Friday, June 18, 2004

Fighting (for) Words?

The French defense industry's hold on the news media is set to grow even tighter as Brussels has announced its approval of French defense and aeronautics contractor Dassault's buying back a significant portion of media conglomerate Socpresse, taking its shares in the company from 30% to 82%. Last March, I blogged Dassault's announcement that it intended to do this. See that post for more info.

Socpresse controls 70 publications in France including conservative daily Le Figaro and anti-Lance Armstrong publication L'Express. All in all, 70% of all French newspapers are in the hands of two weapons manufacturers. Defense and aeronautics contractor Lagardère owns the Hachette publishing empire, which is the world's largest magazine publisher and the tenth largest publisher and which owns, to name but a few examples, the magazines Paris Match (which recently scored a soft-ball interview with president Bush) and Elle and the radio station Europe 1. Hachette Filipacchi Médias claims to own 238 titles in 36 countries, which publish a billion copies and over 130,000 pages of paid advertising every year. The company also owns 40% of Editis, Vivendi Universal's publishing outfit.

Back in March, Le Monde, which is owned by a holding company shared between a number of companies and not-for-profit institutions, each having no more than a fraction of the ownership, published an editorial to express its outrage:
Do we have any idea what the reactions would be in the United States if the Washington Post were purchased by Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-16? In France, Dassault announced on Thursday, March 11, that it would buy up the remaining shares in Socpresse [a newspaper group that owns numerous French papers] owned by the heirs of Robert Hersant and take its ownership of Socpresse from 30% to 80%.

[...]

[...W]e must hope that the arrival of Dassault won't mean a return to the days when the press danced for billionaires. We must also hope that it doesn't see the media come under political influence. Suspicion may be heightened by the friendship that exists between Jacques Chirac, president of the Republic, and Serge Dassault, the CEO of the family business, who was also a regional advisor to the Rally for the Republic [France's governing party] and mayor of Corbeil-Essones. A suspicion that can grow still further, given the direct dependence of the very same groupe Dassault on State contracts for its fighter planes.

One would want to think that a reversion to the customs that once existed between the power and the press is impossible, Today they are forgotten. The journalists of every editorial board, including those in the Socpresse group, know the price of independence: the credibility of their newspapers depends on it. Yet Italy shows us that there is still a vivid temptation for the power to take the media in hand.
According to to-day's article in Le Monde, Dassault president Serge Dassault, now 79, said in 1997, "I want to own a newspaper or a weekly to express my opinion." Le Monde cites Forbes magazine as having estimated that Dassault is France's third richest citizen with a personal fortune of €5.2 billion.

In March, I also referred to a passage on page 70 of the now famous 1991 exposé Notre Allié Saddam ("Our ally Saddam"). We get a glimpse of Dassault's attitude to expressing one's views:
In February of 1991, Olivier Dassault, RPR member of the Assemblée Nationale and son of Serge, president of the group, revealed one aspect of these ambiguous relations: "I chose to sanction Michel Rocard (this was a censure motion at the Assemblée Nationale). So my father, who thinks that one does not vote against a government to which one is selling planes, pulled me from my position as head of planning for his factories, a position I'd been in for six months [Paris Match, 14 mars 1991].