AFP's Independence: The Enemy Within

For several years now, the fight to protect the independence and the statutes of the world's number-three news agency has been mainly focused on attacks coming from outside AFP.

In 2008, for example, an offensive aimed at privatising the company was launched by leaders of the UMP, the political party in power in France at the time.

Since then, several attempts to make radical changes to the 1957 statutes, which provide AFP with a role and a level of independence unequalled elsewhere, have been successfully thwarted. Starting with the Louette Plan, which sparked an online petition that attracted more than 20,000 signatures - including that of the current French president, who at the time was in opposition. A later attempt came via the French parliament, with the so-called "Legendre proposal". That ran into the buffers due to national elections in 2012. Our association, which agitates among the general public to protect AFP's independence, was born during that period.

Fortunately, the adventure of the "Legendre Draft Law" concluded with a de facto strengthening of AFP's statutes. After failing to push through their full package, the politicos behind the project made just one change, which strengthened the definition of AFP's mission to bring it in line with the European Union's criteria for defining "Services of General Economic Interest", or "mission d'intérêt général" in French.

Today, however, we have to report new threats against AFP's independence - and they come neither from the world of French politics nor from that of the French media..

They come from inside the company, and they take the form of an ever-more brazen offensive against the very definition of a "a complete and objective information service" as laid down in the company's statutes. In the discourse of AFP's editors-in-chief, the English word "buzz" - imported directly into French - is being heard more and more often than the good old word "news". Management often appears more concerned to massage the company's reputation in "the media" than it is to produce the simple old-fashioned, and not necessarily "buzzworthy", information that should be the stock-in-trade of a major news agency.

A casual visitor to AFP's web site, transformed over the past two years under the presidency of Emmanuel Hoog, could be forgiven for thinking that the only news of any interest is that flowing through the Internet, and more specifically via the "social networks" that the agency has adopted lock, stock and barrel, without the slightest hint of self-doubt or critical thinking. And a reader of the AFP blogs, provided for Internet users without charge and requiring the work of a growing number of journalists, could also come away with the impression that AFP's main concern is to play up ephemeral and often trivial "newsbites" with the sole aim of advertising the agency's self-image.

Blog posts are being written to celebrate the "buzz" supposedly generated on the Internet by such-and-such a picture or video ( http://blogs.afp.com/correspondent/?post/2012/10/24/The-Marseille-Kiss%E... - http://blogs.afp.com/correspondent/?post/2013/01/23/Sasha-Malia%2C-actin... ). Others are devoted to such stock-in-trade activities for journalists as covering demonstrations - but as soon as criticism of the agency becomes a little too explicit for its liking, AFP management shuts down the comments feed (as they did with the French version of this one: http://blogs.afp.com/correspondent/?post/2012/11/29/Flight-or-fight ). Yet other posts betray an unhealthy level of fascination with some of the political leaders AFP reporters are charged with covering (cf. http://blogs.afp.com/correspondent/?q=Hillary+Clinton ).

The growing tendency to put the accent on pictures and videos in preference to text, and to "buzz" in the place of hard news, is now being more and more openly expressed by AFP management. Witness the extraordinary internal memo published on January 23 by AFP's central editor in chief, Phil Chetwynd.

The document in question seems so important for AFP's future, and therefore for media independence in general, that we have decide to publish key extracts.

"The rapid shift of news towards Internet platforms, aided by growth in tablets and smartphones, has dramatically increased demand from AFP clients for visual storytelling. The image increasingly drives the news agenda, and it is therefore essential that photo and video coverage is properly prioritized and integrated into our coverage," Mr. Chetwynd writes.

".../...We need to ensure the drama and colour of AFP's photo and video production is reflected in our stories. We also need to be aware that often the image can become the story - recent examples include the "Kiss of Marseille", the "Libyan guitar player" and our Pulitzer Prize winning photo from Afghanistan - and that we need to adapt our writing accordingly. Dramatic floods, fires or snowfalls, often accompanied by online slideshows and videos, can remain a top story even when the damage or loss of life is limited.".

Questioned by trade union reps on the AFP works committee, Emmanuel Hoog has on several occasions insisted that the agency's text service will remain "the backbone" of its coverage - but in other forums the CEO has also expressed views much closer to those of his editor in chief. In May 2012, for example, in a speech before the European Alliance of News Agencies, M. Hoog declared (our translation): "Today, news begins with pictures. And those who seek to create news start by creating images.".

The Association for the Defence of AFP's Independence views these statements as clear violations not only of AFP's founding statutes, but also of the basic ethical principles that should govern the work of a major general-purpose news agency.

ADIAFP, Wednesday January 30, 2013