05
Nov 14

The real and the worst damage done by state press subsidies

fontenelle-editocratesAs the printed press has struggled to cope with the end of an era of plenty and the collapse of the newspaper business model, the odd voice has played with the idea of subsidising the press. Here’s why that might be an idea to be briefly considered, but it’s also one to reject.

After all, such would-be saviours of the endangered species of printed news ask, don’t we all subsidise the BBC, to the tune of £4bn a year, through a licence fee which is a tax by another name? Do papers not enjoy a tax break by not paying VAT? Don’t other European countries do this and don’t they manage fine?

Not in France they don’t. Journalist Sebastien Fontenelle has just been having another go at newspaper and magazine subsidies there and bringing the story up to date. As he rightly remarks, major newspapers like Le Monde and Figaro use a lot of ink telling the state and government to reduce government spending and debt while hypocritically burying the figures on the subsidies they receive and doing nothing to abolish or reform the system.

Official figures show that the France spent €5bn between 2009 and 2011, amounting to 15% of the industry’s turnover. You might imagine that this money was distributed to high-minded but loss-making publications on politics and economics. In 2013, nearly €20m was handed to the four magazines devoted to TV listings and small screen celebs.

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14
Jan 11

The power of social, networked media in Tunisia

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices asks: what if there was a revolution going on in Tunisia and nobody was watching?

The first part of the answer is that what’s happening in Tunisia so far amounts to a revolt and not a revolution. The Jasmine Revolt (so called after the country’s national flower) has shaken the regime of President Ben Ali but not brought it down. The government hasn’t lost its nerve and remains in control of the streets. The President’s concessionary speech last night bought him some time.

But that isn’t really Zuckerman’s point: he’s worried that fewer people are following what’s happening in Tunisia than followed events in Iran in June 2009. Here are a few reasons for the difference:

  • The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.
  • Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French mainstream media have covered the story.
  • It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.
  • Working as  a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”
  • Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.
  • The early days of the the Tunisian disturbances fell into the news twilight of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
  • There is no Tunisian equivalent of the left’s bad conscience about Iran. When the ayatollahs took over in Iran in 1979, they were greeted in Europe and America by panegyrics from progressive opinion which look truly embarassing to read now that we know what an Islamic clerical dictatorship actually looks like. Some guilt still persists and helps to fuel interest and concern about Iran.

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11
Jan 11

Filloux on Le Monde

Anyone at all familiar with the French daily Le Monde will want to look at this trenchant takeout by Frederic Filloux, who reports that he was informally approached about whether he might be interested in the editorship. He decided not to be interested because the paper’s present mess is so bad.

If people are shying away from jobs which until quite recently they might have killed to get, things must be bad. On Filloux’s view, the new owners aren’t very smart, the consultative procedures with the staff don’t work and the paper’s internet strategy is awful.

Filloux’s account prompts three quick observations:
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26
Sep 10

The case for a point of view

It’s time to retire the exhausted idea that the best journalism separates “fact” and “opinion”. The invaluable weekly roundup from NiemanLab carries (second item here) a summary of the current debate inside the US about the rival claims of neutrality for journalists against the growing number of voices arguing for reporters doing their work from an openly-declared point of view.

Calling this the “exodus from objectivity” (a perhaps partial description in itself), the note underlines that people leaving jobs in mainstream media for ones in new media are now citing the lack of freedom imposed by neutrality rules in reporting. NYU professor Jay Rosen, who has been writing about this for years, said that “centrist detachment” was now so unpopular that it is driving talent away from traditional newsrooms .

I say “current” debate because of course this has been an intermittent issue for journalists since anything called journalism began. I say “inside the US” because if you read this American discussion from anywhere else in the world, as I do, the missing element in US argument is any sense of how this goes anywhere else in the world.

Try the British perspective for size. In Britain, the first newspapers grew from partisan newsheets; ideas of civic responsibility or inclusiveness weren’t uppermost in the minds of most editors and publishers. By the twentieth century newspapers had become more serious-minded, sober and influential. But even so, the separation of “fact” and “comment” was never as strict as that enforced (or at least declared) at US papers. Reporters on British quality papers, depending on their experience and seniority, were and are expected to make sense of the facts they report.

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21
Jun 10

Le Monde: this time it’s serious

Without comment, the briefing from this week’s Monday Note by the ever-trenchant Frederic Filloux on the approaching hour of truth at Le Monde. If not rescued, the paper will run out of cash in two weeks. As Frederic says, its situation is emblematic of the entire French press.

Two major European publishing groups drop out of the bidding when they see the numbers…Sarkozy interferes…government subsidies disguised the extent of the crisis. A horror story from any angle.