That the communications giants would find “freedom of the press” to be such an obliging concept does not disturb Reporters sans frontières (RSF, Reporters without borders). RSF’s secretary general, Robert Ménard, offers this concession: “In order to defend journalists throughout the world, we require the consent and support of the profession, whereas discussions concerning the journalistic profession are by definition contentious. For instance, how can we organise a discussion on the increasing concentration of the media and then ask Havas or Hachette to sponsor an event?” (10). Since defending journalists in China or Chechnya also means dealing with Hachette and Havas (not to mention Silvio Berslusconi, Rupert Murdoch and Francis Bouygues), is it surprising that among the “predators of freedom of the press” named by RSF - and pilloried last 4 May at the Fnac (the French book and department store chain) - there were no names that might possibly “sponsor an event”? Least of all that of François Pinault, Fnac’s owner.
The truth is that the various overlapping alliances have made it harder to challenge individual media magnates, even by a media source that is not yet dependent on them. Vivendi’s chairman and CEO, Jean-Marie Messier, and Rupert Murdoch have just merged their pay-TV operations in Italy. Berlusconi and Murdoch, together with Pinault and the French TV network TF1, are shareholders in TV Breizh, a privately-owned Breton channel (11). The French media giant Lagardère and Vivendi are partners in Canal Satellite, the French digital satellite provider. Hachette, the Pinault-controlled news magazine Le Point, and the daily papers Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération are all part of a joint venture that is in the running for a Parisian channel (12).
In this world of industrial complicity, where the same names and the same class interests keep coming up, the distinction between the public and the commercial realms is also becoming blurred. This is certainly the case in Italy since Berlusconi, the richest man in the country and owner of Italy’s three private television networks, became prime minister.
Such confusion is occurring elsewhere as well. Robert Maxwell bought a newspaper in Kenya while he was a business partner of Kenya’s president Daniel Arap Moi, about whom the paper found only good things to say. The Marhino family, which dominates the Brazilian media, has made use of an informal parliamentary group more powerful than any political party. Francis Bouygues admits that he bought TF1 to increase his influence in the political and cultural arenas and a member of his inner circle made this confession: “Francis held politicians in the greatest contempt since he knew he could buy them off. As the owner of a TV network, he understands that he no longer has to go begging after them since they will be the ones eating out of his hand” (13).
Indeed, who would dare refuse such a hand? Not the activists who bounce from one media appearance to another to criticise “ultra-liberalism”, but who rarely focus on the role of the media multinationals and the mercenary spin they give to the information they disseminate. Nor do the intellectuals who, even as they express disdain for the lowly position reserved for them by the media, cannot help but accept the invitations they receive. Almost a quarter century ago, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze warned the intelligentsia of the techniques and dangers of the “philosophical marketing” utilised by philosopher/journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy and his friends: “Talking about a book and getting people to talk about it are more important than what the book itself says or does not say. Taken to the limit, the multitude of newspaper articles, interviews, colloquia, radio or television broadcasts must replace the book, which might as well not exist at all. … Intellectuals, writers, even artists, are thus invited to become journalists if they want to conform to the norms. It’s a new type of thinking, the interview-thought, the instant-thought” (14) .
Thus glorifying “freedom of the press” often serves to mask the silent tyranny that the media and their proprietors would like to impose on political and cultural life (15). However it is not hard to determine the extent of the danger. For example, in 1996 the US Congress, which had just cut federal aid to the poor, granted frequencies worth some $70bn at no cost to the recipients. Viacom, Disney and General Electric - the respective owners of the CBS, ABC and NBC networks - were the main beneficiaries of the decision. Protesting the give-away, Senator John McCain said during the congressional debate: “You will not see this story on any television or hear it on any radio broadcast because it directly affects them”. In fact, during the nine months that elapsed between the introduction of the legislation and its final approval, the three main news networks devoted only 19 minutes to the subject. The question of whether the largest communications companies could afford to pay for the frequencies that the US government awarded them was not raised (16). Is there any other country where “freedom of the press” is safeguarded more effectively than in the United States?
Translated by Luke Sandford
(1) Jacques Bouveresse, Schmock ou le triomphe du journalisme, Seuil, Paris, 2001, p 72.
(2) “Nouvelle économie”, L’Express, 5 July 2001.
(3) Until 1995 Alcatel effectively controlled, via Générale Occidentale, 50% of the French market for general-interest weekly magazines, including Le Point and L’Express.
(4) Vivendi Universal Publishing recently sold the weekly Courrier international to Le Monde “for an undisclosed amount”. Periodicals are accustomed to demanding transparency from others, but can they abide a lack of transparency when they themselves are concerned?.
(5) Jean-Marie Cavada, CEO of Radio France and Michel Denizot, associate managing director of Canal Plus, specialise in the brands and products of business school terminology.
(6) Patrick Eveno, Le journal Le Monde: Une Histoire d’indépendance, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2001.
(7) The M6 network (owned by BMG, the Bertelsmann group has contacted the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (France’s audiovisual council) and has applied for permission to increase its time devoted to advertisements from an average of 6 to 9 minutes per hour.
(8) On 21 March 2001 the French daily Libération was printed on purple paper to satisfy one of its advertisers. As a result the paper was virtually illegible. Totalling 71bn francs (approximately $10bn) last year, publicity and advertising revenues represented 45.5% of total income for the print media. In relative terms this was the highest level for advertising revenues over the last 10 years.
(9) L’Evénement, 22 July 1999.
(10) Robert Ménard, Ces journalistes que l’on veut faire taire, Albin Michel, Paris, 2001, pp 63-64. .
(11) TV Breizh’s capital structure is allocated as follows: Artemis (Pinault), 27%; TF1, 22%; Crédit Agricole de Bretagne TV, 15%; News International PLC (Murdoch), 13%; Mediaset Investment (Berlusconi), 13%; etc. Pinault, who owns the weekly Le Point and the monthly L’Histoire, is one of TF1’s primary shareholders.
(12) See Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of Le Monde, “Nous allons nouer des liens forts pour bâtir un réseau européen”, Le Nouvel Hebdo, 13 July 2001.
(13) Pierre Péan and Christophe Nick, TF1: un pouvoir, Fayard, Paris, 1997, p 193.
(14) Gilles Deleuze, “On the New Philosophers and a More General Problem”, in Discourse 20:3 (Fall 1998), pp 38-40.
(15) See “La pire des censures”, Pour Lire Pas Lu, Marseille, June-August 2001.
(16) See Bill Moyers, “Journalism and Democracy”, The Nation, 7 May 2001.