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Agence France-Presse Branch of the French National CGT Journalists' Union (SNJ-CGT)


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AFP Is Not for Sale, and Journalism Is Not a Game

 

The story so far: CEO Pierre Louette, who might be leaving but swears that he loves us more than anyone else, and who had said he would never change our statutes, has nevertheless announced his intention to do so. He envisages an initial phase that is presented as a "sprucing-up" (toilettage) to take place in the short term and a second, more long-term stage which looks very much like privatisation.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: On the one hand he engages in chancy and costly experiments in the brave new world of blogs, social networks and online advertising - with a marked preference for the English language and the western shores of the USA - and on the other he announces new cuts in the physical network of our regional bureaus and correspondents in France.

And as if to remind us just how precarious another set of "statutes" – those defending the rights of journalists – has become, he acquires on the quiet a stake in a web site (http://www.citizenside.com) which allows any member of the public to become an AFP photojournalist.

Last but not least, the icing on the cake (after all, it’s Christmas!) is provided by the previous CEO, who along with a major French industrial and media company buys up the French branch of Associated Press. Note that as AP is a cooperative, the transaction in question can already be seen as a privatisation.

Apart from all that, everything’s going swimmingly!

Except that it isn’t – and things could get very much worse if a certain number of recent trends are allowed to continue. Some examples:

A "sprucing up" which is not what it seems

What the CEO presents as a "toilettage" of the statutes in fact contains a number of measures which go much further than simply "sprucing up" AFP’s founding principles. Although nobody is likely to get upset at purely technical measures such as changes to the voting methods for the election of staff representatives to the board, notions such as enlarging the composition of the latter are a very different kettle of fish.

For whatever the drawbacks to the statutes adopted in 1957, they at least have the merit of basing the board on clearly defined interest groups – the French government, the press and broadcasters. The actual members of the board at any given time are selected by those groups, and are presumed to represent them.

But how would one go about appointing or selecting board members to represent non-French clients, or even the "new media" that are so close to the CEO’s heart? On what basis?

The CEO may have given the game away by referring to one customer in particular – Yahoo. One of the biggest Internet groups worldwide, even if it appears to be losing ground to another giant, Google. But on what basis could a representative of Yahoo sit on the AFP board? It is clear that if that company were to be offered a seat in its capacity as a single client, and not as a representative of a category of clients, it would want to take part only if it had hopes, at some point in the future, of owning all or part of the company. And even if a "Yahoo" board member were to do nothing more than push for lower subscription rates – along with other board members, but without having the same link to France – it’s not hard to see what might happen. We could suddenly realise that the previous system wasn’t so bad after all!

Another change that is being presented as mere "sprucing up" but which is also far from innocent concerns the proposed limitation of the right to apply to the agency’s Higher Council (conseil supérieur). The SNJ-CGT, which intends to apply to the Council to protest AFP’s plans to directly take in advertising revenues on its own account, cannot see why that right should be curbed. Particularly not at a time when the agency’s clients are becoming more and more diverse, and include not only companies but also individuals. And above all, not at a time when the very statutes which the Higher Council was created to protect are being changed. Another example of a potential trap.

AFP’s French regional network

The SNJ-CGT has already explained why it opposes management’s plan to cut jobs in the French regional bureaus. While we can accept redeployments here and there, we cannot agree to a reduction in our overall presence on the ground, particularly if the result would be to leave the field wide open to a private group. That also would be a de facto privatisation which would seriously weaken the agency, with potentially fatal effects.

We also wonder whether AFP really needs an English-speaking correspondent in the South of France. We note that although the English Service is being continually strengthened in fields such as "people" and "lifestyle", there is still no anglo in the Industrial Relations Service. No doubt strikes and trade union news are much less "sexy" than the latest "people" gossip, including subjects like the French president’s holidays and urgents on Paris Hilton!

Citizenside and user-generated photo content

The phrase "citizen journalist" sounds very grand, but the reality is not quite so noble. What it amounts to in fact is a form of domestic outsourcing, which instead of replacing journalists within the company with people working from India or Bangladesh, replaces them with "amateurs" operating in the home country. One wonders when management will try and bring in a similar system for our text services.

No trade union can or ought to accept such an attack on the status and the working conditions of the people it represents. We will return to this question at the next meeting of the Works Committee.

Newzwag, Fuel et cetera

AFP staff are still awaiting explanations of the ever-growing number of online projects, which now seem to be running amok. (The latest discovery: an "AFP Global News Agenda" - http://www.afpagenda.com/ - produced jointly with a private company in the UK, and about which we know nothing at all). As regards the "Mediawatch" blogging site (http://mediawatch.afp.com/) we are still waiting to learn what exactly are the editorial principles behind it. We had been given to believe that the issue was to be settled, and submitted to the Works Committee, before the public launch of any such project, but apparently that was not to be. Last but not least, we are still obliged to sign up as members of "Facebook" to find out what’s going on with AFP’s famous "Deadline" news quiz on that site. Which is how we learned, for example, that players will soon get the right to draw up the questions themselves. Yet more "citizens" in the pipeline. To sum up: There will be no lack of issues to deal with in the New Year, which looks set to be an eventful one. The SNJ-CGT will be looking for answers on all of the above questions, and will do everything in its power to ensure that our agency is not privatised.

Festive greetings to all!

SNJ-CGT, Paris, December 17, 2007