Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sarkozy Taking Control of the Media

Whilst Sarkozy has been turning on the charm of late, the story in France is altogether more worrying. Sarko seems to be taking a leaf out of Berlusconi's book and seeking to control the output of the French media and ensure that it is entirely uncritical of his presidency. Sarkozy's latest attempt to control the media revolves around France's public broadcaster, FTV. From The Guardian:

Earlier this year, Sarkozy surprised everyone - including his own culture minister - by proposing stopping advertising on FTV in January 2009. The cost? €850m - roughly the third of FTV revenues not covered by the licence fee. Was his aim, as he said, to help FTV avoid ratings-chasing and learn from the BBC, or to help his friends in commercial TV and disorientate the left? The answer, of course, is both.

He created a commission to sort out the mess. His majority leader in parliament, Jean-François Copé, headed a group of politicians and industry experts with the aim of modernising FTV and filling the funding gap. Inclusiveness extended to politicians, producers, film makers, a philosopher and me, for my expertise on the BBC.

Last week Sarkozy received the commission's report and said that from now on he would choose FTV's director general. Sceptics were to be reassured by safeguards: parliament could reject the proposed candidate - but only with a three-fifths majority vote, and Sarkozy has a majority in both houses. So how has an initiative, heralded in January as creating a French-style BBC by ending advertising, resulted in the most obvious attempt by any French government since De Gaulle to place public broadcasting under its control? The answers lie in attitudes to funding and governance.

But so what? FTV is only one of a multitude of media outlets in France, it's not as if free speech is under threat. Well, the assault on FTV is just the tip of the iceberg. Sarkozy counts many influential media figures amongst his personal friends. These influential figures include:

* Serge Dassault - owner of the historically conservative Le Figaro newspaper and a senator from the president's right-wing party
* Martin Bouygues - godfather to Sarkozy's youngest son, who controls the biggest French television channel, TF1
*Arnaud Lagardère - an aerospace company chairman who once said he and Sarkozy were as close as brothers
* Bernard Arnault - chairman of LVH, the holding company for the financial newspaper Les Échos and best man at Sarkozy's wedding.

Of course, there should be nothing particularly surprising about this. The political establishment has long seen the media as a convenient propaganda tool. The United States has long given up the pretence of having an objective media. For much of the past eight years they have failed to scrutinise the White House and have been keen to play the role of obedient puppy. And that's before we even begin to look at the influence certain elements had on the first Bush election 'victory'. The appointment of Roger Ailes as CEO at the Fox News Channel merely served to underline the point. Ailes was media consultant for Nixon, Reagan and Bush I and displayed perfect Republican credentials. As such, Fox was always going to be a tool for the Bush White House, and so it has proved.

And so it has continued. Berlusconi has a large chunk of the media under his thumb in Italy. Even the UK government has attempted to crush the independence of the BBC over the build-up to the Iraq war (much to the delight of the supposedly anti-state right). The political elite have seen what an effective propaganda machine the media can be. As a result, they have sought to control it in order to consolidate their positions of power and crush dissent. The line dividing media and the government is being eroded at an alarming rate. France is just the latest victim of the political elite's rush to control the media.