Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
THE French press is being subjected to some sharp criticism both at home and abroad. Abroad the most frequent allegation is that there is no such thing as an independent press in France, that all the French newspapers are tools of the munitions interests. These accusations, however, are merely amplified repercussions of things that are being said in many sections of the French press itself, a fact sufficient to show that neither of the charges can be taken entirely literally. Actually there is no comparison between the situation of newspapers in France and their situation under dictatorships which have deprived the press of every grain of independence. It may be assumed that the steel manufacturers control several French newspapers, and fairly important ones at that. But it would be a great mistake to conclude that they control the French press as a whole.
France has long been and still is a democracy. To educate a free public opinion and to keep it informed presents problems and involves requirements that fascist systems do not have to bother about. By a strange paradox, among the causes contributing to the state of things now being criticized must be reckoned the exceedingly lax laws regulating the French press. There can be no doubt that respect for liberty and independence has led to too great indulgence for license. This has created in France a situation which is very different from anything known in, for example, a democratic country like England. There are other differences as compared with England. Some of these depend on the peculiar economic situation of French newspapers; others depend on the general traits and habits of mind of the French as a people. To grasp the many problems facing the French newspaper owner, one has to understand the conditions under which he must endeavor to subsist.
French public interest has recently been attracted to these matters by incidents arising in the course of the parliamentary investigation of the Stavisky scandal. Certain ministries were shown to have made disbursements to certain newspapers out of their secret funds. A former premier, M. Daladier, was led to explain that but very few newspapers "were able to get along on their normal income from sales, subscriptions and commercial advertising." That statement provoked widespread comment. Then a few days later a similar confession was made before the same commission by a representative of a political party directly opposite to M. Daladier's. M. Aymard, formerly editor-in-chief of a newspaper of the Right, testified that only a limited number of newspapers could get along on business receipts exclusively, and that the others "could not survive unless they were supported by friends in politics or by large business concerns which consider that the policies of those papers are helpful to their interests and to the public interest as they conceive it." These two statements are enough to suggest the difficulties facing French newspapers in their struggle for material existence, and hence, as a matter of course, for intellectual independence.
In no country, as is well known, can a newspaper make profits or even cover its expenses simply from subscriptions and newsstand sales. In France for the past hundred years the price of a newspaper has been far below the cost of producing it. The prices of the papers have gradually been forced down under pressure of the pitiless competition peculiar to a centralized country where the metropolitan press soon forces the papers in the provinces to meet its standards and adopt its methods.
France has the lowest priced newspapers in the world, leaving aside Belgium and the Balkan countries. They cost on the average 25 centimes, that is to say one and seven-tenths cents per copy. In some countries the average price is two or three times that. Now the French public has grown accustomed to these low prices -- that is one of the national traits to which I alluded above. The Frenchman never thinks of associating a newspaper's quality with its price, or at any rate he never considers that it is worth-while paying more to get a better quality. His economical instincts, very definitely a French trait, have long since persuaded him in the opposite direction. The Frenchman, besides, rarely subscribes to a daily paper, preferring to buy it copy by copy; and, as is well known, newsstand sales are much less profitable than direct subscriptions.
The French newspaper therefore is willy-nilly obliged to look to other sources of income in a proportionately higher percentage. Normally, of course, the main source would be business advertising. But the market for advertising happens to be a very poor one in France. The reason may well be that it has not been as thoroughly explored or as intensively exploited as it has been, for instance, in the United States. It remains true that the psychology of the French public is not favorable to any great growth in advertising. Certain large elements in the French public take an attitude of instinctive mistrust towards an advertiser. One could mention any number of popular brands that have won their success without spending a penny in advertising, and many concerns would think they were losing caste -- in fact, would lose caste -- if their names were ever to appear in a newspaper.
Here we meet a real inconsistency in the trends of a public taste that on the one hand insists on a cheap newspaper but on the other refuses to take kindly to advertising.
