French senators push to strengthen media independence

"On the surface, there has never been so much media on offer", said Socialist Senator David Assouline, adding that it is clear that there is a "shrinking number of media owners". [Hadrian/Shutterstock]

The French Senate has put forward proposals to strengthen the independence of the French media, which are held by a limited number of large groups and governed by rules that have become “obsolete” with digital technology and the strong competition from American platforms.

“On the surface, there has never been so much media on offer,” Socialist Senator David Assouline said on Thursday (March 31), adding that it is clear that there is a “shrinking number of media owners”.

It was on this basis that the Senate launched an enquiry commission last November to draw lessons from a particularly concentrated French media landscape, largely in the hands of a handful of businessmen.

“Regulation is needed, it is a democratic necessity,” said Assouline, the rapporteur of the report that was presented this week.

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A total of 82 people were heard during more than 100 hours of debate. Assouline underlined the “unusual harshness of the debates, which are not common to the way we debate in our institutions”.

The debate took place at a time when the proposed merger between major French TV channels TF1 and M6 has been much talked about in the light of the economic and information pluralism issues raised by this possible new information giant.

“The enormous competition from American platforms requires fairly heavy investments,” Assouline declared, noting, however, “nuances in the commission of enquiry’s assessments” as to the strategy to adopt in the face of this.

Beyond the logic that led to this concentration, the senators highlighted the risks and infringements of press freedom that this phenomenon accentuated.

According to the report, the excessive concentration of the media is detrimental to the credibility of information, while some newsrooms are at times suspected of being the ideological arm of the groups to which they belong.

This concentration, sometimes leading to a pooling of editorial staff, can also lead to a deterioration in the working conditions of journalists, as well as to the precariousness of their profession.

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32 proposals

To mitigate these negative effects, the senators called for a complete overhaul of the 1986 law on freedom of communication, which has become “obsolete”, and put forward 32 proposals.

The last one of those suggests a complete rewriting of the legislation, which could take into account a review of concentrations based on the “attention share”, namely the time spent in front of each type of media (written press, radio, TV, web, etc).

The senators called for the creation of an “independent administrator” on the board of directors of media groups, who should ensure the independence of editorial staff and prevent conflicts of interest.

They would also like to involve the French audiovisual watchdog Arcom more closely for the purposes of control and transparency. They suggested that the authority should evaluate every four years “the state of concentrations and the desirable evolution of the rules”.

Aware that the independence of the media depends partly on the financial aspect, the senators called for a reform of the system of aid to the press in France.

On the issue of neighbouring rights, they would like to introduce an obligation of transparency on the agreements between platforms and publishers, as well as a power of sanction for Arcom in case of failure of the negotiations.

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There is a need to put a stop to the information gap between the media and digital platforms, and encourage publishers to join forces to improve negotiations with digital platforms, French MPs concluded in a report presented on Wednesday.

Not only France

The 381-page document also notes that the problems raised by media concentration are not specific to France and that the subject is also debated in the United States, Germany, Great Britain and Italy.

“In the United States, the TF1-M6 deal could not have happened” under the current legislation, noted Laurent Lafon, chairman of the committee of enquiry.

Asked by EURACTIV about the European ‘Media Freedom Act’, an upcoming initiative by the European Commission to strengthen the independence and guarantee the pluralism of the media across the bloc, Assouline welcomed the fact that Brussels had taken up the issue so that there would be coherence on the matter at the EU level.

He nevertheless acknowledged that the “gap is quite big” and said he was “dubious” about Eastern European countries’ approval.

“Their way of looking at press freedom is not quite the same,” he said. “If we succeed in bringing them up to our standards, it will be a huge step forward for our democracies.”

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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