Monday, July 16, 2007

Press Independence

Round 937 in the unending skirmishes over press consolidations in France. If you haven't been following the saga of Les Echos, I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that LVMH, the group headed by Bernard Arnault, wants to buy it. The journalists at the magazine see a threat to their "journalistic independence," since Arnault is not only the wealthiest man in France but also already the owner of the competing La Tribune. But the same journalists favor a surprise offer from another source, the Fimalac group, which is headed by a figure almost as imposing in financial circles as Arnault, Marc Ledreit de Lacharrière.

The journalists have raised the banner of "press independence" and appealed for support to Christine Lagarde, the minister of finance, whose chief of staff said he "understood the writers' concerns" and recognized the "values of independence and pluralism." Arnault would of course be tempted to fold La Tribune into Les Echos to cut costs and reduce competition. But I'm not sure that his ownership would pose any greater threat to the "independence" of the magazine than ownership by his rival financier. Since the economy the journalists report on is a global one, moreover, I would think that the more serious contributions to pluralism would come from the financial press in other capitals such as the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and Financial Times Deutschland. But perhaps I'm missing something. I can understand why the journalists would fight for their jobs, but the cloaking of their corporate interest in the general interest of "freedom of the press" tends to diminish the force of the latter argument in cases where it is more urgently required. I hope I'm not being unfair to them, but the principle here seems somewhat muddled, and even more so since the appearance on the scene of the Fimalac offer. There is also something rather parochial, though alas in keeping with other archaic views of the economy, about casting the contest as one between two French national champions and two French captains of industry, as if the rest of the world were irrelevant.

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