What’s Going on at Agence France-Presse?

By David Sharp, AFP journalist, trade unionist & elected works committee member

At the time of writing, AFP staff serving the agency’s French clients are on strike to demand that our CEO, Emmanuel Hoog, dissociate himself from an attempt by the UMP party of President Nicolas Sarkozy to change the company’s founding statutes.

M. Hoog has on several occasions expressed support for the draft law currently before parliament, which would change the composition of AFP’s board, enshrine a far-reaching contract with the state in AFP’s statutes and give the government of the day the right to dictate both the agency’s development strategy and the content of its key news services.

The CEO has stated that he has no right to tell the French parliament what it should do, but staff anger is amplified by the fact that the draft law is widely believed to have been written not by the politicians, but by one of M. Hoog’s close aides at AFP.

Herewith a summary of the changes proposed, with the key arguments being made for and against them:

The structure of AFP’s board of governors

Under the 1957 law, AFP’s board comprises 16 members, including the CEO and two representatives elected by staff.

The 13 other members represent “users” of the agency’s services, which is why defenders of the existing statutes (including the present writer) often compare AFP’s structure to that of a cooperative, somewhat similar to Associated Press in the United States.

Eight of the 13 directors are appointed by the employers’ associations of the French press. Critics claim that this figure is far too high, given AFP’s international reach.

On the other hand, it is often overlooked that in addition to being a worldwide news agency, AFP is also France’s only domestic one; it is therefore clear that it is of particular importance to the nation and that no other country has a similar interest in its wellbeing and survival.

Two other board representatives are appointed by the state broadcasting authority and the remaining three by government services which are the main users of AFP’s services: the prime minister’s office and the foreign and finance ministries.

The mandates of the board members, like that of the CEO, run for three years (Senator Legendre would increase this to five).

The CEO is elected by the 13 appointed members of the board, plus the two staff reps, from outside their number. This process generally gives rise to a period of intense haggling, with accusations that particular interests, and notably the state, are dictating events.

The draft law proposed by Senator Jacques Legendre would radically change both the structure of the board and the basis on which its members are appointed.

Legendre would slash the number of board members representing the French press from eight to just three: one each to be appointed by the national and the regional press employers and one by an association of online news sites.

The state broadcaster would appoint only one member, rather than two at present.

The government would continue to appoint three members, but they would no longer be appointed as “users” from key ministries. The law would simply specify that the board should include “three representatives of the state.”

To replace the five board members taken away from the French press and the one cut from the broadcasting contingent, Legendre would bring in a two-tier system under which the seven appointed members plus the two staff representatives would choose six “independent personalities”, one of whom would serve as chief executive. The people in question would have be free of either family or business links with AFP, and one of them should be non-French.

The board would thereby be reduced from 16 to 15 members, only seven of whom would represent “users”.

The proposal to appoint “independent personalities” has been widely criticised, as it would clearly be subject to intense lobbying. It is also not clear what motive the said personalities would have for taking an interest in the running of a news agency like AFP.

Another side-effect of the Legendre law would be that no existing AFP journalist or other member of staff could ever again become CEO. For most staff, some of our best chief executives have been staffers who rose up through the ranks rather than technocrats appointed from outside.

The economic role of the French state

The 1957 law states that the funds provided by the state to help keep AFP operating should correspond to contracts for services, the price of which should be based on those charged to the private French press. Critics, including both M. Hoog and his predecessor Pierre Louette, have repeatedly stated that these sums look more like subsidies than contracts for services, particularly in the eyes of the European Commission.

M. Hoog has seized upon a complaint brought against AFP by the German picture agency DAPD, which this year bought the Sipa photo agency in France and has expressed its intention to expand aggressively into general news services. DAPD claims that AFP is illicitly subsidised by the French state, and that this constitutes unfair competition under EU law.

Currently, the French government provides 40 % of AFP’s operating budget, which is estimated by management at 280 million euros this year (2011). Twenty-six percent of that total is expected to come from sales of services to French clients, 32% from sales outside France and 2% from the “AFP Services” subsidiary, which has a contract for the provision of video and photo services to the European Union.

