“Le Système B” – RSF’s shock documentary about Vincent Bolloré’s media
French billionaire businessman Vincent Bolloré keeps on extending his media empire by ruthless means. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has made a short documentary, entitled Le Système B, about the methods he uses to control what his own and other media outlets report. In this press release, RSF offers recommendations on how to prevent him from continuing to bully and intimidate journalists.
A 15 minutes French-language video produced by RSF and posted on social media today (14 October), Le Système B consists of exclusive interviews with 11 journalists describing the mechanisms that Bolloré uses when he takes over a media outlet or when journalists with other media try to investigate his business activities. These mechanisms pose a real to danger to both press freedom and democracy.
The journalists speak on camera, without hiding their identity, despite the dangers of judicial harassment to which the “Bolloré system” readily resorts. They include former Canal+ and Europe 1 journalists such as Patrick Cohen and Pascale Clark, who have never spoken publicly on this subject before. And they include investigative reporters Tristan Waleckx (of France Télévisions) and Benoît Collombat (of Radio France), who denounce the methods used by the Bolloré Group to silence reporters.
Additional insights are provided by Jean-Pierre Canet and Nicolas Vescovacci, the authors of a book about Bolloré entitled Vincent tout-puissant (All-powerful Vincent), and by Isabelle Roberts, co-founder of the website Les Jours and co-author of L’Empire, a TV series with a scathing analysis of Bolloré’s media universe.
"Released at a crucial time when Vincent Bolloré is expanding his media empire yet again by launching a takeover of the Lagardère Group, this film is an alarm signal. Such a concentration of media outlets in the hands of a businessman with a purely utilitarian vision of news and information and a conception of journalism based on servility, one who systematically sues journalists investigating his business dealings, poses a clear threat to the democratic debate. New safeguards are urgently needed. This is why RSF is offering a series of recommendations.”
Christophe Deloire, RSF secretary-general
1. As a shareholder in Vivendi (a media conglomerate in which Bolloré has a controlling interest), the French state must intervene in defence of editorial independence within Vivendi’s media outlets
The French public sector investment institution, the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, owns 2.20% of the shares in Vivendi, the parent company of the Canal+ media group. As a shareholder, the French state has the ability to intervene, and must use its right to seek information and to question Vivendi’s management.
- The state must ask the Vivendi general assembly to pass a motion requiring safeguards for editorial independence in all of Vivendi’s media outlets.
2. The CSA must ensure respect for news media honesty, independence and pluralism in accordance with existing agreements
The High Council for Broadcasting (CSA) is supposed to “guarantee the honesty, independence and pluralism of information and the programmes that contribute to it” and to “ensure that the business interests of the shareholders of the companies providing services and their advertisers do not infringe these principles.” It has the power to monitor, issue formal warnings and issue sanctions, and the power to renegotiate agreements in the event of any modification in the conditions on the basis of which they were signed.
- The CSA must use existing laws, including the concept of “honesty of information” enshrined in the 2016 Bloche Law, to punish violations of editorial independence and pluralism within the Bolloré group’s media outlets. In the absence of specific legal precedents, the CSA could abandon a minimalist interpretation and turn this concept into a principle that shapes its analysis of media outlets.
- The CSA must ensure that the codes of ethics "that print and broadcast media companies must adopt” under the Bloche Law conform to the spirit and the letter of the leading statements of journalistic ethics recognised by the profession, that they are not written by management alone, and that they are instead negotiated with representatives of journalists.
- The CSA must ensure that the composition of the committees “regarding the honesty, independence and pluralism of information and programmes” is honest and functional, in accordance with the Bloche Law.
3. The CSA must renegotiate the agreement with CNews to ensure that it broadcasts journalistic content
The agreement that the CSA signed with CNews was with a news channel and for a news channel. But news now constitutes a very limited part of this channel’s programming, with its news programmes now lasting just five minutes. The number of journalists with press cards at CNews has plummeted. “Come with your convictions, and express an opinion!” This CNews ad campaign in the spring of 2021 made it clear that it had gone from being a 24-hour TV news channel to becoming a debate and opinion channel. The CSA has grounds for revising the agreement with CNews because it is now more of an opinion media than a news media. Such a revision would have the advantage of discouraging a similar change at the Europe 1 radio station.
