Television France 24: A Gallic view of the world
The head of France's new global news network tells Ciar Byrne why CNN has been discredited and the BBC's much-vaunted objectivity is 'bullshit'
Monday 15 October 2007
It's an exhilarating job, running a 24-hour news channel. On a flying visit from Paris, Alain de Pouzilhac, chief executive of France 24, is pacing the floorboards of a London private members club, speaking animatedly into his mobile about the channel's two journalists in Burma. Immediately after our interview, he must hot-foot it off for lunch with the French ambassador. But a 35-year career in advertising – at the peak of which he headed the French advertising giant Havas – has prepared de Pouzilhac for the globetrotting role.
France 24's stated aim – to cover international news from a French perspective and convey the nation's values throughout the world – jars with British sensibilities. You would never catch the BBC proudly declaring that it wants to disseminate British values around the globe. Launched in December 2006, France 24 has already built a strong following, suggesting there is an appetite for a vision of the world that is neither Anglo-Saxon (like CNN and the BBC) nor Arabic (like Al Jazeera).
A survey of 500 opinion leaders in five countries showed that France 24 was watched by 51 per cent of respondents in Algeria, 47 per cent in Senegal, 23 per cent in France and 12 per cent in the UK. France 24 broadcasts in French, English or Arabic to more than 90 countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. (In the US, due to heavy carriage costs, it's only available in Washington, DC.)
A joint venture between the state-owned France Télévisions and commercial broadcaster TF1, the station receives €86m (£60m) in government funding, which it hopes to boost by an extra €60m of advertising income within five years. It employs 430 staff, including 200 multimedia journalists with an average age of 33. Working from headquarters in Issy-les-Moulineaux in the southern suburbs of Paris, journalists such as Mark Owen, a senior presenter on the English service, hail from 32 countries around the world, but are still expected to deliver news with a French flavour.
One of the most important lessons de Pouzilhac brought with him from advertising is the importance of research. "An advertising man never forgets that to promote, you first have to make the right analysis," he says. Before launching the channel, de Pouzilhac commissioned research that showed that opinion leaders who travel at least 11 times a year were very sceptical about international news.
"When you arrive in Moscow, Budapest or Buenos Aires, you watch a channel in English, because you don't speak Spanish or Russian. For 20 years, we have received only the American and British vision of the world, and that is very professional, very well done – but it's only one part of the vision of the world," says de Pouzilhac.
So what exactly constitutes a French vision of the world?
"First, France sees the world with diversity," he says. "France recognises that the world is a diversity of religion, of education, of environment, of nationalities, of race. So France is the opposite of the US, which sees the world from Washington."
Secondly, de Pouzilhac asserts that while France believes culture is central to society, Britain and America place more importance on the economy. "When we have six minutes of the economy on our channel, we also have six minutes of culture.
"The third point," he continues, "is that when you say 'Oh, the weather is beautiful', I say 'No, the weather is not so great': French people like a debate."
An Anglophile might respond that debate is equally important to British broadcast news, from the Today programme and Newsnight to BBC News 24. When de Pouzilhac met Richard Sambrook, director of BBC Global News, he asked him what the BBC's perspective was. Sambrook replied that the BBC was objective. "Bullshit," says de Pouzilhac. "Nobody's objective. In international news you're linked with your religion, with your nation, with your education, with whether you are rich or poor. That means when you are developing an international news channel, you have to be honest, you have to be impartial, you have to be independent, but no one is objective."
Sambrook disagrees. "France 24 was explicitly set up by the French President to convey a French view of events. The BBC World Service has never set out to portray a British view," he says. "We could have a very Gallic philosophical debate about whether impartiality and objectivity are possible, but the discipline of trying to be neutral is the reason the BBC is the most trusted global broadcaster in the world."
As for CNN, de Pouzilhac believes that the US network has been discredited by the Iraq war "because everybody thinks it is a Bush vision", leaving France 24 as the BBC's main competitor. CNN, for its part, insists that it is still the top-rated international news channel in Europe.
There is no doubt however, that competition will heat up when the BBC launches its Arabic service into what is an increasingly crowded market, one that includes Washington's Al-Hurra (the Free One) and Russiya Aleyoum (Russia Today) from Moscow. "At this time, when there is a potential fight between Islam and the West, the more we develop our point of view, the better it is for everybody. That's why I'm pushing to develop our Arabic language service," de Pouzilhac says.
He stresses the channel's internet presence: its site attracts three million unique visitors a month, 83 per cent from outside France. "It seems to me that the new generation push France 24, while the traditional generation stay with the BBC. I love it."
The channel is starting a Spanish-language service and plans to increase its presence in hotel rooms, where loyalties to international news channels develop. It also hopes to begin broadcasting in China to capitalise on the Olympic Games. At the moment, it cannot afford to expand its US distribution.
"Our budget is €86m, and you have to be very creative if you want to be competitive," he says – adding, with a touch of Gallic pride, that when Anna Nicole Smith died, CNN devoted 12 hours to the story. On France 24, it merited just 30 seconds.
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