Saturday, 25 March 2017

Media frenzy

In a free society, governed by the rule of law and democratic rights, it is never easy to criticise the media without being accused, and even accusing oneself, of yielding too quickly to the temptation to restrict freedom of the press. It is only when red lines are very clearly crossed, like the journalistic behaviour that led to the shutting down of the News of the World in the U.K some years ago, that criticism of the media hits home. Nobel prize-winning author Heinrich Böll, in his short novel “Die velorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (“The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum”) in 1976, with its subtitle “how violence arises and where it can lead” captured a similar moment in the Western Germany of the time. It is the story of an innocent young woman caught up involuntarily in a hunt for a terrorist and hounded by the gutter press, under cover of “freedom of the press”. Böll intended the story as a vigorous denunciation of the methods of Bild Zeitung (“should the reader find any similarities between the journalistic practises described in this story and those of the Bild Zeitung, they are neither intentional nor accidental – simply unavoidable”).*

In France, thankfully, no such newspaper exists. That being said, a number of recent media incidents during the election campaign are disquieting and raise questions, particularly about the attitude of the French public sector media, Radio France and France Televisions. The most recent concerns a highly unedifying spectacle on Thursday night when François Fillon was verbally lynched on prime-time TV by a well-known contemporary novelist known for her left-wing sympathies. Although Fillon defended himself with dignity, the sequence was clearly meant to surprise and embarrass him and further tarnish his battered reputation.  The programme producers must have known what was coming but preferred, for reasons best known to themselves, to go ahead. The least that can be said about the whole incident is that it has done little to advance serious political debate – the ostensible purpose of the programme.  This was also the occasion on which Fillon launched his now well-reported attack on President François Hollande, accusing him of overseeing a carefully orchestrated campaign of dirty tricks from his privileged position as Head of State. I shall return to this in a future post.

What has gone relatively unnoticed however is that some time last autumn, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported over two or three weeks that France Info, a 24 hour news network of Radio France had been granted, in record time, a TV licence and would soon be broadcasting both on radio and on TV. At about the same time, another TV news network, owned by TF1, a private company, was experiencing considerable difficulty obtaining an extension of its own broadcasting licence. For the Canard this was a clear indication that François Hollande had decided to stand for a second term and was preparing a compliant mouthpiece for his achievements, policies and future ambitions. The pieces were written in the Canard’s usual jocular and ironic style but the insinuations were clear. Since then of course, Hollande has decided not to stand again, Fillon won the right-wing primary and the Canard has shifted its attention to him. Although I am an assiduous reader of the Canard every week, I have found no recent reference to “la TV Hollande” as it was disdainfully described at the time.

Those who are at all familiar with France will know that government interference in the media has deep roots. After General De Gaulle was first elected President by universal suffrage in 1962, the well-known diplomat, politician and author Alain Peyrefitte became Minister for Information. It was an open secret that he regularly telephoned the news department of the state-owned broadcaster, ORTF, that he himself had set up as an ostensibly independent corporation, to “give his views” about what should be broadcast on the evening news. During his presidency (1974-1981), Valéry Giscard d’Estaing broke up the ORTF and converted it into a number of autonomous broadcasters, free, it was assured, of government interference. The truth is that while the outer trappings of the public sector media have substantially changed over the last 40 years, it is doubtful whether anything else has, any intervention being all the more insidious for being covered by a veneer of independence. At every change of President and government, journalists reputed to be hostile to the new President are replaced or side-lined by those said to be more sympathetic. Which is one of the main reasons why these media do not enjoy the same degree of respect as the BBC or NPR, to put it mildly.

As regular listener to France Info, I can only register my increasingly irritated surprise that it has kept up such a barrage of negative news and virulent criticism of François Fillon since he became the right-wing candidate for the presidency of France. To the extent that I now switch to another station. After Fillon’s attack on the President on Thursday evening, citing evidence from a soon-to-be published book about police snooping and how findings are consistently misused by those in power, one of the three authors called Radio France almost immediately to deny Fillon’s claims. The next day, François Hollande gave an indignant and exclusive radio and TV interview to France Info and a regional offshoot of Radio France. Viewers and listeners may draw their own conclusions. I have drawn mine. 

* Böll's subtitle and foreward to the story.

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