- While respecting the TV channel’s editorial freedom, the agreement between the CSA and CNews must be renegotiated in order to reimpose requirements with regard to the quantity and frequency of journalistic news programmes and reimpose respect for article 3-1-1, which defines CNews as a service “dedicated to news and information” with “programming that is updated as the news happens.”
- The CSA must take advantage of the change in shareholder control at Europe 1 in order to revise the agreement with this radio station and impose requirements similar to those sought for CNews and for all broadcast media outlets.
4. The Competition Authority must investigate the compatibility of Vincent Bolloré’s acquisitions under competition law
Vincent Bolloré already owns Canal+, CNews (a TV channel and free newspaper), Prisma Média (which includes Capital, Gala, Voici and Télé Loisirs) and the Éditis publishing house. His acquisition of a controlling interest in the Lagardère Group will be completed by 15 December 2022. In the publishing domain, the combined market share of Hachette and Éditis is put at 71% of educational books, 63% of dictionaries and 54% of paperbacks. It should not be forgotten that Bolloré sued two Lagardère Group publishers over two books, Informer n’est pas un délit (Calmann-Lévy) and Vincent tout-puissant (JC Lattès).
- The Competition Authority must prevent the creation of near-monopolies in the news and information sectors, including in publishing, one of the modes of expression used by journalists.
5. Legislators should create effective mechanisms for combatting gag suits
“Gag suits,” also known as Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation or SLAPPs, have become weapons that are used to deter and gag the media. RSF calls for the creation of measures, in both French and EU law, to combat the misuse of lawsuits to silence journalists.
- In particular, RSF calls for procedural safeguards for the victims of SLAPPs (including an end to practice of “automatically” placing journalists under investigation when they are sued), preventive measures to block abusive lawsuits (including evaluation to determine their admissibility, injunctions and provisional measures) and punitive measures to sanction those who bring abusive lawsuits and to compensate the victims.
6. Make influence peddling in the news media a crime
The classic example of influence peddling in the news media was the decision by Canal+ to suppress a documentary in May 2015 at the request of Bolloré, the TV channel’s owner, because it was very critical of a French bank (Crédit Mutuel) that was his business partner. The owner used his influence over a media outlet to benefit his business partners and his own interests. An advertorial about Togo is another example. Bolloré, who has many business interests in Togo, got Canal+ to include a puff piece about Togo and its president in its current affairs programming, as if it was regular journalistic reporting.
- Such practices – media owners and executives abusing their influence over journalistic production to benefit their interests or the interests of others – should be punished by the law as a crime.
- RSF proposes legislation that makes influence peddling in the news media a crime, based on existing legislation under which influence peddling by persons of authority in the state is already a crime. A specific charge should be added to the Penal Code punishing conflicts of interest of this kind in the news media. It should punish, “the action, by anyone, of soliciting or approving, without right, at any time, directly or indirectly, offers, promises, gifts, presents or advantages of any kind for themselves or for others, thereby abusing their real or supposed influence with a view to influencing the journalistic production of broadcast media or print media.”
7. Legislators should revise the 1986 law on media ownership concentration
The 1986 law is out of date. It falls far short of taking sufficient account of the digital domain, it restricts only horizontal concentration, and it does not combat media integration within conglomerates that have interests in other sectors. The concentration thresholds it sets are obsolete. Restricting concentration with regard to the regions served makes no sense now that media outlets are accessible online to everyone. The so-called “two out of three” rule designed to limit sideways ownership across TV, radio and print media is ineffective when one of the three categories cannot come into play: no daily in France has 20% of the national market. And finally, the concentration rules take no account of broadcast frequencies. Nothing in this law prevents the same person from owning all of the TV news channels.
- RSF proposes modifying the 1986 law’s obsolete provisions on broadcasting. A prerequisite is ensuring implementation of the rules on media ownership transparency and, in particular the obligation to disclose the identity of shareholders and the final beneficiary. The person who has effective control of a media outlet must also be clearly identified.
- The law’s criteria must be rethought especially with regard to multimedia synergies, in order to take account of broadcast frequency allocation, for example. The law’s thresholds must be updated and the weekly press must be added to the “two out of three” rule.
France is ranked 34th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index