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


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Louette Mark 2: AFP At The Crossroads

 

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On being re-elected to head the agency for a new three-year mandate, CEO Pierre Louette undertook the delicate exercise of congratulating himself on the results of his past efforts - three years of profits and an improved cash position - and at the same time refusing any progress whatsoever on the wages and jobs front, while justifying structural changes intended to demolish the very mechanism which has allowed such results to be obtained.

Mr. Louette may boast of his managerial prowess, but the CGT journalists’ union has major reservations, not only about the industrial relations aspects of his policies but also about his structural and even editorial plans.

Beneath his youthful and modern exterior, this CEO is leading us straight towards the same brick wall that his predecessors Eric Giuily, at the end of the 1990s, and Bertrand Eveno, more recently, wanted to crash us into.

Producing more and more, with ever less means

The big plan is not only to transform AFP from top to bottom - new technologies, new products, new editorial priorities - but to do it while slashing staffing levels in all parts of the company and obliging the great majority of staff to endure lowered living standards. Meanwhile a happy few will be gratified with "merit-based" bonuses, pending the day when AFP will offer a staff shareholding scheme.

During his first mandate, Mr. Louette obtained a net reduction in staffing levels for technicians, the results of which we can all measure: less staff to fix our machines when they break down, more hassle to get increasingly complex systems to work properly. Soon there will be only three technicians to service the entire regional network for France, our home base.

The CEO has also made new cuts in French regional bureaus, further undermining the very core of AFP’s home network, with results that were perceptible during the recent snowstorms in the Auvergne region.

In many cases departing journalists are not being replaced for months after they leave their post; the Clermont-Ferrand post has been vacant since last July, for example.

At the same time Mr. Louette has devoted unflagging energy to launching a whole slew of new products and services. Some of them, such as video, are not in dispute, but others seem to have been inspired more by passing fads than by a genuine industrial or editorial strategy.

Needless to say all of this is being done without adding extra staff, and indeed amid staff cuts. The effects are being felt in the working conditions of many services, and in particular in those which tend to attract young recruits, strongly encouraged to work more and earn less in order to win a possible place in the sun.

For example: text journalists have recently been called on to use video cameras without proper training or consultation. This not only increases their workload, it is also clearly detrimental to the quality of the finished product. A jack of all trades is a master of none.

All of this is taking place just as the whole world is plunging into a durable economic crisis which makes wage increases, not to speak of the bolstering of both our professional and ethical standards, more important than ever!

The CGT journalists’ union cannot accept that management should be openly congratulating itself on an improvement in our balance sheet - in language which is apparently aimed at possible future shareholders - while at the same time condemning most of us to falling living standards by bluntly refusing any general improvement in wages.

Demolishing our statutes, destabilising the agency

Even though the positive results obtained to date were gained within the framework of our 1957 statutes - the selfsame statutes which have allowed AFP to make so many giant strides in the past half-century, and which he himself praised when he first took up his post, Mr. Louette is today prepared to study a government project which, if it were to be applied, would demolish that finely-balanced mechanism.

His willingness to do so was no doubt a necessary condition for his re-election. But in fact President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling on him to do what Patrick de Carolis, the head of the French public television service, was recently told to do: in effect to scuttle his own company. (In the case of Carolis, this involved decreeing that French public TV would partially abandon advertising, even before the corresponding law had been passed to remplace the revenues lost as a result).

In defending the government’s plans for AFP, Mr. Louette blurs the distinction between operating costs and investment. Of course AFP needs money to push through its technological plan, but it is too easy to forget that despite its chronic fragility, the company has generally managed, particularly in recent years, to pay its running costs out of its commercial income. The said income being, as Mr. Louette himself acknowledged only recently, all the more stable in that it is mainly based on annual subscriptions rather than on unreliable sources such as advertising revenues, one-off sales, "special events" or "corporate" activities.

The CEO let the cat out of the bag when he admitted recently that the transformation of AFP into a joint stock company and/or a foundation would result in a withdrawal of support from the French government, and above all a cut in the state’s subscriptions to AFP services. In such circumstances the government could well be followed out of the door by certain clients among the French media, maybe those controlled by such-and-such an industrialist who counts himself among the head of state’s "friends."

