Thursday, June 26, 2008

Media Mogul

Sarkozy's decision that the president of France Télévisions should henceforth be nominated by the chief of state is troubling, as I indicated in my previous post. Equally troubling is his rationale for the decision: "I do not see why the principal stockholder in France Télévisions, namely, the state, should not appoint its president." He also compared FT to any other state enterprise: EDF, GDF, SNCF, RATP. This refusal to grasp the distinction between the media--a fundamental organ of oversight and control in a liberal democracy--and other kinds of business is alarming. So is the implicit assertion of ownership. So is the confusion of agent with principal: if anyone owns the public media, it is the public--the People, not the president, who is merely their agent as well as a prime object of the media's attention, by the very nature of his office. Hence control of the agent by the principal is in this instance an even more sensitive issue than usual.

It is not too much to say that what is at stake is liberty. As for the ostensible check on the president's prerogative in the form of required approval by the parliament and CSA, Tocqueville already saw through this stratagem in regard to another assault on French liberties nearly three centuries ago, when an absolute monarch promised to compensate for his refusal to convoke the Estates General by feigning to enhance the powers of les parlements:

There was a need to appear to provide new guarantees in place of those that had been eliminated, because the French, who had put up rather patiently with absolute power as long as it was not oppressive, never liked the sight of it, and it was always wise to raise some apparent barriers in front of it, barriers that could not stop it but nevertheless hid it a little.
---L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, II.10.


kirkmc said...


I might agree if France Télévisions were a monopoly, but as one of a few dozen channels (or a few hundred) for most people, this is no longer the case. Whether it be for news, culture or entertainment, the French have ample possibilities to choose from. I don't see that tighter government oversight will necessarily skew the news or anything else.

On an absolute level, I do agree with you, but the PAF in France is such that this will make only a small change.


Alex Price said...

I wonder if Sarkozy hasn’t made a real political misstep with this “reform.” It seems to me that it presents some of the least appealing aspects of his way of governing without much in the way of compensatory benefit. With most of the reforms undertaken, there is general agreement that something needs to be done; one can criticize the method and the specific shape of a proposal, but not the desire to take action. Here, it is difficult to see what real problems the proposed changes are supposed to respond to. Or if one accepts that the goal really is to improve the quality of public TV, the proposed changes hardly seem like a plausible way to achieve it. Instead, one has a strong sense of “le fait du prince” with a reform that does indeed seem like a “retour en arrière.” The perception of Sarkozy as arbitrary and authoritarian is increased; his reputation as a competent pragmatist is diminished. I don’t think that helps him.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if your concerns would be made if France had a PS president. I suspect that Sarkosy is trying to "neutralize" the political bias in the French media that dogmatically oppose any legislation by a government of "the right". Good luck to him on that one.

MYOS said...

Anonymous my concerns would be the same. It's just inconceivable that a democratic government would want to control the media. And just as mind-boggling that a democracy would let that happen or would have no way to stop it.
As for "political bias", I suppose you mean Jean Pierre Pernaut?:-D

MYOS said...

Also, how come the NYT isn't writing about it? The Guardian did
as well as the FT

Anonymous said...

You guys need a reality check. Governments always have a say in the way public medias are operating and that's prefectly normal as it is after all public.

There are numerous checks and balances already in place (CSA, etc) that prevent abuses from the government. Also if you look at the way the BBC is operating, it is very much in line with Sarkozy's idea: the BBC director is chosen by the queen from a list drawn by the culture ministry. So in the UK the government effectively nominates the BBC director. As far as I know, the BBC is not a government propaganda tool which proves that this model is workable.

It is wise to be cautious when presented which such reforms but let's not fall into the paranoid mindset that seems to be so pervasive these days.

Unknown said...

When the French president can be removed by a vote of no-confidence in Parliament, I will accept the British comparison as valid. Until then I'd rather see a firmer firewall between the chief of state and the media. I'm not so naive that I believe that the president is without undue influence over the media under the current system, and his influence would only be increased under the new system. I don't think that's a paranoid fantasy in the light of the history of interference with the media by French presidents.

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