The Media Today

At Le Monde, journalists win a battle for editorial independence

October 8, 2019

In recent months, a shareholder battle has roiled Le Monde, which is effectively France’s paper of record. In October 2018, staff and readers, representatives of whom own 25 percent of its parent company, lashed out after one of Le Monde’s shareholders furtively sold a chunk of his stake to a controversial tycoon from the Czech Republic. The paper’s editorial independence, staff said, was under threat. Recently, with tensions running high, hundreds of Le Monde journalists took an extraordinary step, demanding—in a column published by the paper—that their owners accede to their demands, or else face the consequences.

Le Monde’s journalists have always had a big say in how they are managed. They held a controlling stake in the paper from its founding—in 1944, at the urging of the freedom fighter and future French president Charles de Gaulle—until 2010 when, facing dire financial straits, they ceded control. A trio of businessmen bought in: Xavier Niel, the founder of French telecoms company Free; Matthieu Pigasse, an investment banker; and Pierre Bergé, the former business partner of Yves Saint Laurent. The new shareholders sat in a delicate equilibrium, with none of them holding a majority of the parent company. To guarantee Le Monde’s editorial independence, a group representing journalists, staff, and readers retained a quarter-ownership stake, and a say in decisions going forward. When Bergé died, in 2017, Niel and Pigasse agreed to split his shares. The same year, the paper turned a net profit for the first time since the takeover. The arrangement (mostly) seemed to be working well.

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Then, about a year ago, a new character took center stage: the Czech energy and media magnate Daniel Křetínský. Křetínský had already been on a shopping spree in France: he picked up the left-leaning magazine Marianne (where he quickly installed a conservative commentator as editor) as well as titles, such as Elle, belonging to the publishing giant Lagardère. Unbeknownst to its staff, Le Monde was also in his sights. According to Libération, Křetínský had hoped to buy Pigasse’s entire stake, which would have made him Le Monde’s top individual shareholder alongside Niel; in the end, he settled for 49 percent of Pigasse’s stake, after Niel and others urged Pigasse to exercise caution. (Křetínský reportedly retains an option to buy all of Pigasse’s shares at a later date, though Pigasse has said he is staying put for now.)

Křetínský’s involvement roiled the newsroom—when staff finally found out about it. Journalists at Le Monde learned of his interest not through official channels, but via a tip-off from Blaise Gauquelin, a reporter at the paper whose beat includes the Czech Republic. The lack of proper communication rankled; staffers felt it violated the terms under which they’d ceded financial control in 2010. Křetínský rankled, too. In interviews, Křetínský, who speaks French fluently, has always insisted he is a Francophile with a genuine interest in press freedom. Nonetheless, journalists at Le Monde (as well, apparently, as French government officials) feared he could use the paper to boost his sprawling business interests. His part ownership of a pipeline carrying Russian gas was of particular concern, on both the fossil fuel and Kremlin fronts. In some parts, so, too, was the fact Křetínský (quelle horreur!) is not French.

During a meeting last October, Le Monde’s owners promised a deal: they would sign an agreement effectively allowing journalist and reader representatives—who feared that Křetínský would not stop at a minority of Pigasse’s stake—to veto new controlling shareholders. The deal was supposed to be finalized within weeks. It was not. In the months that followed, tensions grew—both inside the newsroom and, reportedly, between Pigasse’s camp and Niel’s, as Pigasse eyed further shares. In early September, things kicked up a notch. Representatives of journalists and readers demanded Niel, Pigasse, and Křetínský OK an agreement within two weeks—for real, this time—or else face possible legal action. On September 10, more than 460 journalists signed the unprecedented open letter. Three days later, more than 500 public figures—including Edward Snowden, Salman Rushdie, and the pop star Christine and the Queens—signed a letter of their own backing staff’s demands for independence.

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Late last month, Le Monde’s journalists finally got what they wanted: Pigasse and Niel signed the veto agreement. Under its terms, if a shareholder wants to sell a majority of their stake to a given individual, journalist and reader representatives will be entitled to block that person from buying for six months; in that time, they’ll have the opportunity to find an alternative buyer. Any vetoed buyer would only be successful if a new buyer cannot be found. As part of the agreement, Niel and Pigasse undertook to explore a foundation structure for all or part of Le Monde’s capital; in theory, at least, this would stop disruptive shareholder battles from recurring.

The deal is a clear win for editorial independence, and a hopeful story about employee power (if not necessarily a replicable one, due to Le Monde’s peculiar ownership structure). In an editorial, Jérôme Fenoglio, the paper’s director, wrote, “This extra protection of our editorial independence is unprecedented in a global media landscape dominated by private interests.” Fenoglio praised the exceptional mobilization that secured it. “Between those who read and those who write, this show of force reflects a shared responsibility: the defense of a common good.”

