France seeks a world voice

KA Dilday
8 December 2005

On 1 December 2005 the French government finally announced that a dream of President Jacques Chirac’s, an international news channel, would become a reality. Chirac has spoken of the channel as a rival to CNN and the BBC, one that would broadcast news in French, twenty-four hours a day, around the world. It will “carry France’s values and vision of the world, to the world” (porter partout dans le monde les valeurs de la France et sa vision du monde), the president told a meeting of the council of ministers.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During this period of the fellowship, she will be travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

“The freedom trail” (August 2005)

“Art and suffering: four years since 9/11” (August 2005)

“Rebranding America” (September 2005)

“Judith Miller’s race: the unasked question” (October 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

President Chirac’s perception of the channel appears to be primarily as a conduit of a national zeitgeist rather than purveyor of unadulterated information. He also compared the proposed channel to two major international English-language news media organisations, the Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Their character, as a private enterprise and a publicly funded broadcaster respectively, may differ, but neither can easily be seen as a mouthpiece of states. The 2004 debacle over a questionable BBC report damaging to Tony Blair’s administration was just part of a long tradition of the organisation running afoul of British government, which has helped secure its place in the public consciousness as a respected, independent information source.

Compared with those two channels, Jacques Chirac’s vision of a state-run channel that delivers the right kind of news seems charmingly antiquated. Or rather his forthrightness about his desire to disseminate self-serving news is refreshing, particularly as it came the same week that newspapers in the United States revealed that agents of the United States government were paying Iraqi newspapers to run particular stories.

According to the Los Angeles Times – the first newspaper to report the payments – the topics of the planted articles were designed to convey “good news”, to show that Iraqis supported the American troops or that they were persevering in the face of terrorism. The United States government publicly claimed outrage and attempted to blame it on a renegade company contracted by the United States; but as history has shown, the renegades are never truly renegades, more rather dutiful employees who end up as scapegoats.

One might argue that in a barely sovereign state like Iraq, any news media receiving financing or other support from an interested foreign government is already under a subtle form of persuasion, but the Los Angeles Times reports of explicit cash transactions in which agents delivered US-generated articles to Iraqi editorial offices with a wad of cash detailed a startlingly crass method of persuasion.

How the French do it

Yet the French, whose vociferous dislike of veils is well known, will not dispense propaganda under cloak. The Chaîne Française d'information Internationale (CFII), seems to be developing into something more akin to the channels that are run by the International Broadcasting Bureau, the United States government’s broadcast wing that was created during the second world war.

Perhaps somewhat defensively, the Voice of America website reminds visitors to the site that the United States government was slow to come to the field of international broadcasting. Its account of the field as it appeared in 1939 is as follows:

“(The) United States was the only world power without a government-sponsored international radio service. The Netherlands had been the first country to direct regularly-scheduled broadcasts beyond its own borders, inaugurating shortwave programming to the Far East in 1927. Seeing radio as an instrument of foreign policy, the Soviet Union built a radio center in Moscow and was broadcasting in 50 languages and dialects by the end of 1930. Italy and Great Britain started their respective ‘empire services’ in 1932, followed by France the next year. Nazi Germany built a massive network of transmitters in 1933 and began to beam hostile propaganda into Austria. The same year Berlin started shortwave broadcasts to Latin America. Meanwhile, Japan was using radio to promote its national ambitions in the Far East.”

Yet this description of France’s international broadcasting efforts isn’t quite accurate. France’s first international broadcaster was an independent channel, Le Poste Colonial, which began broadcasting from a suburb of Paris in 1931. Like the BBC’s Empire Service which, as the BBC director announced in the first broadcast, was intended to bring the members of its far-flung family closer, Le Poste Colonial was, as its name suggested, created to carry news of France to the French colonies.

The French state took control of Radio Paris, another station in 1933 – which became the national radio service, RFI – but it was still Le Poste Colonial that was more akin to the BBC. In 1935 the station began broadcasting in different languages and in 1938 its name was changed to Paris Mondial. That same year the BBC began a broadcast in Arabic, its first foreign-language programme.

Paris Mondial’s independence from government would become very important during the 1940-44 Nazi occupation of France. The state-run Radio France was the means by which General Petain urged France to capitulate to the German forces. During these Vichy years, the government annexed Paris Mondial’s headquarters and it ceased to exist in the French capital. Yet one of its foreign outposts, Radio Brazzaville was one of the instruments by which Charles de Gaulle, leader of the “Free French”, spread another vision of France.

Bias, blindness and bravado

Whether in France, Britain or the United States, non-governmental control does not always indicate a greater degree of editorial independence. The public may find the biases of state-sponsored programming more easy to identify, but it would be a mistake to assume that private programming is more responsible editorially when often it simply furthers a private citizen’s social and political perspective. And it is difficult to judge the differences between public and state-run channels.

At the same time, I know that the portrayal of the United States that one hears on National Public Radio, the US’s publicly financed channel, is more critical than what one hears on the Voice of America. The textured view of Britain that I see on the BBC seems much honest than what I see on the mostly state-owned French television. Although the state-owned channels are reputed to be less docile than the main private channel, for many days this autumn, they seemed to be deliberately downplaying the three weeks of riots that plagued the poor banlieues (suburbs) of France’s cities, especially in contrast to the more complete coverage in France’s cities.

One of the major delays in the launch of the new French channel, according to news reports, was the struggle over editorial control and directorship. The director general of CFII is to be Alain de Pouzilhac, former head of one of France’s largest advertising agencies. The message in that appointment is so explicit that it needs no explanation. In the United States, it was then under-secretary of state for public diplomacy, Charlotte Beers, a veteran of America’s advertising industry, who helped create some of the heavy-handed programming that the US now disseminates to such little effect in the middle east. The result is that the US now reportedly has to pay Iraqi papers to run articles that will be seen as legitimate.

France has seemed to lose its way during the last fifty years. Since its moment of liberation in 1944 the country has been struggling mightily to regain its position as a world power, if not politically, than ideologically and culturally. Most recently, it adopted a position of moral superiority in regard to the Iraq war, yet the riots that amplified the status of the Muslim population in France gave the country a very visible black eye. In this context, the new channel, in one aspect a progressive attempt to take advantage of the global nature of new technology, appears also to be married to a French historical, moral and cultural arrogance that no longer has international resonance. Is there no other way for France to reclaim its honour?

Yet, with Gallic bravado, President Chirac insists that the French brand still means quality, or rather liberté, fraternité, egalité. Is it arrogance or honesty that drives Mr. Chirac to indicate that his “news” channel will be the de facto voice of the French republic? Or is it simply blindness to the idea that world over, what most people want from their news is simply the facts and to be left free to make up their own minds?

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