Claude Moisy, a former AFP journalist, ran the company from 1990 to 1993.
"The agitation caused by the speculation over a possible change to AFP's legally-defined statutes leads me for the first time to break the rule which states that a former president of the company should no longer intervene in its affairs. I do so because, having lived with AFP on a day-to-day basis for thirty-five years, I believe that it will be able to go on existing only within the framework of the curious and hybrid statutes bestowed on it when the French Parliament denationalised it in January 1957.
"Yes, AFP is a legal and financial anomaly, an impossible reality. Defined as an "autonomous entity," it is expected to operate "under the rules of commercial law", but possesses neither capital nor shareholders. To make matters even worse, it is overseen by its customers! The 1957 law also stipulates that AFP must be financed by the sale of its products and services. But when the law was adopted, only 20% of its operating costs came from commercial sales. The remainder came from public funds that were coyly referred to as "government subscriptions" to avoid using the dreaded word "subsidy"; embarrassing for a news organisation. Today this state contribution still accounts for 40% of the agency's budget. AFP is thus a truly hybrid company, which should not exist in a market economy, but which has nevertheless been functioning for the past fifty-two years.
"And which does not function too badly since it is, along with the American Associated Press and the British Reuters one of the only three truly "global" news agencies, collecting general news from all over the world and selling it all over the world. But it was always the most fragile of the three, before the communications revolution ushered in by the Internet undermined all of them. Associated Press, a cooperative owned by the huge US newspaper industry, earned enough on its home turf to make up for what it lost in the rest of the world.
"Once Reuters basically turned itself into an instrument of the financial markets at the start of the 1980s, its loss-making general news activities ended up becoming marginal in its overall sales, and could thus be subsidised by the profits generated on the financial side.
"AFP, with its small domestic base and French as its main working language, has never had the same possibilities. Without capital, it has only been able to finance the investment required to allow it to adapt to new communications technologies thanks to loans from the French state, which have not always been paid back. The financing of a part of AFP is one element in the multi-facetted aid provided by the French government to the country's media. Without AFP, those media would have to depend on the two Anglo-Saxon agencies for their foreign news.
"Up until now there has always been a consensus in the political sphere and among senior civil servants here that the existence of AFP was a good thing for France. It was thought that the prestige and influence attributed to the instrument were well worth the money it cost. This may be seen as a typically De Gaulle-style notion similar to that which motivated the Concorde supersonic plane, and entailing certain illusions of grandeur. But the unavoidable fact remains: AFP exists only thanks to the will of the French state.
"There is another anomaly in the adventure that is AFP. Despite its financial dependence on the state even after it became independent in 1957, it has progressively stopped being viewed by foreigners as a government news agency. On the contrary, it has gained the reputation of a credible news provider. Its competitors have given up arguing that its partial dependence on public funds constitutes unfair competition, and have shown respect for its professionalism. That has been thanks to the quality of a large part of its staff, and to the paradoxical rule expressed by Jean Marin, one of its founding fathers, according to which "AFP can only work if those who pay do not give the orders." That principle has not always convinced governments, of the right or the left; there has been friction and tension. But it has held fast!
"It would seem that this consensus is now put into question at the highest level of the state, and that the law defining AFP's statutes is destined to undergo deep changes. Without knowing the intentions of the people in charge of these plans, I would like to tell them this: I am convinced that the introduction of special interests would result, sooner or later, in the agency's disappearance.
"It is unthinkable that any business person, any company or any other institution than the state itself, could put money over a long period into an undertaking that is structurally loss making without expecting some kind of return on the investment. If such an "opening-up" were to take place, it would at some point result in restructurings, cuts and changes of direction which would so radically change the company's nature that it would lose its global character.
"That is what happened in the 1980s to another major world news agency, United Press International (UPI) of the United States. It was owned by a family foundation which was obliged under its statutes to get rid of it once it began to lose money. After falling into the hands of a succession of ambitious but inexperienced dreamers and unscrupulous adventurers, it underwent all manner of transformations before disappearing in less than ten years.
"I am not saying that Agence France-Presse absolutely has to be maintained in its present state at whatever cost. The government of a debt-laden France can legitimately argue that in the age of "online-everything", in which each individual can distribute his or her own "news", the financing of an elderly worldwide agency is no longer worth the trouble. It could, for example, consider that a simple mouthpiece churning out national press releases would be cheaper and more useful to it. If that is the case, it should say so clearly instead of passing of the job of dismantling the agency on to subordinates. But if that is not the case, and it wants AFP to retain its place in the world, it should shoulder its responsibilities."
Claude Moisy is a journalist and former chief executive officer of Agence France-Presse.