Sarkozy Making Television A Tool of the Presidency?

By Elaine Ganley | December 18, 2008 | 10:27 AM EST
Paris (AP) - Early in the New Year, advertising will begin to disappear on France's public television networks, the start of a major shake-up ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy that critics say will give him virtual control of the airwaves.
Sarkozy calls the change a "veritable cultural revolution" that will restore quality to public networks that have increasingly had to compete with the sometimes lower-brow programming of private channels.
But in addition to pulling ads from France's four public channels, the plan also allows Sarkozy to handpick the chief of public broadcasting company, France Televisions -- alarming critics who say the project sends France back decades to the days when TV was the tool of the presidency.
Critics also predict the shakeup will starve public television of advertising funds, costing jobs.
"The ultimate goal is nothing more than to put public television on a leash to prepare for the 2012 presidential elections," said Didier Mathus, a lawmaker from the rival Socialist Party who led a futile nearly four-week-long campaign against the bill.
In the end, the National Assembly, parliament's lower house, voted 293 to 242 on Wednesday in favor of the public television bill. The Senate won't discuss the bill until the New Year -- meaning the changes will start going into effect even before it becomes law.
The project comes amid growing concern in Italy that Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a former media mogul who still retains influence over the TV empire that helped make him Italy's richest man, is grabbing control of public airwaves.
The French project calls for the gradual removal of all advertising from public broadcasting, beginning with prime time and overnight programming from Jan. 5. The government is to guarantee funding of euro450 million a year over the next three years to replace lost ad revenue.
Funding is to come mainly from two new taxes: a 0.9 percent tax on revenues of Internet suppliers and telephone operators, foreign included, and a tax on advertising revenue of private TV channels -- 1.5 percent to 3 percent depending on how well they fare from year to year.
Sarkozy says the goal is to restore the networks' public service identity, lost in ratings wars with private channels, mainly TF1, France's most widely watched station. The president's office argues the reform amounts to a lifeline as ad revenues are threatened by recession.
Detractors contend the revamp is a camouflaged boost for TF1 -- owned by Martin Bouygues, a close friend of Sarkozy's for 30 years. They say TF1 will win the lion's share of advertising lost by public networks.
The French president has been dogged by allegations of cozying up to media moguls -- and exerting presidential influence over them -- ever since he was elected in May last year.
"Even if Sarkozy has no such evil intentions ... the suspicion is there," said Divina Frau-Meigs, a media sociology professor at the Sorbonne University.
"Television still remains the agenda-setter in terms of reaching public opinion."
Journalists' unions are calling for a strike Jan. 5 to protest the project.
Sarkozy's revamp has a historical precedent: nearly all presidents of the Fifth Republic have reorganized the airwaves, starting with Charles de Gaulle in 1959 when he created the public TV monolith known as ORTF, a virtual propaganda tool. Socialist President Francois Mitterrand ended state control over public broadcasting in 1982.
"This affair will boomerang on you," warned Francois Baroin, a former minister and member of Sarkozy's UMP party but opposed to the measure.
With the growth of multimedia and youth driven ratings, some experts say a streamlining was in order.
"If you are reforming France, as Sarkozy says he is, you reform broadcasting," said University of Paris media expert Michael Palmer.
But, he added, "the way it's been done gives credence to the idea that it has been inspired ... by people who are close to the private-sector TV channels."
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