Good leaves and big money

Who owns the major audiovisual and press media in France? With what impact for pluralism and independence of information? An economist and a lawyer make a grim diagnosis and outline the principles that would better protect this public good.

Julia Cagé, economist, and Benoît Huet, lawyer, are both familiar with issues relating to the media. In Information is a public good, they bring together their respective expertise in order to alert on the current state of ownership of these means of information: “year after year, (…) ten people, then only nine, own 90% of the media” (p. 12 ). This concentration in the hands of a few rich shareholders operates, according to the two authors, to the detriment of the independence and pluralism of the media, essential conditions of democracy. Developing a historical, economic and legal approach and drawing on examples from abroad – the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and Mexico – the two authors do not just paint a gloomy picture of French media ownership system. They also defend, and this is probably the most interesting contribution of their work, a detailed project intended to “democratize media governance and their ownership” (p. 12).

Media ownership: state of play

In France, the freedom to undertake results in a wide variety of forms and modes of media administration (p. 67). The latter can, for example, form companies or associations, with different statutes and rules of administration. However, the in-depth study of these various forms by the two authors reveals that, in the current state of French law, none of them is particularly satisfactory.

The form mainly chosen in France to administer a media, whether it concerns the written press or the audiovisual sector, is the commercial company. This is explained by the advantages that this legal form offers to shareholders. Indeed, investment in the media is accompanied, for the shareholder, by financial rights as well as decision-making rights proportional to the investment. The “commercial company” form, however, represents a threat to the autonomy of the editorial staff. The information mission of journalists indeed comes into tension with the financial interest of the shareholder, which is likely to provoke a form of “censorship or self-censorship of the editorial staff” (p. 72). For example, the authors emphasize the subjectivity of the coverage, by the newspaper Le Figarobusiness of the Dassault family, the main shareholder of the media.

As for the more “disinterested” forms of media administration, such as the association or the cooperative society, if they make it possible to limit “the risks of shareholder interference specific to the commercial company” (p. 95), they face to the major difficulty of their financing. The absence of compensation has little appeal to donors or investors.

Based on this observation, the two authors study the mechanisms likely to protect the independence and pluralism of the media when they take the popular form of a commercial company. Two mechanisms particularly attract their attention: the protection of media capital, on the one hand, and the rules guaranteeing pluralism, on the other. The protection of media capital is carried out by the transfer of capital to a non-profit organization, such as an association, a foundation or an endowment fund. If the idea seems attractive, the authors show that these tools are in reality insufficiently protective. Even the endowment fund, which seems to be favored by the authors, has certain limits. Indeed, “depending on how its statutes are written, the endowment fund can become either the guardian of the independence of a media outlet, or on the contrary the instrument of its subjection” (p. 137). Thus, if in the case of Mediapart, the statutes of the fund “(offer) solid guarantees of independence for the newspaper” (p. 138), conversely, the endowment fund which holds Release was designed to guarantee strong decision-making power to SFRthe sole founding company of this fund.

The analysis of measures intended to guarantee media pluralism, whether anti-concentration rules or public aid to the press, leads to the same observation: the legal instruments currently available are not satisfactory. For example, rules limiting media concentration have a particularly narrow scope of application. These rules simply prohibit a person from controlling more than 30% of the distribution of a daily publication on the national territory. They therefore do not concern weekly or monthly publications, nor the local press, nor corporate groups.

The proposal of an ideal type

Fortunately for the reader-citizen, the last chapter of the work brings a new and more optimistic breath. Because “information is a public good” (p. 186), Julia Cagé and Benoît Huet propose establishing new rules intended to “protect the freedom to inform and the independence of journalists” (p. 186) and to escape the pitfall that constitutes the current media situation. Their proposal for a “law for the democratization of information” (p. 195) is structured around four fundamental principles and targets not only the media themselves, but also the structures that own them. The authors suggest suspending obtaining a frequency (for audiovisual media) or major public subsidies (for press companies) from respecting these four principles, in order to guarantee their effectiveness (p. 219) . In other words, respect for these principles would constitute a condition sine qua non existence of the media.

