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French media -read all about it

A forum on the press is due to conclude, while public broadcasters strike over funding – we examine the issues.

27 November 2008

A TWO-month debate on the crisis facing the press in France is due to finish soon.

Based on the format of the Grenelle de l’environnement which gathered experts to discuss environmental problems, it will see some of the industry’s biggest names lead debates on the future of the press.

President Sarkozy called for the conference after describing the media as being on the "edge of the economic precipice."

French papers are among the least profitable in Europe, in a sector where advertising revenue has plunged 40% since 2000.

A recent study from the Direction du développement des médias (DDA) showed that over the past eight years, turnover for the national daily press has regularly declined.

Sarkozy has declared the internet a “considerable” problem, asking how people could be expected to buy their papers if they could get their news free online.

He added distribution was a “gigantic” problem, saying that finding a shop to buy a newspaper in towns and cities was "hard work."

Papers are sold in France almost exclusively in kiosks or specialist shops, most of which close early in the evening and on Sundays. Newspaper deliveries are rare.

“We are paralysed by distribution and printing costs,” said Le Figaro's owner Serge Dassault, a close friend of Sarkozy, charging that the main distribution and print unions were “paid crazy money to do not much at all.”

Newspaper distributors Nmpp said that distribution points had been closing at a rate of 500 a year for the last ten years.

French media as a whole is in further turmoil with public television workers resorting to strikes over government reforms, major job cuts at Le Monde, and political attacks on media organisations including Agence France Presse (AFP).

Sarkozy announced a huge overhaul of public television with advertising on France Televisions' five channels to end from January, sparking accusations he plans to downsize the public broadcaster.

The government has also been criticised for tightening its grip on public television after announcing that it would name the head as part of the overhaul.

The opposition Socialists said allowing the executive to appoint the president of national TV was a "serious blow to the independence of the media", a sentiment echoed by many press commentators.

The announcement followed a complaint by Sarkozy's UMP party that news agency Agence France-Presse "censored" one of its statements which attacked Ségolène Royal. The complaint was recently rejected by the agency's supervisory council who said it was AFP’s job to determine the level of coverage merited by a communiqué. At the time it was even suggested that a separate agency for party press releases be created.

A recent report by UMP secretary Danièle Giazzi has advocated deregulation of the media, putting forward 34 recommendations including strengthening the role of AFP.

However despite cries of government censorship, cutbacks and plunging circulation figures some titles are managing to thrive.

While l'Humanité newspaper launched an urgent subscription appeal to readers after acknowledging a debt of €2.7m in 2007, satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné registered a net profit in 2007 of €6.2m, with sales up 24% on the previous year.

Magazines sales are also doing well. A recent study by publishers’ association Audipresse showed that weekly sports titles and gossip magazines - known as la presse people - are proving particularly strong, paving the way for future battles against France’s strict privacy laws.

The study also showed that between June 2007 and July 2008, readership figures for daily newspapers have crept back up somewhat, with a rise in readership of 7.3% on the overall figure for 2007. The most notable influence being an increased readership of daily free titles such as Metro.

A brief history of national newspapers

WITH nearly twice as many people choosing to read one of France's 60 regional papers over a daily, the French press is immediately marked out as very different to the British.

Around 16,729,000 people read regional titles - 33% of the population, compared to a readership of almost half that (8,173,000) for the nationals.

The three main national newspapers in France are Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération.

Le Monde is France's most popular paid-for daily newspaper. It was created in 1944 at the request of General Charles de Gaulle after the German army was forced out of Paris. Its readership across France totals over 350,000.
Formerly its political stance could have been described as centre-left, but over time it has gained a reputation for being the least biased of the French press.

Le Figaro closely follows Le Monde in popularity terms with a readership of around 330,000. It is a morning paper that was created in 1826 as a satirical weekly. Since then it changed and grown in popularity, and by 1866 was France's most read paper. It maintains a relatively conservative position. Albert Wolff, Émile Zola, Alphonse Karr and Jules Claretie were among the paper's early contributors.

