2008: Why A News Agency Should Not Depend on Advertising Revenues

21 April 2008 | Activism, Media criticism

Presentation written on May 6, 2018

Working as a journalist made me painfully aware of the negative effects of advertising, not only on the final consumer of news but also on the people who produce it, whose work is in large part and in many cases wholly financed by revenue from the ads that surround it.
My working hypothesis, particularly since I retired in 2012, has been that the negative effects of advertising on the media, and thus on our overall perceptions of the world we live in, are much greater and much more damaging than is generally realised.
One of the things that attracted me right from the time AFP hired me in 1983 was that a news agency simply cannot afford to be directly dependent on ad revenues. As it’s a wholesaler of news, all of its dispatches, photos and videos are necessarily sold to a wide range of different customers around the world. All of those clients need to make their own decisions on what kind of advertising accompanies, or does not accompany, the final product.
Above all, the introduction of any kind of advertising relationship would be fatal for the independence that is supposed to be a basic principle of AFP’s journalism, and indeed journalism in general. That principle is clearly expressed in Article 2 of the French law that defines AFP’s statutes, which stipulates that:

  1. Agence France-Presse 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;
  2. Agence France-Presse must, to the full extent that its resources permit, develop and enhance its organisation so as to provide French and foreign users with exact, impartial and trustworthy information on a regular and uninterrupted basis.

Most of the various ethical charters drawn up for and by journalists contain similar provisions.
As already noted, it is also logically impossible for a news agency to depend on advertising revenues. As most of its various clients are themselves competing with one another to attract advertisers—a struggle that has become even harder with the rise of the internet—any agency which tried to attract the same advertisers would obviously be undercutting its own position.
In early 2007 chief executive Pierre Louette had clearly decided that such considerations were old hat. On April 5th he told the French business newspaper La Tribune that AFP intended to launch an English-language website that would cover US politics, and be exclusively financed via advertising. In the event that particular project never got off the ground, but similar ventures, such as a bizarre ad-supported “news quiz” hosted on Facebook, did appear at around the same time. (The sorry tale of the latter initiative is told elsewhere on this site, for the moment only in French).
At the time I was a member of the CGT journalists’ union, and my comrades agreed that we should combat these initiatives, which we saw as contrary to AFP’s statutes. I volunteered to write the brief for an appeal to AFP’s Higher Council, which exists solely to defend the agency’s independence. The full text of that brief, in French, can be downloaded from this site; the following is a translation of its conclusions:

Direct dependency on advertising revenues in exchange for services is incompatible with AFP’s statutes, which since 1957 have underwritten the agency’s independence and the quality of its services.
By contravening that principle, be it in languages other than French and via subsidiaries rather than the core company, the Agency runs the risk of compromising not only its image and the quality of its services, but also the long-term sources of finance that have kept it going, for better or worse, for over half a century.
The SNJ-CGT is fully aware that those sources of finance are insufficient; along with other AFP unions we have been arguing for years that the Agency should be placed on a firmer financial footing, within the terms of its 1957 Statutes.
But it is not by competing with its own clients and turning itself into nothing more than a simple commercial entity that AFP will succeed in meeting its new challenges. On the contrary, it is more than likely to precipitate its own collapse.
We therefore call on the Higher Council to confirm the principles laid out in our document and to reject the provision by AFP of any service directly financed by advertising revenues, be it under its own name or via a subsidiary, and in whatever language.

The Council, which convened on September 8, 2008, rejected our complaint, stating (in my translation) that:

Our research did not find that by resorting to this form of remuneration the agency had been, in any way whatsoever, induced to create content that could be shown to imply that it had fallen under the de facto control of any economic grouping, nor that it had thereby refrained from publishing any information that was part of its mission, or had presented any such information in a biased manner.

This verdict came as no surprise, and a subsequent affair in which I found myself drawing up a complaint to the AFP’s Higher Council confirmed that the body in question would always protect AFP’s management in the event of criticism emanating from staff or the unions.

May 6, 2018