Macron stuns French state media with funding overhaul plans

France Inter’s major morning radio shows played pop music on an endless loop, with journalists usually producing state channel celebrity and political interviews far from the studio.

Instead, they joined thousands of other media personnel who marched in Paris in late June to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to change the way France funds its public service broadcasters. For.

Among them was Christopher Pauli, union leader of the public channel, France Television. “We are really concerned that the ultimate goal of the government is to cut our budget or divide us by selling parts,” he said.

The controversy makes France the latest test of Europe’s struggling public service media model, a leader in providing free, independent news and entertainment with state financial support. But the model has been under pressure from tight budgets, dwindling viewership and political challenges to the legitimacy and neutrality of the stations.

About two-thirds of the €21.4 billion in annual EU public sector media funding still comes from license fees, an annual royalty imposed on households to fund public media. In addition to France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy rely on them: in France, the state will spend 3.7 billion euros, or 85% of the license fee, for public broadcasting this year.

However, the Macron government wants to eliminate the €138 tariff, which is paid for by 23 million households equipped with television, and the public media financed directly from the state budget. They argue that the levy is obsolete because fewer people have TVs, while charging the levy is no longer effective after removing the council tax collected together.

Unions say a more unpredictable budget will make it harder for public service media to spend to stay relevant as streaming services pour billions into content © Patrick Willett / Alamy

Unions and media experts have warned that public service broadcasters would be more vulnerable to partisan pressure if funded directly by the finance ministry, and that more unpredictable budgets would invest in staying relevant as streaming services. Will make tough Netflix, Apple and Amazon generate billions. in the material.

“Abolishing license fees is a very bad idea that would seriously undermine the freedom of the public media,” said Julia Cagg, an economist at Science Po.

In a media landscape dominated by outlets owned by billionaire industrialists, such as Martin Bouygues’ TF1 and Vincent Bollore’s Vivendi, it was particularly important to have “strong and credible” French public broadcasters, he said. More than 40 million people, or 80% of the population, watch public television channels every week.

The Macron government has rejected the idea that funding reform would undermine or restrict public media, pitching it as a way to return money to citizens when inflation rises.

Culture Minister Reema Abdul Malak told Le Parisien newspaper they were working on a “mechanism” to protect the freedom of state-backed media, which would be presented to parliament. These could include setting a multi-year budget, just as the UK gives the BBC long-term visibility into funding.

Similar skirmishes over funding models for public service broadcasting have begun across Europe, underscoring political sensitivity. Germany, Switzerland and Italy modified their royalty systems to remove links to television ownership, while Finland introduced a specific tax and separated it from other state expenditures.

Hundreds of people, mostly public service broadcast workers, demonstrate outside the French National Assembly in Paris in June.

Hundreds of people, mostly audiovisual workers of the public service, demonstrate against the abolition of license fees in front of the French National Assembly in Paris in June © Hugo Passarello Luna / Hans Luca

Noel Curran, director of the European Broadcasting Union, a coalition of public service media organisations, said it was a sensitive time as France and the UK, two locations with powerful public service broadcasters, were considering waiving license fees. The UK government has told the BBC to expect a new system in 2028, after the current budget ends.

“Changes are coming in France and the UK, but we don’t know what the new models will be,” Curran said. “With license fees, there is a direct relationship between the audience and the media, so this is a system that has many advantages. »

The EBU said it had seen a drop in funding for public broadcasters in countries that had gotten rid of license fees, as they had to compete for funding for everything from roads to schools.

The French government’s plans for media funding are tied to an anti-inflation bill that Macron’s centrist coalition may struggle to pass in parliament now that it has lost an absolute majority. The left-wing coalition New People’s Ecological and Social Union (NUPS) opposes lowering the license fee, although a far-right national rally is likely to support the move.

“I don’t think it’s going to get out of this, but the government can do well with the help of people right and far who have never been big fans of government-funded broadcasters,” said Socialist senator David Essoline. , who has worked on media regulation for a long time. “The fee needs to be redesigned and changed, but not like this. ,

Esouline said he planned to introduce an amendment that would establish a “contribution” to fund public media so that taxpayers pay based on revenue and not television ownership.

Private television groups in France, such as Vivendi’s Canal Plus and TF1, are silent on the battle for royalties because it will not affect them until the government starts allowing more television advertising and public radio. But TV production companies such as Banijay and Mediavan have raised concerns that the switch could undermine a large clientele.

Sibile Weil, who runs Radio France, said whatever funding mechanism the government chooses, it must guarantee the editorial independence of public broadcasters. “We must protect the trust of our listeners, so that we are not seen as an arm of the state or an instrument of propaganda,” he said in an interview. “We cannot be at the mercy of a minister who does not like something we broadcast and then cuts our budget. ,

Additional reporting by Alex Barker in London

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