2012: Chasing a Buzz, AFP Rides Roughshod over French Election Law

26 September 2012 | Activism, Media criticism

Last update of this page: May 13, 2018

Since the internet went mainstream in the mid-1990s, most media have presented it as the very essence of modernity, an institution exempt from criticism. If something or someone is presented online, rather than via boring old print media or even old-style radio or TV, it by definition must be good, or at least better than the alternative. AFP has by no means been exempt from such uncritical coverage.

During the April 2012 election in France, an inflated idea of the importance of internet forums and so-called “social media” led the French national news agency to carelessly and knowingly break the law. The agency’s top journalists, and also its management, were convinced that the boring old law, common to many countries, which decrees that no results may be announced via national media until the last polling stations have closed, was a thing of the past. After all, in the age of Twitter and Facebook anyone with a net connection could gain access to media in other countries, which were not constrained by the same laws.

In the run-up to the election the agency’s news director accordingly announced that if media in other countries published early estimates before the legal deadline of eight pm, AFP would have no choice but to follow suit. Carried away by its enthusiasm, the agency not only proceeded to announce the victory of Socialist candidate François Hollande to its clients just over an hour before the legal deadline, but also mounted a PR operation around the event, publishing an illustrated blog post showing top journalists, along with CEO Emmanuel Hoog, looking on excitedly as the transgressive dispatch was validated on a computer terminal.

I and a number of other union colleagues found this worrying, and being off-duty on election day I resolved to closely monitor the online behaviour of the agency, its main competitors and some of its clients. What I found, and consigned in a report that can be downloaded from this page, was that not only had AFP’s main competitors (Associated Press and Reuters) respected the French legal deadline, but most of the agency’s clients, even outside France, had also done so. And the few agency clients that broke the embargo did so after AFP had published its premature announcement. In other words the agency, which itself is governed by a French act of parliament, could not only be seen to have broken the law, but appeared to have implicitly encouraged other media to do the same. To use a popular French expression, it could be accused of acting as a “pompier pyromane”: the firefighter-arsonist who himself sets the fires he then tries to extinguish.

We thought the case was sufficiently serious to be placed before the watchdog body charged with monitoring AFP’s activities in the light of the 1958 law under which the agency is supposed to operate. The documents we produced to do that are accessible from this page (though only in French for the moment).
To anyone who follows media affairs in France it will come as no surprise that the AFP High Council (Conseil supérieur) rejected our complaint, although it did describe the agency’s actions as “regrettable”. And an investigation launched by the public prosecutor’s office into possible charges to be brought over the affair was later discreetly dropped, to little publicity.

Needless to say, during the following presidential election, in 2017, AFP was once again on its best behaviour.

The attached documents in French lay out the union’s case, and our reactions to the arguments put forward by M. Hoog in defence of AFP’s actions.

Documents (in French only):