

Bolloré was appointed as president of Vivendi, the French mass media company, in June 2014. Vivendi owns Canal Plus, a French subscription-based television channel known for its irreverent tone, where Bolloré became chairman last September.

A common theme is emerging in Bolloré’s professional life. As he attains more media companies, there are increasing attacks on editorial content he disapproves of. Last June, Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that Havas, a French multinational advertising and public relations company, which is controlled by the Bolloré group, had cut the advertising budget in Le Monde by €3.2 million in 2014 and €4 million in 2015. This followed the publication of two articles that Bolloré disliked — a personal profile and a report on the activities of the Bolloré group in the Ivory Coast.

“It can be hard to understand whether a media owner is doing something to improve the health of his business or whether he is meddling with editorial content,” says Virginie Marquet, a lawyer who specialises in freedom of the press and co-founder of the collective Informer N’est Pas Un Délit (To Inform Is Not A Crime). “What’s new with Bolloré is the brutality of what is taking place.”

Pierre Siankowski is the former culture editor for Le Grand Journal, a primetime talk show which was broadcast on Canal Plus every weekday and produced by independent production company KM. On 3 July, he found himself out of a job when Bolloré personally decided KM would stop producing the talk show. “The reason given is that the show was too expensive and that Bolloré wanted it to be produced internally,” Siankowski says. “But there’s actually an article in Le Parisien that claims the current cost of production is roughly the same.”

For Siankowski, there may be another reason. He says Renaud Le Van Kim, producer of Le Grand Journal, who is believed to have been made to leave the company he created at Bolloré’s demand, and Rodolphe Belmer, former director of Canal Plus who was fired in July, had both expressed support for Les Guignols De L’info — a satirical news bulletin broadcast on Canal Plus where politicians are played by latex puppets — amid rumours the show was under threat.

The puppets are currently in the closet, having been temporarily taken off the air. The show is due to return in November, but on Bolloré’s orders, it will have more of an international focus, and therefore less coverage of French politics. It may also lose its prime-time slot.

Does Siankowski think the attack against Les Guignols might be politically motivated? Is it a gift from Bolloré to Nicolas Sarkozy, who was a frequent target of the show? “Here is what we know: after he got elected, Sarkozy went on holiday on Bolloré’s yacht,” he says. “We also know Sarkozy hated Les Guignols, and that in a few months’ time the political campaign for the presidential election will start.”

Meanwhile at Canal Plus, there were other worrying signs. In July, it was revealed that a documentary on tax evasion at the Crédit Mutuel bank — one of the main financial partners of the Bolloré group — which was scheduled to be broadcast on Canal Plus in May, had been removed from the programme before it was supposed to air. Geoffrey Livolsi, co-director of the documentary, said Belmer had received a phone call from Bolloré, who requested it be axed following a conversation with Michel Lucas, CEO of Crédit Mutuel.

When asked by staff representatives to explain the decision, Bolloré allegedly replied: “You don’t kill your friends.”

The documentary was finally shown on France 3 in October.

In September,another documentary, this time on the rivalry between Sarkozy and French President Francois Hollande, was taken off Canal Plus grid without explanation, before reappearing a month later.

“What this shows is that we don’t have the tools that are needed to protect press freedom,” Marquet says. “This is why we felt we need to mobilise.”

“What we would like to see are sanctions,” Marquet adds, reminding us of the existence of a resolution voted in 2013 by the European Parliament. It states: “Governments have the primary responsibility of guaranteeing and protecting freedom of the press and the media” and considers “the trend of concentrated media ownership in large conglomerates to be a threat to media freedom and pluralism”.

Bolloré’s attack on the media isn’t confined to those organisations in which he has an influence. He has taken legal action against journalists and publications to defend his business interests. His group has sued, among others, rue89, France Inter, Libération and Bastamag. It also took journalist Benoît Collombat to court over an investigation he had done on the group’s activities in Cameroon.

Asked what he thought of “the Canal Plus spirit” on 12 February on France Inter, Bolloré replied: “It’s a spirit of discovery, of openness, sometimes of excessive derision.” On that same evening, Les Guignols featured Bolloré’s puppet, who was asked to define what “acceptable derision” means. It seems the real life billionaire’s answer to that question has been clear.


Mapping Media Freedom


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