In the prosperous period after the war the largest newspaper in France did not handle more than fifty million francs' worth of advertising in a year. That would be a sixth or even an eighth of the advertising which would appear in an English newspaper of the same circulation. Since the crash of 1929 there has been a drop of from 30 to 40 percent in the volume of advertising; but it does not seem that there has been any decrease in the disproportion between incomes from advertising in France and in England. One can count on one's fingers the French newspapers that sell as much as ten million francs' worth of advertising space per year.
Suppose we take a newspaper with a circulation of between 80,000 and 100,000, a figure which would class it among the more important papers in France. Its expenses will run at the very least to 6 million francs, and the strictest economy will be required to keep it as low as that. In the most favorable circumstances it cannot expect more than 4 million francs from sales and subscriptions. That leaves 2 millions to be taken care of by advertising. Now a newspaper of that size is far from being able to count on any such advertising revenue as that. Le Populaire, the organ of the Socialist Party, happens to be a paper of the kind described. In its accounting for the year 1931 it could not enter as high as half a million francs as having been received from advertising. The situation with papers of smaller circulations would be correspondingly worse.
The fact that the advertising field is so restricted entails a whole series of consequences. In the first place, it tends to lend special importance to concerns and individuals that function as intermediaries in the distribution of advertising contracts. It is a common practice nowadays for a newspaper, in order to "see ahead," in order to make sure of a minimum income, to lease its space in advance. That arrangement not infrequently means that an influence which amounts almost to control of policy is brought to bear upon the paper.
Furthermore, the advertising business is highly centralized in France, being in the hands of a very few agencies. It would be exaggerating to speak of an advertising monopoly or "trust," but it none the less is true that the great bulk of French advertising is handled by the Havas Agency and its branches, in other words by the same agency that handles the bulk of French news. There are, of course, quite a number of newspapers which, because of the size of their circulation or the quality of their public or their individual prestige or fame, automatically get enough advertising to pay their running expenses. But others have to resort to gifts and subsidies.
If such gifts and subsidies are a matter of public knowledge there can be no objection to them. It is quite the rule, in fact, for political parties and associations to have their newspapers and to meet the deficits which arise. Also above reproach is the newspaper which is paid for by its proprietor; the moral personality, the moral worth, of the paper is then the personality and worth of the individual who controls it. But there are other sorts of subsidies, clandestine ones, awarded for specified purposes by individuals, business concerns, financial syndicates, even ministries of state.
The whole question of governmental subsidies to certain newspapers -- the question of "secret funds" -- came up rather spectacularly in connection with the recent scandals. It developed that cabinets of all political complexions had, for the purpose of hushing up attacks, been paying very considerable sums to newspapers and newspaper writers, most of them of fairly inconsequential status and certainly of very dubious morality. Everybody had known about this for a long time. Many people feigned indignation and surprise over the "revelations," though they knew the facts all along and were also perfectly well aware of the causes. We shall come to the causes when we describe why certain newspapers are able to practise blackmail with impunity. There has also been some talk of very regrettable cases of newspapers -- and not all of them among our worst -- that have received clandestine subsidies not from French ministries but from foreign governments. The opening of the imperial Russian archives after the war brought many unsavory documents of the past to light, and these have figured in the current discussion of corruption in the French press.
The whole question of secret or confidential subsidies is now being raised -- the question, to use the French term, of publicité financière. This covers not only the amounts a paper receives for financial advertisements, but all the subsidies, payments and allowances that a newspaper may receive without any actual advertisement being inserted. Such payments may be made to finance a campaign of one sort or another, or to purchase silence.
It is in the very nature of the business of banking and financial promotion that the publicity that gets the best results is the kind that does not look like publicity. A news item slipped into a Stock Exchange bulletin is worth more than a full page advertisement. That is why financial publicity tends to take the form of "news," and also why outside interests try to control newspapers by means of that type of publicity.
A number of circumstances have helped develop publicité financière in France and to give it a special character. In the first place, compared to what is brought in by commercial advertising the receipts which can be obtained from so-called "financial publicity" are enormous. The editor of a financial paper with a circulation of only 14,000 admitted, at the parliamentary inquiry into the Oustric affair in 1931, that he had received 200,000 francs from the Oustric for having inserted only sixty-nine lines of advertisement. As justification, he explained that in another case he had been paid as much as 100,000 francs for fifteen lines!
