A new soap opera has been a big hit in France this winter, but it’s not on Netflix or the country’s biggest television network TF1. The spectacle, which one might call The Billionaire Parade, is available direct on the website of the French Senate.
A parliamentary investigative commission on concentration in the media sector has summoned the wealthy industrialists who own many of France’s most influential news outlets and entertainment channels. It has subjected them to questioning under oath about why they invest in what are often small, money-losing operations unrelated to their core businesses.
Corporate raider Vincent Bolloré (who controls Vivendi and is seeking to buy Lagardère), Bernard Arnault (newspapers Les Echos and Le Parisien), and telecoms tycoon Patrick Drahi (BFM news channel) have already appeared. On Friday will come their fellow billionaires and business rivals, Xavier Niel (Le Monde newspaper) and Martin Bouygues (TF1 broadcaster, which is seeking to buy smaller rival M6).
The process has given the senators a rare chance to publicly interrogate the billionaires on questions that have long obsessed the Parisian elite. Do they intervene in the coverage? Does their media ownership buy them influence, power and protection? And should citizens be worried about how the billionaires’ hold on the media can warp the public debate?
With presidential elections set for April and far-right candidates polling at historically high levels, the senators trained particular attention on Vincent Bolloré, the conservative billionaire who controls Vivendi and its Fox News-inspired opinion channel CNews. Any appearance by the 69-year-old is extraordinary as he speaks in public so infrequently. His testimony has racked up some 350,000 views online.
Bolloré was quizzed on how CNews had promoted its controversial star Eric Zemmour so effectively that it had launched him as a presidential candidate. He also defended Vivendi against criticism that it overhauled the positioning of its news organisations, and was questioned over the company’s pending acquisition of rival Lagardère. If approved, that deal would make it one of the biggest book publishers in the world.
The Breton played down Vivendi’s influence by arguing that it was tiny compared with its US or Asian competitors or Silicon Valley tech giants. “Our interests are not political and not ideological, it is always and only economic,” said Bolloré, adding that Vivendi put out all types of content and news was a small part of the business. He told his questioners: “I think you are taking tiny little incidents and turning them into some convenient narrative.”
Of course none of the billionaires compelled to show up would ever admit publicly what seems obvious to many outsiders — that ownership matters and influences coverage in France. It is very difficult for a newspaper or TV station to cover the business interests of their billionaire owners in the same way an independent media organisation would.
The senate commission is looking at whether there is undue influence and whether reforms to media ownership rules and a separate financial support scheme are needed.
The issues are not straightforward. A 1986 law was intended to ensure pluralism by limiting ownership to certain percentages and banning ownership across different types of media. However, critics say the law has not been effective and needs updating for the internet era.
The news and entertainment landscape has been upended by mobile phones, social media and streaming. Print circulation and advertising have declined while the audience for traditional live television has shrunk. France’s billionaire owners are propping up some media outlets — as is the French state.
Certain print and online news outlets considered necessary to the public interest receive almost €2bn in annual direct and indirect subsidies from the government in the form of lower value added tax, cheap postage and other aid. Last year, this accounted for 23 per cent of the sector’s revenue, up from 13 per cent in 2008, according to one independent analysis, with the nine biggest groups absorbing almost two-thirds of the aid, including those with billionaire owners.
Real change looks unlikely because the commission can only issue a report and recommendations if all the members agree, which is not assured. But the parade of billionaires has provided one thing — a reminder of the need for them to be held to account for the influence that comes along with media ownership.