M. Hoog, echoed by Senator Legendre, has tried to claim that the role of French clients has become almost minimal, which is not supported by the above figures. He quotes figures that claim to show that the French daily press now provides less than 10% of AFP’s overall sales, but they clearly underestimate the importance of AFP for the French media overall.

Under the Legendre proposals, the “services contract” with the state would be replace by an agreement whereby the government would contract with AFP for the provision of “public interest missions” as defined under EU competition law. The latter allows a public body such as a state or a local authority to subsidise services which are considered outside the scope of private markets.

Critics of the proposal fear that the Legendre law would in fact result in a massive reduction in the funds provided by the government to AFP, with no corresponding increase from other sources.

We trade unionists have repeatedly condemned downward pressure on wages, staffing levels and contract conditions in recent years, even as AFP has been expanding strongly into new sectors such as online and video. Under the Legendre proposals, such pressure would not only get worse: it would be enshrined in law.

The editorial and development role of the state

An equally serious issue is the question of why exactly the government should have a say in deciding which news services are in the “public interest” – or even why certain news services provided by an agency such as AFP should be defined a contrario as being “outside the public interest”.

Critics of M. Hoog’s approach note that articles 1 and 2 of AFP’s statutes, which specify that the agency must provide “a complete and objective information service” and “may under no circumstances take account of influences or considerations liable to compromise the exactitude or the objectivity of the information it provides; it may under no circumstances fall under the control, either de facto or de jure, of any ideological, political or economic grouping” already define it as being in the public interest. What more is needed?

And even if, as some defenders of the law claim, France really does have no choice but to toe the EU line on subsidies, it is not clear why AFP’s statutes – which are enshrined in law – need to be changed to achieve that end.

The Legendre proposals would not only give the French government the right to dictate the overall content of AFP’s core news services – it would also formalise an arrangement where by the state could decide its development strategy as well.

Such agreements already form part of the multi-year “Aims and Means Contracts” that the government has imposed on AFP as well as on other entities considered as acting generally in the public interest, such as the state broadcasting authority France Télévisions.

However Sen. Legendre would enshrine the Aims and Means Contract in the statutes – ie in law – and would explicitly state that the said contracts should lay down the agency’s development strategy.

Is that crazy, or what?

Overall context: political meddling

Behind all the debates about AFP’s future looms the agitated and divisive figure of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made no secret of his close friendships with France’s leading industrialists and press barons, and has a long history of meddling in media affairs.

Early on in his presidency he notably gave himself the right to directly appoint the head of the broadcasting authority – rather as if David Cameron could appoint the Director-General of the BBC – and is widely believed to have been behind the sacking of a star news presenter who made an off-the-cuff remark that Sarkozy found insulting.

Since Sarkozy came to power in 2007, two major attempts have been made to change AFP’s statutes, and several leading figures of his UMP party have sharply criticised the agency for alleged political bias. One even stated baldly that the agency should be privatised forthwith.

Even though past Socialist administrations did not have a spotless record as regards meddling with AFP, it is clear that under Sarkozy pressure to bring the French media in general, and AFP in particular, to heel has reached new heights.

The unions point out that France is now less than nine months away from a presidential election, in which Sarkozy is widely expected to seek re-election.

Given his record, it is quite simply unthinkable that he should be allowed to make major changes at AFP in the present situation.

David Sharp, September 15, 2011

Background: My trade union, SUD-AFP, has produced the first-ever translation of AFP’s 1957 statutes into English. We have also produced an annoted document on the Legendre law. The whole package can be downloaded from the web at http://www.sos-afp.org/en/draft_law_2011. While visiting that site, visitors might like to sign the “Petition for the Independence and Survival of Agence France-Presse”.

The English-language pages of the SUD-AFP web site are at http://sudafpengl.zeblog.com/.

Also of interest: the Association to Defend the Independence of Agence France-Presse: http://www.adiafp.org/en/home.

En français: “Comité d’entreprise AFP : bilan de mandat 2009-11

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