According to the first principle, media governance must “fully involve journalists and employees” (p. 196). The latter must represent at least half of the members of the media’s governance bodies, but also of any endowment funds or foundations that own them. The objective is to guarantee them a real right of oversight over the administration of the media.

Secondly, both authors are in favor of a generalization of the right of approval. This right, which allows the transfer of company shares to be subject to the prior agreement of the board of directors, currently only applies to press companies. Combined with the first principle, the generalization of the right of approval would make it possible to strengthen the influence of journalists and employees on transfers of titles, to the extent that the board of directors would be composed, at least half, of journalists and employees.

The third principle provides for increased transparency of governance and shareholding. The objective here is to strengthen readers’ trust in the media by highlighting potential conflicts of interest (p. 210). The newspaper example The world is particularly significant. The publishing company is 75% owned by Le Monde libre, 36.7% owned by NJJ Press, owned by NJJ Media, owned by NJJ Strategy, owned by NJJ Holding, behind which we find Xavier Niel. However, the latter is also the director of the Free company. If this activity of Xavier Niel is known today by the majority of readers of Le Monde, it is only because of the newspaper’s charter of ethics. There is no general rule requiring the publication of this information. Consequently, the authors recommend that all media be obliged to “bring, in a visible and easily accessible manner, to the knowledge of all citizens all information relating to the identity of the members of its governing bodies, and to the composition of his capital” (p. 209).

Finally, Julia Cagé and Benoît Huet recommend increasing the human and financial resources of editorial offices by imposing a minimum number of salaried journalists within them and by setting aside a substantial part of the profits. More precisely, it would involve creating “a mandatory statutory reserve dedicated to the maintenance or development of business activity” (p. 216).

This system intended to democratize the media is supplemented by two additional measures. First, the authors propose the creation of “Vouchers for media independence” (p. 222). These vouchers, which are reminiscent of the “Vouchers for democratic equality” already proposed by Julia Cagé in the context of the financing of political parties, would consist of “a new form of public financing of the press” (p. 223) conditioned by respect for the four aforementioned principles. Each citizen could decide annually to which media to allocate a sum of 10 euros. A limit would, however, be imposed: no media could benefit from more than 1% of the vouchers. Thus, media pluralism would also be guaranteed.

In addition, the two authors propose the creation of a sustainability fund for the media, an improved version of current methods of protecting capital. The advantages of this construction would be multiple for the independence of the editorial staff: possibility of financially supporting the media, impossibility of reselling the titles and no supervision from the State.

The ideas are therefore numerous and the proposals serious in this work. The last chapter can be conceived, in the words of the authors themselves, as a “toolbox” (p. 240) available to readers with a view to rethinking media ownership in a democratic system.

Give back a central role to the citizen?

The objective of democratization of the media pursued by the authors perhaps suffers, and this is the only nuance that we would like to add, from a certain imprecision. The project presented in the last chapter of the work seems a little groping when it comes to determining to whom the power to decide should be given back. Thus we read about democratic media governance that in addition to the presence of journalists and employees in governance bodies, “one possibility would be to go further by guaranteeing (…) also representation of readers/listeners /viewers” ​​(p. 199). The authors propose to delimit the category of readers from that of “subscribers”. But, as they themselves point out, what should we do about free media? (p. 199). And why not take the occasional reader into account? From the potential reader? A few pages later, moreover, regarding the transparency of governance and shareholding, the authors consider that information relating to governance and media ownership must be accessible “to all citizens” (p. 209), thus encompassing a much wider circle. Thus, there remains a question to which Julia Cagé and Benoît Huet do not clearly answer: who, ultimately, should be at the heart of the media democratization process? Journalists, readers, and/or citizens?