Libération is France's third most popular national newspaper with a readership of 135,000.
It was founded by Jean Paul Sartre, Benny Lévy, Serge July and Pierre Victor in 1973 following the protest movements of May 1968. It is seen now as a socialist newspaper.

L'Humanité, the openly communist newspaper has a readership of around 50,000.
Leader of the SFIO Socialist party Jean Jaurès founded the newspaper in 1904, but when the Socialists split at the 1920 Tours Congress, the French Communist Party retained control of the newspaper. It was once one of the most popular newspapers in France with a readership of 400,000 in 1945.

France Soir used to be hugely popular with a circulation around 1.2million in the early 1970s. By 2000 the circulation had dropped below 90,000 and in 2002 the paper found itself in financial difficulty. In 2005 the newspaper found itself on the verge of bankruptcy.

Other popular weekly publications include L'Express, aimed at the middle class with an interest in politics and the economy, the left-wing publication Le Nouvel Observateur, and Le Canard Enchainé, a satirical weekly newspaper that originated as a left wing publication, but now is more independent. Charlie hebdo is similar in style and political bias. La Croix is a catholic right wing newspaper, expressing traditional values and holding a readership of nearly 100,000.

La Tribune, Les Echos and Le Point are all popular financial publications with no real political stance, and L'Équipe, is a sporting newspaper.

Daily free press titles include Metro, launched in Paris and Marseille in February 2002. It has since been distributed in Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Rennes and Strasbourg. Average daily circulation is around 730,000. 20 Minutes was launched a few weeks after Metro in Paris in 2002. In 2004 Lille, Lyon and Marseille editions were launched, as well as Bordeaux and Toulouse. In 2005 editions in Nantes and Strasbourg were launched. However, in 2007, the paper had to make severe cutbacks. Its current circulation is around 715,000.

“The press is like junk food, bad”

JEAN-Pierre Tailleur coined the term maljournalisme (bad journalism) in his book Bévues de presse.

He developed the word while researching French newspapers and comparing them with their international competitors. The word stemmed from malbouffe - junk food - which was circulating at the time he was preparing the book.

He said: “I realised that what I was doing on the press - trying to offer an honest assessment of the quality of French journalism - was as legitimate as the lobbying efforts made to improve the quality of food.

“The invention of the word maljournalisme became obvious to me. Its concept goes well beyond the mistakes made by journalists.

“It points out the poor reporting in some major outlets or the unwillingness in newsrooms to investigate thoroughly on some major mistakes sometimes made by themselves or their peers.”

Mr Tailleur said that while he does not like the sensationalism which is so common in much of the British press, especially the tabloids, he does feel the newsrooms are keener than their French counterparts to create “bridges of confidence” with readers. He believes this is done through deeper reporting on issues which matter to the readers and through open self-criticism.

He cited the simultaneous redesign of The Guardian and Le Figaro in 2005 as an example.

Mr Tailleur said: “Back then I was teaching comparative journalism at Aix en Provence's Political Science Institute. I asked my students to analyse which of these dailies seemed more credible and ambitious, based on the first issue after their relaunch and on the claims made by their respective editors.

“Most students, by far, pointed out that that The Guardian was keener to provide the best in-depth coverage that people need and deserve. It turned out that it has been more successful than Le Figaro in gaining new readers, because its changes were deeper and seemed better thought out, while its French counterpart seemed focused on the change as a promotional tool more than an opportunity to improve the content.”

He believes that cries of low wages and being “victims of the system” are wheeled out too frequently as excuses for maljournalisme. A notable criticism of Mr Tailleur is also the lack of investigative journalism in France, with bad journalism habits not discussed publicly or even at journalism schools.

He added: “The so-called independent Le Canard Enchaîné far too often fails to respect professional and accountability standards.

“Yet this satirical weekly is considered as the investigative paper because in the French journalism culture, political gossip tends to be identified too easily with investigation.”

Can you trust what you see?

THE repercussions of the Muhammad al-Dura broadcast by France 2 in 2000 (see image) are still continuing in the courts. France 2 originally broadcast the "killing" of Muhammad al-Dura, 12, during a shootout between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.

