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article imageOp-Ed: The French press — And you thought things were bad in America?

By Michael Cosgrove     Dec 11, 2010 in Internet
A leaked WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in Paris is severe in its criticism of the French press, which it considers to be more easily influenced by government and business interests than the American press. That is an accurate assessment.
“As if I didn’t know.” That criticism is often leveled at the content of leaked diplomatic cables supplied by Wikileaks and being published by the press at the moment, but this one contains information that few people who do not know the French press intimately are aware of.
The unclassified cable – “Cable07Paris306, Engagement With Muslim Communities – France" – primarily discusses ongoing and pro-active efforts by America which were begun two years ago to get France to improve its treatment of minority and immigrant groups, the largest of which by far is the Muslim community, and to identify possible future political and other talent. That content alone makes for fascinating reading and the American analysis is correct.
Part of the problem is that the issue of immigration is very badly covered in the French press, and the cable laconically points out that although the French media and politicians are very much at ease with offering negative views of America’s immigrant issues, they are rather less zealous when it comes to discussing ways to improve their treatment of their own immigrants.
That is why the cable discusses the French press and how it works, and the judgment is severe. It paints a bluntly negative picture of the French media in general, the deontology and journalistic standards of its top writers and the pressure brought to bear upon them by government and big business. It states that;
“Top French journalists are often products of the same elite schools as many French government leaders. These journalists do not necessarily regard their primary role as to check the power of government. Rather, many see themselves more as intellectuals, preferring to analyze events and influence readers more than to report events.”
So much for journalists, but what about their owners and legislation concerning the French media? They do not fare any better;
“The private sector media in France - print and broadcast - continues to be dominated by a small number of conglomerates, and all French media are more regulated and subjected to political and commercial pressures than are their American counterparts. The Higher Audio-Visual Council, created in 1989, appoints the CEOs of all French public broadcasting channels and monitors their political content.”
The cable goes on to observe that less than one in four French citizens reads a newspaper – a very low figure – and that minority groups and NGO’s use the Internet and “incredibly popular” blogs to communicate ideas because they don’t consider that the press does enough to make their voices heard.
Le Figaro s Front Page
Le Figaro's Front Page
Le Figaro
This analysis is flawless, factually correct, and it explains why American efforts to seduce France’s Arab population into a heightened acceptance of its point of view on integrating Muslims are being greatly facilitated by the gaping void left by the French media, which is full of taboos when it comes to talking about immigration. This is partially because of France’s draconian secularist stance, which refuses to take ethnic, religious and other origins into account for statistics or other evaluative studies of the population in order to combat racism and inequality.
The American initiative has made the French media prick up its ears though, as this article from a blog hosted by Le Monde indicates. It correctly asserts that America thinks it is getting a more accurate picture by meeting immigrant groups than by analyzing the press and talking with official figures. For those who understand French, the article has an embedded video report which describes American actions in France very well.
It would be hard for those who do not know the French press to understand the sheer amount of manipulation that exists in the French press. News, opinion and analysis are almost systematically jumbled into one article in a manner that would be unacceptable in any serious American paper.
Journalists, who are already under enormous editorial pressure, are heavily protected by law and readers’ charters from negative comment to an extent which would not be tolerated in America, never mind in my native Britain and its rough-and-tumble comment sections. This explains why I have regularly had comment suppressed despite my best efforts to respect these constrictive rules. Investigative journalism as it is conceived to be in America is almost totally nonexistent.
It is worth saying a word about the government-appointed press watchdog, the Higher Audio-Visual Council. The Council is particularly severe on political content, and although there is a left-right spread of editorial line in the French press there are limits to what is acceptable and severe attacks on politicians are not appreciated. Also, it is a given that publishing almost anything that journalists may know about politicians’ private lives is forbidden. One example of that is the fact that President François Mitterand successfully managed to obtain press agreement that nothing would be said about the existence of his illegitimate daughter and the amount of money spent on protecting her by the French secret services for many years. The truth only came out after his death.
But don’t just take my word for it, take a look at this year’s Reporters Without Borders classification on press freedoms and you will learn that not only is the French press in a pitiful state, things are getting exponentially worse.
Whereas thirteen of the twenty-seven EU countries are in the top 20 and America came in 20th just ahead of Canada in 21st (both being just beaten to 19th by my beloved Britain), France comes in miles behind in 44th place, just behind Jamaica and Mali and just in front of Cyprus, Slovenia and Bosnia. This is extremely embarrassing to say the least for the country which prides itself on its self-proclaimed vanguard position on human rights and freedoms.
Not only that, but France has dropped by 33 places since the classification began in 2002 and the trend is continuing. French online-only paper Rue89 quotes RWB French General Secretary as saying that “Several democratic countries in which we have noticed problems are making no progress….particularly France and Italy. France has witnessed several police attacks against journalists as well as lawsuits against them, violation or attempted violation of the right to undisclosed sources and most of all a heavily hostile wariness towards the press. The French government is no longer considered as a country which respects freedom of information.”
The stinging rebuke handed out by the US Paris Embassy cable to the French press is totally justified and the evidence is there to prove that. So the next time you read an American paper and fulminate against the real or perceived bad quality of the journalism it contains just thank your lucky stars that you do not have to put up with the French press.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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