Needless to say the motivations for such cancellations would have nothing to do with journalistic considerations. When one considers how many of our "official" clients - ministries, embassies, local government offices - scrutinise AFP’s wire services from morning to night, counting on them to learn of such key events as demonstrations, or the release of a prominent French hostage held in the Colombian jungle - the hypocrisy behind such plans is breathtaking.

Given the expected loss of core clients resulting from his plans, and as there are likely to be plenty of pretenders waiting to step into our shoes, are the funds that Mr. Louette hopes to raise from a future shareholder or shareholders going to be helping the agency develop - or will they end up paying our salaries?

And if that happens, how long will it be before we simply go bust? By what miracle will management replace so much lost sales income? By launching yet more games on the Internet, or by inviting us all to become unpaid "citizen journalists"? Will we end up as a charity rather than a commercial concern?

In the petition we have launched with the other headquarters-status trade unions (www.sos-afp.org - have you signed it yet?), we were right to focus not only on the independence of our company, but on its very survival. Yes, Agence France-Presse, a company won from the battles of the French Resistance in World War II, is threatened not only with losing its independence, but with simply ceasing to exist.

Growing threats to our public-interest mission

Amid all of these upsets, what is AFP’s future as general-interest news agency, committed by the act of parliament which founded it to "seek out, in France... as well as abroad, the elements of a complete and objective information service"?

Changes that have already become apparent during the current CEO’s first term are already taking AFP further and further away from its core mission.

We are seeing ever more output in the fields of "people and celebrities", which is not at all our brief, more and more accent on games and leisure, and ever less coverage of social and industrial relations.

(The absence of the latter is particularly striking in our English service, which devoted over 5,000 words in a single day to the announcement that Madonna was divorcing - an event which merited only a brief item in the International Herald Tribune - but which only rarely touches on social conflicts in France, unless they give rise either to violence or to a statement from the president).

All of this is taking place amid much emphasis on the notion of "modernity", which in management’s view seems to be practically synonymous with the Internet, notably via its supposed emphasis on games and young people.

This can be seen from the content of the "AFP Mediawatch" blog, whose authors are continually marvelling at the latest developments in online media in the United States. So much so that one could be forgiven for thinking that good old print newspapers, not to speak of TV, the media which continue to carry the great majority of all news delivered in the world and which still provide us with the bulk of our income, had ceased to exist. During a recent meeting with management, our union pointed out a number of anomalies in the content of the "Mediawatch" site.

Meanwhile, and without most of us realising the significance of the change, management has got more and more into the habit of describing the agency’s mission as "giving meaning" to the world, rather than simply providing the facts. One of the key buzzwords here is "storytelling". But surely when one starts telling stories, they must necessarily lead to some kind of a conclusion, and therefore to bias of one type or another?

We believe that such developments are already leading us away from the mission laid down in our 1957 statutes.

A particularly grotesque example of such logic was provided recently when AFP announced a new "leisure wire" with the Relaxnews company - an outfit which is well known to the CGT due to a number of dubious industrial relations policies.

Under the fatuous slogan "I relax with AFP: do you?" our management informed the world that "The need for leisure (is) ever more popular, especially in times of crisis."

In vaunting the supposed beneficial effects of economic disaster on the leisure industry, management was presumably not thinking of young people in Greece, members of the "600-euro generation", or of youth in France, who are also more and more worried about their futures, and who display a regrettable tendency to interest themselves in social and economic developments at least as much as in video game consoles or online ads.

Neither were they thinking of the millions of Americans who have either already lost their homes or are in the process of doing so, thanks to the effects of the crisis.

So many less clients for Internet-based services, for how is one supposed to take part in an online quiz when one no longer has a home? In such circumstances people are more likely to read news in print, including via freesheets. And it is by no means certain that their main interest will be in luxury products, or the latest escapades of a 50-year-old pop singer.

Such blithe unawareness of the realities of our world is to say the least worrying.

It is time for AFP to return to its core mission, to provide facts rather than storytelling, and not only about froth and celebrities. At the same time our management should abandon its plans for privatisation and social regression: the world has moved on.

Even under normal circumstances, such plans would be unacceptable. In the present circumstances, they are disgraceful.

Our demands: No to privatisation, no to the destruction of our statutes! General salary increase, with priority to the lower end of the wage scale Full-status jobs for temporary employees, no more precarious contracts, either HQ or local status! Yes to technical progress, no to "Internet-only"!

SNJ-CGT-AFP, Wednesday December 17, 2008