The images and narration were sold to agencies and caused worldwide outcry over Israel's actions. However the head of French media watchdog Media-Ratings Philippe Karsenty questioned the report's authenticity. France 2 sued for defamation and won, but lost on appeal. They too are appealing.

Among many points raised by Karsenty in and out of court were that the footage only showed moments before and after the death, that the journalist narrating was not in Gaza to witness the incident and that in unused clips the boy was seen moving after the ‘fatal’ shots.

France 2 were warned by the media regulatory council, the CSA to “use more caution when reporting on international conflicts” and have launched an internal investigation.

Another incident involved former newsreader Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, nicknamed PPDA who faked an interview with Fidel Castro in 1991 using chopped up footage from a press conference.

Paris Match were also spotted airbrushing topless photos of a newly-elected Sarkozy to make him slimmer. Undeterred they repeated the stunt, airbrushing out the president’s bodyguard as he walked next to the pope - embarrassingly leaving in his leg to make the President appear to have three.

Privacy and decency - where the divide lies

WHILE many more French prefer to read regional papers, the content is also very different from what an average British reader may expect.

Regional newspapers differ greatly to those back in the UK, written with much more bias and including national news pages, uncommon in their British counterparts.

Former Head of French at the Department of Modern Languages at Bangor University and author of Media French, Adrian Ritchie, believes the centralisation of the country plays a part.

He said: “For many readers, any paper which is Paris based such as Le Monde is a long way away from their own centre of interests.

“The regional papers are serving the average local reader best.”

Mr Ritchie also believes cultural differences between the French and British are one of the major factors in the huge difference in the country's press.

He said: “I think one of the key reasons France does not have the same sort of tabloid press is because the French have a very different idea of decency. As a nation I have a feeling they have a better sense of taste regarding things that are acceptable in the press.”

Privacy laws also make it much harder for France to have the same tabloid equivalents as in Britain, forbidding discussion of private lives; even those of public people. The privacy law passed in 1970 says that "everyone has the right to the respect of a private life" and sets out damages for offenders.

This privacy cult famously allowed François Mitterrand, the last Socialist president, to keep from the public the existence of a mistress and an illegitimate daughter.

Mr Ritchie added: “There is a big difference in the consequences of breaching privacy laws between the two countries. In France there are threats of prison and a €300,000 fine for certain infringements of the law on privacy however Britain has only a charter of good behaviour a code of ethics.”

In 2000 there was uproar from the French press after new rules placed even greater restrictions on the pictures newspapers and television stations could use. They banned the depiction of victims of crimes or violence if using an image likely to “jeopardise the dignity of the person portrayed”.

The rules came partly as a response to public outcry at the alleged behaviour of paparazzi in the wake of Princess Diana’s fatal crash and at the graphic pictures of the victims of a 1990s Paris bombing campaign by Algerian terrorists.

The legislation, part of an overhaul of the criminal justice system aimed at preserving the presumption of innocence and protecting victims' rights, was passed unanimously by the French senate despite claims that it amounted to censorship. Further discussions are taking place which could force journalists to reveal sources in what the state deems are ‘emergency situations’.

The question of political influence and censorship of the press is ongoing, with Le Monde recently accusing the French foreign ministry of boycotting the newspaper's diplomatic correspondent, accusing it of freezing her out and suggesting she should be replaced.

In the Paris Match scandal of 2006 the magazine showed the then wife of President Sarkozy, Cécilia on the cover with her lover.
The editor at that time Alain Genestar was sacked by the newspaper's owner - a close friend of Sarkozy.

Mr Ritchie said: “Clearly, Sarkozy is strong enough to make life difficult for newspapers or press agencies which are critical of him or seem to him to infringe the privacy of Cécilia, Carla, or himself, hence his interference in matters concerning the freedom of the press. Sarkozy tends to use the press shamelessly to peddle his own views, and conversely he tries to muzzle the press when its investigations come up with things hostile or critical to him or his party.”

Photo:Afp

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