Then again, the nature of the French press law has tended to multiply the sources of what might be called illegitimate income. Our press law goes back to 1881. Its main object at that time was to guarantee the freedom of the press, and it made the most inadequate sort of provision for the punishment of slander. The penalties it inflicts are light; and the rule, as established by juridical precedent, is to allow only very small monetary damages. Only in rare cases, where the proof is admitted, is any distinction made in the punishment on the basis of whether the printed allegation was true or false. That is the rule when a prosecution for slander is begun by a minister of state or a member of parliament; but in such a case jurisdiction lies with the criminal courts (cours d'assises), and in those courts there is always the fear that juries will decide in the light of sentiment or political passion.
Thus it is very difficult for the victim of a published slander to get justice, or at any rate adequate justice. And it further follows that the punishments facing a professional slanderer are not dangerous enough to discourage blackmail, and that too often it is much more simple and effective to buy the blackmailer off than to prosecute him. Blackmail, moreover, is the only means of subsistence for any number of small periodicals, usually ones devoted primarily to promotion and finance; while their field of operations is greatly widened by the fact that we have such inadequate laws for the protection of savings. "Blue-sky" enterprises, tolerated by the law because it has no means of dealing with them, fall ready prey to the specialist in blackmail. That is why on so many occasions the original promotion scandal will have a press scandal grafted on to it.
The Stavisky affair has brought home to the public at large the extent to which unscrupulous newspaper editors are able to avail themselves of the "conditional threat," and how, in order to halt the attacks of such men, or to gain their support, ministries both of the Right and the Left have felt it necessary to grant them subsidies from their secret funds. Thus it was revealed in the Stavisky inquiry that a small and very libelous weekly, obviously plying the blackmailing trade, had received as much as 30,000 francs a month from various ministries. The daily paper La Volonté, which for some time was owned by Stavisky and which although usually described as a Left paper always supported all administrations indiscriminately, including those of the Right, was shown to have been subsidized up to about half a million francs a year. The editor, Albert Dubarry, a skilful journalist of his kind, appears to have been equally feared by all governments.
In the world of big business an allotment for "financial publicity," which to a large extent corresponds really to a "blackmail allotment," seems to be only too often accepted as a matter of course, as the safest of all kinds of insurance. The statesman or business man finds on the list of papers which he is expected to favor the names of altogether respectable newspapers along with the names of others which are far from clean. He naturally is more or less bewildered, and his confusion seems sometimes to be studiously perpetuated by the advertising agents who make up the lists of beneficiaries, who distribute the funds, who never ask for receipts, and who never give any receipts to the donors.
The status and the influence of these agents make up one particular aspect of the newspaper problem in France. They obviously play a very important rôle as confidential advisers and as go-betweens between the money powers and the press. To the financier they look like magicians endowed with the power to quell storms or rouse them. To the newspaper owner they are dispensers of those golden showers which may be a matter of life or death. The distribution of "financial publicity" is concentrated in a very few hands, and those same hands, in some cases, control commercial advertising as well. The agent therefore is likely to be a man of power, and working through the papers which he has in tow he may be able to exert a very considerable influence on public opinion. He accordingly is feared, "considered," and may even at times be utilized by men in the government.
Fortunately for French democratic institutions, there still are quite a number of papers that can afford to be independent of the system just described. Quite apart from many weeklies and fortnightlies both in Paris and in other parts of the country, and apart also from the newspapers that are supported by the political parties, there are a few dailies that are rich enough and solidly enough established not to find "financial publicity" an indispensable source of income, or at least to be able to pick and choose as to what they will do. In the provinces generally the big newspapers have a somewhat easier time of it because running expenses are lower, because sales can be more easily checked and so yield higher returns, and because local advertising escapes the grasp of monopoly.
