MEDIA OWNERSHIP AND BIAS
France: his master’s voice
The media may now be free of governmental censorship, but this has been replaced by self-censorship serving the interests of individual and corporate media owners - and the self-promotion of intellectuals.
By Serge Halimi
Is it just coincidence or are Western journalists obsessed with the word morality? Moral demands are made on our political leaders, and morality now figures in international law, and there are endless media debates by omnipresent intellectuals of little worth, professors of morality and those who like to theorise about evil. More than a century ago the Austrian satirical review Die Fackel(The Torch) made this observation: “The newspapers seem to offer up the spectacle of a million dirty hands holding a million brooms, all bent on sweeping other people’s doorsteps” (1).
Somehow these same dirty hands are considered clean enough to wield the scalpel. Last June the French supplier of telecommunications equipment Alcatel announced plans to close most of its factories. Denis Jeambar immediately took umbrage at governmental inaction: “Our political leaders live under the empire of the markets and globalised companies. Politics no longer exists” (2). Yet the man behind this insightful reproach is both managing editor of the French news magazine L’Express and president of the general information service of Vivendi Universal Publishing, formerly known as Havas, which was at one time controlled by Alcatel (3). As the lieutenant of one of the world’s largest multinationals, is Jeambar in any position to hold forth on the shifting tides of current events as if they were alien to him? Is it not true that the globalised companies that live under the empire of the markets in fact the media conglomerates themselves? Surely it would be beneficial if their own doorsteps were swept from time to time) (4).
Journalists increasingly serve as masters of ceremony for the powerful groups that they should be seeking to control. In more and more countries those who own the media outlets hold both governments and politicians on a tight leash. Some reporters have dubbed this transformation “the end of history” and the apotheosis of “freedom of the press”. Yet, for such journalists, the victory in question is only one step along the road to greater dependence. The fallen walls of state censorship have been replaced by more subtle barriers; there is no point in having newscasters in military uniforms, as was the case in communist Poland, when the truly powerful have journalists at their disposal. Nowadays journalists’ finery is emblazoned with the logos of the markets.
The revolt against subservience to merchandise may have begun: but not in the press. Whether you take the key daily papers, publicly-owned radio stations or private television networks, their overriding concern seems to be to mention the words “brand” and “product” as often as possible to describe what until quite recently journalists preferred to call “news” (5). Even then, they failed to take into account that capitalism flourished in conjunction with “freedom of the press”. And in a liberal economy information and news is designed to sell and to be sold, whether to readers, advertisers or shareholders.
The historian Patrick Eveno reminds them of this fact with an enthusiasm that appears genuine: “Almost nothing remains of the coercive mechanisms set up after the second world war to regulate the media. Aside from the NMPP (Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne, a press distribution service), AFP (Agence France-Presse) and various remnants of the ex-ORTF (the former French radio and television organisation), which must also adapt to the new reality, the French media have regained their operating freedom by cutting the ties that bound them to the state. The press is in better shape not only because advertising has been on the upswing, but also because the print media have plans for both the editorial and commercial domains. ... The French media have entered the era of modern democratic capitalism. …The only way for newspapers to preserve their independence is to keep both readers and shareholders satisfied” (6).
So it is that freedom and independence in their new “unregulated” form must follow in the wake of advertisers and proprietors. This “philosophy” has become commonplace. Certain issues are no longer even raised in most newspapers, as journalists become indistinguishable from everyone else.
For years, radio and television programmes broadcast in cafés, restaurants and supermarkets have been interrupted by loud, invasive advertising breaks (7). This phenomenon occurs quite naturally, and meets with no resistance. Imagine the reaction of the media overseers, listeners and passers-by if a government spokesman were to interrupt a broadcast every 10 minutes in cafés, restaurants and supermarkets to read an official communiqué. Outraged people would be screaming that the airwaves had been overrun and that dictatorship had arrived. And they would be right. Advertising’s licence to take over minds and souls and the way it has been auctioned off to the highest bidder are truly alarming (8).
Proud to be with Hachette
To say that such questions have not been addressed would be inaccurate since some journalists have offered their reaction. Two years ago Alain Genestar gave an interview in the French weekly L’Evénement, which used to be published by the Hachette group. Genestar was then managing director of the Hachette-controlled weekly Journal du dimanche and is now managing director of the Hachette-controlled magazine Paris Match and a regular contributor to the Hachette-controlled Europe 1 radio network. In the interview he described his relationship with his proprietor: “I have been a journalist with Hachette for 18 years. I like working with the people there and I get along well with management. At a time when international press organisations are expanding rapidly, I hope that the Hachette group will become a major player” (9). No doubt Genestar is also pleased with the freedoms won by journalists when the state stopped regulating the media. After all, he is free to proclaim himself a Hachette journalist and offer proof of this in the publications he manages.
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