Sarkozy's tight circle of media friends

A bid by one of French President Sarkozy's best friends to take over a prominent newspaper has journalists pushing for regulations to protect their independence.

Even under the hot lights of the French media's scrutiny, it sometimes seems that President Nicolas Sarkozy gets by with a little help from his friends.

The concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few well-connected industrialists has been building for years. But the circles of influence, wealth, and political power have converged to an unusual degree in Mr. Sarkozy's France. This month, the country's richest man, who was also the best man at the president's wedding 11 years ago, is negotiating to buy France's leading financial newspaper, Les Échos.

Some of the conservative new president's closest pals already own the country's largest national newspapers and television stations – a cozy relationship that many journalists consider a threat to their independence.

Photos embarrassing to Sarkozy have been suppressed, and unflattering articles pulled before publication. Sarkozy has denied meddling, but whether they were prompted by direct interference from above or self-censorship on the part of overly cautious editors, the incidents have set off newsroom protests.

Yet many journalists have turned to Sarkozy to safeguard their freedoms to write and report what they want. Journalists see their demands for legal regulations on influence-peddling in the media as a test for their new president's commitment to journalistic integrity.

"Rarely in the course of the last decades has the media risked becoming so much the instrument of a single mind-set, and yet at the same time so scorned by people in power," says a coalition of six French journalist unions in a statement published last week.

Politicians have always sought to control the news, says François Malye, the coalition president and an investigative reporter for Le Point magazine. "But we're talking about the guarantees under European law for press freedom," he adds. "So we're addressing ourselves to the person responsible in France for respecting this law."

Journalists push for legal rights

The group wants newsroom representatives to have legal standing so they can veto the hiring of top editors. It also wants a journalistic code of ethics enacted into law that includes protections for reporters' notes and sources.

And it wants a law giving journalists the right to sue a media owner for any alleged violation of ethical or professional standards. One impetus for the journalists' demands, says Mr. Malye, is that the number of media jobs is shrinking.

"That way, if you are asked to do something that is ethically aberrant, you could go to court," says Malye of the proposed new rules. "Now if I complain my boss can say, 'Fine, goodbye.' I could just go to another paper before. There was a natural equilibrium. But now there are no other papers."

Among Sarkozy's intimates is Serge Dassault, owner of the historically conservative Le Figaro newspaper and a senator from the president's right-wing party. Martin Bouygues, godfather to Sarkozy's youngest son, controls the biggest French television channel, TF1. A string of media properties is also owned by Arnaud Lagardère, an aerospace company chairman who once said he and Sarkozy were as close as brothers. Journalists at his publications have repeatedly accused Mr. Lagardère of politically motivated interference.

The latest focus of journalists' suspicion is Bernard Arnault, chairman of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. The prospect of him controlling Les Échos is causing as much journalistic angst here as Rupert Murdoch's impending purchase of The Wall Street Journal in the US.

His company, LVMH, is the world's largest luxury goods producer, with brands ranging from Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton to the Sephora cosmetics stores. In other words, Les Échos reports regularly on just about everything Arnault controls.

He is in exclusive negotiations with the paper's present owner, the British press group Pearson Plc, and has reportedly offered ¤245 million ($336 million) for Les Échos. The paper's editorial staff has staged two one-day strikes to protest the potential sale and signed up hundreds of big-name political and civic leaders on a petition against a sale to Arnault's LVMH.

If his offer is accepted, newsroom employees fear, his ownership cannot help but have a chilling effect.

"France is a small country, and everything is centered in Paris," says Laurence Bagot, a senior writer at Les Échos. "So there's already the suspicion that everyone knows everyone. When you have a guy like Arnault in charge, it's not only difficult to write about him but it's also a small world."

Damaging story pulled last-minute

An incident last fall at one of Arnault's newspapers, La Tribune, fed those fears. With the presidential race heating up, the paper commissioned an opinion poll that found Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal inspired more confidence on economic questions than her rivals, including Sarkozy.

La Tribune prepared a front page headline to that effect, with the full story scheduled to run inside. But on the eve of publication, the chief editor killed the story. After staff protests, the poll results were mentioned in the next day's paper – but inside an unrelated story in the back of the paper.

Did Arnault intervene to suppress news that was unfavorable to his old friend? He declared recently that he never tells his employees what, and what not, to write.

For his part, Sarkozy has scoffed at the idea that he has benefited from his friendships with media barons – or vice versa. When his left-wing rivals accused him of manipulating the media during the presidential campaign, he responded by saying, "Who could believe such a thing when you see the antagonism that was whipped against my candidacy?"

Wary journalists see the situation differently and say the president's friends have sometimes interfered directly in editorial decisions at their publications. More insidious, they say, is the tendency of some reporters and editors to tiptoe around unflattering news about their bosses and their bosses' important friends.

Pearson, which also owns The Economist and The Financial Times, has responded to such concerns by drafting a proposed guarantee of editorial independence that would require LVMH to give journalists an oversight role.

The paper's editorial union has called the guarantees flimsy and has demanded, among other changes, a cast-iron veto over any new owner's appointment of top editors.

The newly formed coalition of French journalist unions, though, wants such guarantees written into law to create a wall between journalists and the influential people who own the media.

"It's like a rich man who buys a beautiful painting. You hope he will take care of it and not put out his cigarettes on the canvas," says Malye, the coalition president. "The one thing that Sarkozy can do to establish confidence and get rid of the questions around him, is to help modernize and protect the press."

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