Below, more on Le Monde:

  • Křetínský controversy: In May, amid rising newsroom tensions, the New York Times’s Peter S. Green profiled Křetínský in the context of his involvement in Le Monde. “Křetínský, 43, has had a rapid rise under the tutelage of two of the most successful privatization barons in the post-communist Czech Republic and Slovakia,” Green wrote. “His main business, EPH, comprises more than 50 companies and has annual revenue of 6 billion euros.”
  • Couples counseling: After signing the agreement, Niel said Le Monde’s finances were not at issue in the shareholder wrangling. “Le Monde has stopped burning cash over the past four years, and has become quite profitable,” he said. “The problems experienced these past months weren’t financial, but more like a classic crisis within a couple.”
  • Observer status: Yesterday, staffers at L’Obs, the weekly news magazine formerly known as Le Nouvel Observateur, demanded the same protections as their counterparts at Le Monde. You can read more here (in French). Niel and Pigasse also own L’Obs, but it is not part of Le Monde’s parent company.

Other notable stories:

  • As I wrote in yesterday’s newsletter, top Republicans have had a hard time straying from Trump when it comes to Ukraine, China, and the impeachment inquiry. Yesterday, the likes of Nikki Haley, Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell did distance themselves from the president—over his abrupt decision to pull US forces from northeast Syria. The withdrawal, critics said, will allow Turkey to attack US-allied Syrian Kurds and could facilitate the resurgence of ISIS. Even the uber-loyalists at Fox News had a hard time with Trump’s decision. On Fox & Friends, Brian Kilmeade sparred with co-host Steve Doocy: “I hope the president will rethink this,” Kilmeade said. Doocy replied that Trump is simply fulfilling a campaign promise. Kilmeade cut back in: “To release ISIS fighters?”
  • Fallout continues from a tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager of NBA team the Houston Rockets, expressing solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong. China—a massive market to the league—reacted furiously. The NBA, despite its reputation for tolerating stars’ speech, released groveling statements in English and Chinese; the latter said Morey’s tweet “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.” That, in turn, elicited howls of outrage from politicians and commentators in the US. Yesterday, Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, defended Morey’s right to free speech; this morning, Chinese state television responded by halting pre-season coverage altogether.
  • CJR’s Savannah Jacobson profiles Jerry Zremski, a reporter with the Buffalo News who set the pace on the story about Chris Collins, a local GOP Congressman who recently pleaded guilty to fraud charges. Collins previously assailed “the Buffalo Fake News” for its reporting. “It hasn’t really bothered me,” Zremski says of such attacks, “what’s transpired in the time since I wrote that story… has pretty much proved me right.”
  • Some changes at Quartz: Kevin Delaney, the site’s cofounder and editor in chief, is stepping down to pursue other projects; two other cofounders, Zach Seward and Jay Lauf, become CEO and chairman, respectively, with Katie Weber promoted to president. The shake-up, the Times reports, was “cordial,” but raises questions as Quartz transitions from an advertising model to paid subscriptions amid recent financial losses.
  • WBAI, the long-running left-wing radio station that made its name as a bastion of New York City counterculture, abruptly shut down yesterday. The nonprofit Pacifica network, which operated WBAI, blamed steep financial losses for the closure; it said the station could return if its finances can be stabilized. Gothamist’s Jake Offenhartz has more.
  • Facebook will pay a group of advertisers $40 million to drop a lawsuit alleging that the platform grossly overstated key video-viewership metrics. (The plaintiffs’ attorneys will see a slice of the money; news organizations, it seems, will not.) Despite agreeing to settle, Facebook said the suit is “without merit.” The Hollywood Reporter has more.
  • Recently, the news industry has fretted about the spread of “deepfakes”—but a new report from Deeptrace, a cybersecurity firm, finds that the vast majority of such videos are pornographic in nature, not informational. “Although in the future political actors may adopt deepfakes for the purposes of disinformation, at the moment their use is squarely in their original, designed purpose: to target and harass women,” Joseph Cox writes for Vice.
  • Earlier this year, the House exempted certain newspapers not owned by major corporations—including the Tampa Bay Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune—from compliance with a proposed retirement-savings law. The bill, however, has stalled in the Senate; if it doesn’t pass, publishers fear a hefty financial hit. Roll Call’s Doug Sword has more.
  • And Lucas Graves, a researcher at the Reuters Institute, assesses the global impact of the Panama Papers three years on from their publication. Notably, “backlash against journalists was recorded almost as often as substantive reforms,” Graves reports.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.