Not that the system is not a foe to be feared even by independent organs. A number of papers that have tried to fight it have been crushed in the end or else forced into line. Le Quotidien furnishes an example. When it was founded in 1923 as the organ of the Left it announced that it would refuse all subsidies and would fight against corrupting influences in the press. The money for launching the paper had been raised on this program through the sale to the readers themselves of bonds and shares of the publishing company. The paper was greeted with enthusiasm and its success was considerable. About 22 million francs were paid in to it in over 20,000 small subscriptions from all parts of the country. For some time the paper kept to its promises. It gained a very wide circulation and was highly influential at the time of the 1924 elections and during the ministries of the "Cartel." But in 1926 came the revelation, brought about by the revolt of the contributors to Le Quotidien themselves, that the paper had received subsidies from the railway and insurance companies, and, generally speaking, from the big financial interests, to persuade it to modify its policy.
However, the system has suffered a number of hard blows recently from Parliament. And that, incidentally, explains the prominence that has been given during the past year to the anti-parliamentary campaign in certain quarters where the system is powerful. Even before the war, the parliamentary commission that investigated the "Panama Affair" and the railroad contracts laid bare a veritable symphony of press publicity that had been worked up by "distributing specialists." The investigation of the Oustric affair in 1931 revealed positive data as to just how the blackmail budgets of a number of big banks function and as to the activity of the agents.[i] Now comes the light thrown by the Stavisky affair on blackmailing newspapers and on the subsidies they sometimes get even from official sources, helped by the inadequacy of legal instruments for dealing with them. It has also supplied new data on the activity of the agents and on the offhand and not very idealistic choices they make of customers.
The parties of the Left and their newspapers have tried to utilize the facts now unearthed to show how unfair the present organization of the French press is to them. It is indeed a fact that if a newspaper could be made to pay merely by being soundly managed and winning a fair number of readers, there soon would be organs enough to represent the various political tendencies in the country on a more or less proportional basis. But if, more often than not, political support or subsidies from big business are essential, then the advantage undoubtedly lies with the parties which are socially and politically conservative, and with their newspapers.
That is the situation in France today. The axis of newspaper opinion undoubtedly lies to the right of public opinion. It may be answered that that is of no great importance since, as experience proves, the attitudes taken up by most of the big papers do not seem to exert any appreciable influence on elections. But this is not the whole story. One cannot overlook the influence that the press exercises on political life from day to day, nor, more important still, the power it has in sudden emergencies, when the gravest decisions may depend, not on the outcome of an election, but on an impulse of passion or panic. Another important consideration is that the idea which foreign observers can have regarding the state of French opinion at any given moment is necessarily built upon the attitude of the leading French papers -- and that is often very far removed from reality.
In these circumstances the parties of the Left are getting more and more interested in the problem of the press. Last year the League for the Rights of Man, which with its 180,000 members can be taken as the most important of the Left groups, drew up a comprehensive program for press reform. In the minds of its authors the program was designed to strengthen the economic situation of newspapers and make them independent as far as possible of abnormal revenues. It provided for a minimum price for newspapers and for the establishment of national agencies for the distribution of commercial advertising. In order to strike at the so-called "financial publicity" and at secret subsidies, it proposed a series of legal enactments to make slander in the press a crime, to strengthen the protection of savings against fraud, to punish blackmail, and to compel newspapers to publish accounts.
Proposals of this kind naturally arouse stubborn resistance. Their chances of being adopted would be virtually nil in ordinary times. But these are not ordinary times. The attack on the parliamentary régime launched by the Right has been met from the Left by attacks on the press system, and with some success in arousing public interest. If the eagerness for reform which has been manifested in all parts of France is to be satisfied, some steps will probably have to be taken to strengthen the independence and improve the veracity of the information which is the basis of public judgment.
[i] At the Oustric inquiry in 1931, a former governor of the Bank of France, M. Moreau, made the following statement: "Newspapers -- it may be good or bad, but it is rather bad in my opinion -- apply to all banks. Newspapers cannot live, without subsidies or without advertisements, from the mere proceeds of their sales. They come therefore to ask for assistance, and this can be given to them in two different ways. Either it is given after each service rendered, or lump sums are paid in from time to time so that little by little certain papers become actually subsidized."