Reporters nowadays are a bit like steel workers in the 1980s — hostage to a sector in crisis — as billionaire media moguls play a giant game of Monopoly.
That’s what’s happening right now in France. As consolidations become commonplace around the world, the heads of French firms have moved especially swiftly to bring the largest outlets under their control.
The latest was the new acquisition of Le Nouvel Observateur and Télérama by the co-owners of Le Monde, including the businessman Xavier Niel and the banker Mathieu Pigasse (who also owns Radio Nova). They have joined forces with Pierre-Antoine Capton, who controls the television studio Troisième Œil Productions, to create an investment fund called Media One.
With about €300 million to €500 million, they plan to “take advantage of the window of opportunity for acquisitions in the media.” Media One is looking first to France but also abroad, in Spain, Germany and Italy. The project will take the form of a “special purpose acquisition company” — a type of firm built specifically to acquire shares of at least 75 percent in an entire sector.
Big media, bigger owners
Media One isn’t the first company to “take advantage” of sales in the French media.
The movement began at the beginning of the century, when big names in the business world — Bernard Arnault of LVMH, François Pinault of Kering and Serge Dassault, the heir to an arms fortune — started taking an interest in newspapers. Dassault bought Le Figaro, Pinault took control of the weekly Le Point through the holding company Artemis and Arnault acquired the country’s main business daily Les Echos.
Now, Arnault, who in 1993 took possession of the other French business daily, La Tribune, and later sold it, has expanded his media empire by buying the popular daily Le Parisien. In 2010, Pigasse, Niel and the entrepreneur Pierre Bergé took over France’s main daily broadsheet Le Monde, which was first managed by journalists and readers.
The finance mogul
Meanwhile, finance magnate Patrick Drahi is erecting a small empire in the information industry. Having acquired the telecom operator SFR, he bought on credit Libération, then L’Express and then all of BFM-TV.
That’s just the beginning of the television takeover.
Martin Bouygues, who owns the largest public works firm in Europe, also maintains positions in TF1, the largest network in Europe (though the audience has gradually declined since Jacques Chirac privatized it in 1987).
Vincent Bolloré, president of Vivendi — one of the biggest entertainment groups in the world, along with Universal and Canal + — has broken onto the scene by imposing his point of view, censoring reportage (a critical story about the bank Crédit Mutuel was canned), canceling the satirical program Les Guignols and putting the brakes on an investigation into the soccer club Olympique de Marseille (a sensitive area because of broadcasting rights for games).
Then there’s the web. Le Figaro is to acquire Benchmark, and Bolloré took control of DailyMotion.
Visibility, influence and gain
Media historian Patrick Eveno summarizes the motivations of the new captains of the media industry in three words: visibility, influence and gain. Essentially, half a dozen billionaires are about to take control of all that matters in the French media.
The visibility of the acquisitions boosts their prestige in the business world, as Drahi has done with his purchase of Libération. The media shape public opinion, giving people like Dassault influence in politics affecting his other concerns: like government investments in his firm’s Rafale fighter jet.
With a presence on all fronts — print, radio, TV and internet — these owners master the entire chain.
The new owners can also exploit the respected brands of historic titles, which profit, not only from advertising sales, but also from organizing conferences that are often subsidized by local or foreign governments. (Libération, for example, has just organized a “Citizens’ Forum in Gabon,” a key francophone nation.)
The media is a buyers’ market, with prices steeply discounted amid industry turmoil and often discounted further by heavy subsidies to the sector.
Arnault spent more than €50 million for Le Parisien, which has revenues four times that much and balanced books. Drahi paid the same amount for L’Express. And it was a great deal for Niel, Pigasse and Bergé who bought Le Nouvel Observateur for little more than €10 million.
Even the €300 million to €500 million that Media One wants to invest is only a drop in the bucket for the companies of the partners. (For example, it’s about 3 percent of the stock market value of Niel’s company Iliad.)
Journalists and readers left alone
There’s a chance these consolidations will clash with anti-trust laws. But less than two years away from France’s next presidential election, in 2017, these billionaires aren’t afraid of reactions from politicians who will need their coverage.
The journalists who remain at these publications are in no position to protest these restructuring plans. From Le Monde to Libération to La Tribune, everyone has seen their newsrooms reduced. Drahi has already taken out the hatchet at L’Express, where 115 journalists who resigned were not replaced and 240 seats are being phased out in all departments.
But that’s not the worst problem. Owners have proven willing to intervene in editorial decisions.
Bolloré, which also controls the communications agency Havas, is creating an earthquake at Canal + and i-Télé, the 24-hour news network, which have taken a clear turn to the right, with layoffs and shakeups in the newsroom leadership.
There was already an incident at Canal +, when the new host of the program “The Grand Journal,” Maïtena Biraben said, without any reprisals from her guests, that the conservative National Front “delivers true speech” in which “the French recognize themselves.” It’s a new era for Canal +, the largest financier of French cinema, in which right-wing thinking and contempt for “do-gooders” finds no opposition.