France's ruling Socialists raise a ruckus by reasserting state control over media

France's best-running political story of the year concerns no scandal. Or any major economic issue. Instead, it focuses on the news media.

Despite pledges, and limited actions to the contrary, the governing Socialists have reasserted the traditional state control over the media.

In March, when a government-favored candidate was named head of Antenne 2, the second state television channel, the station's most popular anchorwoman resigned, as did two senior news executives. When a former government spokesman was named editor in chief of the Paris daily Le Matin in April, more than half of the staff quit. Such incidents have let the conservative opposition turn the issue of press freedom into a battle cry.

Counterattacking last week, the Socialists released a report calling for the establishment of two private TV networks and a limited number of private local channels.

But in good French tradition, the Socialists refused to give up too much control. Their report recommends that the government select the companies that will operate the new, private networks, and that strict antitrust measures be established to foil conservative press baron Robert Hersant's efforts to acquire a station. It also calls for at least 60 percent of the programming to be French-made -- and for a limit to the number of feature films broadcast.

``A parody of liberalization,'' charged Franois d'Aubert of the center-right Union of Democrats for the Republic. The government wants ``to maintain as much control as possible over information,'' added Jacques Baumel of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic.

Just ``realistic,'' a Socialist Party spokesman responded. ``Technical and financial considerations'' dictated the restrictive conclusions, explained Jean-Denis Bredin, who prepared the report. He said that advertising revenues needed to finance the new station aren't ``infinite,'' and that any radical liberalization of the airwaves would destabilize the rest of the media.

Such fears of commercial pressures have served to justify state control of TV -- under conservative as well as Socialist rule. According to the standard view, private ownership contradicted TV's role as a public service.

Public control also led to abuse, however. During the quarter century of conservative rule before 1981, leftist opposition groups received little air time. Some subjects embarrassing to the government, such as the scandal over the diamonds former Central African Republic Emperor Bokassa gave President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, were never mentioned. Presidents shaped stories by intervening through a direct telephone line linking the Elys'ee Palace to the chiefs of the TV stations.

President Franois Mitterrand denounced the partisan use of the airwaves while campaigning and promised to make the networks independent. Though the telephone hookup was abolished, that promise was not kept. As Mr. Mitterrand's popularity has plunged, the temptation to use TV to improve his image has increased.

In recent weeks, he has appeared twice on the state channels in shows tailored to flatter him. One was a straightforward, positive profile of the man in the presidency. The other featured Mitterrand in a slick 90-minute interview interspersed with excerpts from popular movies and videos of American rock stars. It captured half the viewing audience, a record for a political show.

At the same time, the President has avoided press conferences. In the past, few would have remarked on this manipulation. No longer. French politics has become less ideological, and so has French journalism. For example, Le Monde's readership has plummeted while the circulation of the brasher, hard-nosed daily, Lib'eration, has soared.

``We want facts, not ideology,'' said Lib'eration's editor, Serge July. ``We are skeptical of all power.''

This skepticism, combined with the new just-the-facts approach, explains both why the media issue has moved to the center of the national political debate and why so many journalists are resigning. At Antenne 2, newscaster Christine Ockrent had built a national following on her reputation for fierce editorial independence, honed during a stint as a producer for the American news program, ``60 Minutes.'' When her new, Socialist boss Jean-Claude H'eberl'e made it clear to her that he expected more ``good'' news she decided to follow the example of two executives on her show and leave.

At Le Matin, the story ran the same way. Direct pressure from the President's office reportedly ensured the nomination of former government spokesman Max Gallo as editor in chief.

The government has ``nationalized'' the newspaper, complained editorial writer Bernard Frank in his farewell column. Explaining why he and his colleagues resigned, he wrote: ``I can imagine the happiness of militant Socialists who want a morning diet of certainties now that they will have a big modern daily all to themselves.''

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