Jonathan Marks says that President Sarkozy’s plans for French international broadcasting are death by integration
I don’t pretend to know much of the detail surrounding French politics. That’s because my French isn’t good enough. But I do know quite a bit about international media. And the announcement on January 8 by President Nicolas Sarkozy is just plain bonkers. Although it is true that French international broadcasting suffers from a lack of coordination, Sarkozy also seems to believe if France wants to share ideas with the world, that is best done in French – with some foreign language subtitles. If that were true, CNN with French subtitles would have a major market share in France at this moment. Subtitling doesn’t work because it can only help you with the content not the context of a story. And less than 20% of world leaders can understand French.
“I think a public channel, France-World, that would retain the identity of each of the participants, can only speak French,” the president said. “I’m not inclined to use taxpayers’ money to broadcast a channel that doesn’t speak French,” he is quoted as saying.
He has called for a new state-owned channel called France Monde, bringing together the resources of TV5, France 24 and Radio France Internationale [RFI], to be set up “this year” and to broadcast only in “French”. “There could perfectly well be subtitles according to region – Spanish, Arabic, English – to provide France’s point of view”. The idea is to create “as rapidly as possible, in any case this year” a “France Monde [France World] label, that is a holding company that would unite the resources of TV5, France 24 and RFI in ways still to be debated” to “provide a much more imposing French presence than at present”.
This is clearly a case of death by integration. RFI and France 24 are two completely different beasts. Personally, having visited both recently, I think France 24 is way ahead of its radio counterpart. That’s because they have integrated their foreign language production in Arabic and English from day one. So the journalists and editors share resources, but craft each channel according to the target area. They have hired bi-lingual staff who are quite happy to switch between languages and there doesn’t seem to be a house rule that the “language of the newsroom is French”. They just get on with it. There are TVs all over the place showing their own output alongside BBC World and Al Jazeera English, so they keep being reminded they have competition. And next to TV screens are monitors with the website, so the two platforms are not divorced from each other. Visiting there last month, I was impressed by the buzz in the building a year after launch and the way they were putting French stories into an international context. Apparently, it hasn’t been difficult for France 24 to recruit. They got over 7000 applications when they started up, so could really pick and choose.
RFI does a good job in Africa, where its French service plays an important role in the Francophone countries. It organises live debates with partner stations that really tackle difficult subjects. It is doing something that France 24 is not doing in its French TV service. Its weakness has always been the RFI foreign language services that are relatively expensive to run, on the air for only parts of the day, and of a varying standard. They have never really embraced the web, preferring to stick with linear storytelling through radio. Integration of RFI English with France 24 English just won’t work on any platform. Just compare the websites of RFI English <www.rfi.fr/langues/statiques/rfi_anglais.asp> with France 24 <www.france24.com/france24Public/en/news/world.html> , it is night and day. RFI claims to have 44 journalists working in English – but only for the radio. No photos, no video, not in its contract!
Sarkozy’s other idea of financing French public TV through a tax on Internet services (and creaming some of the profits from the private channels) has some merit, providing the French public media become a lot more accountable to the public. I get the impression that Sarkozy has already given up on radio as a medium of influence. He interchanges the use of media and television, but never media and radio.
So yes, they can all do a better job of co-operation. But France could beat the US tomorrow in the international broadcasting game – in fact I think the figures prove that in TV they already have. There are some obvious savings that can be made on the radio side. I think they seriously need to look at staffing levels at TV5. But a French-language-only policy is definitely NOT the way. It is ironic that CSPAN asked French broadcasters for a feed for distribution in the US and chose the English channel of France 24, simply because their audience doesn’t speak French. For France’s sake, let’s hope the President has indeed confused the missions, culture, language and purpose of these organisations. And that’s one hell of confusion for a first press conference.