What people consume as news will shape the slant of public debate. In Malta, public debate is shaped using party-owned media and by the government controlling the public broadcaster with just a handful of independent outlets to counter them. In Hungary and Serbia, it is shaped by snuffing out independent media. In France, this is partly accomplished with the complicity of corporate media. All these strategies have far-reaching consequences.
France is not a country we would normally associate with a problematic media landscape but the role of the media in shaping public debate during the French presidential elections has been thrust to the fore, not so much for helping incumbent Emmanuel Macron secure a victory but rather for helping his far-right rival Marine Le Pen narrow his lead.
In 2017, Macron beat Le Pen with 66% of the vote. This year, Macron scored 58.54 % to Le Pen’s 41.46%, giving the far-right its biggest-ever score in French presidential elections.
This came about due to several factors, one of them being a concerted effort by Le Pen to tone down the jack-booted image of the far-right, which was the image of the anti-immigration party that she took over from her father Jean Marie Le Pen. This time, she focused on domestic economic issues, that appealed to blue-collar voters such as curbing the cost of living, an issue that polls suggested is a much bigger worry than immigration.
Promoted by the media
More notably, her “moderate” image was boosted by the appearance and the over-exposure in the media of an even more hard-liner Èric Zemmour, whose shocking reactionary persona made Marine Le Pen seem by contrast more reasonable and her politics appear less extreme.
Èric Zemmour, is a prolific writer, and TV pundit who advocates the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, according to which liberal elites are plotting to replace French nationals of White stock with immigrants. He dominated the early stages of the presidential campaign thanks to one of France’s most popular news channels, CNews, owned by French billionaire Vincent Bollorè, widely seen as promoting far-right ideas through his media empire, that gave him a prime-time national audience – and a platform from which to espouse his incendiary rhetoric on immigration and Islam.
Zemmour already has three convictions for inciting hate speech and repeatedly landed CNews in hot water. France’s broadcast regulator, Arcom, twice put the private channel on formal notice over his comments, and last year, in a first for a French news channel, it fined CNews €200,000 for speech inciting racial hatred and admonished the network for failing to ensure political balance in its broadcasting.
Another consequence of the outsized media presence enjoyed by Zemmour, apart from making Marine Le Pen look “respectable”, was to sideline those issues that French voters deemed more important. They included France’s purchasing power, the climate emergency, and the plight of France’s health system – all issues that ranked higher than immigration among voters’ main concerns, according to pollsters.
By the time Zemmour announced his candidacy and held his first campaign rally, several journalists were physically attacked or threatened, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted there was a disturbing increase in threats during the past year against journalists covering the Zemmour campaign and the far-right in general in France. Zemmour didn’t make it to the polls’ second round but endorsed Le Pen and encouraged his supporters to vote for her, boosting her numbers.
According to RSF’s 2021 Press Freedom Index, France ranks 34 out of 180 countries but it’s not without its problems.
The country’s media is controlled primarily by six billionaires and the State – a situation that led the French Senate to launch an inquiry into the conditions that have led to such a highly concentrated media landscape with one of the senators quoted as saying that “the political and general information press is now in the hands of a small number of businessmen and companies whose main activity is often far removed from the world of information and its principles”.
Control of the media and elections
Le Pen and her extreme policies (which have never changed) were kept at bay for the time being, but in other European countries exerting control on the media and shaping public debate yielded different results.
In a recent report published by the International Press Institute ahead of Hungary’s general election on 3 April, the observers found that Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn and his right-wing Fidesz Party had achieved an unprecedented level of political control over the country’s media.
By using a network of proxies, State-dependent businesses and oligarchs close to the prime minister acquired many of the major television, radio, and print media, in many cases from foreign owners and multinationals who had exited the country. Many media outlets brought under Hungarian ownership were either converted into pro-Orbán mouthpieces or closed. Orbàn was subsequently re-elected for a fourth consecutive term with a landslide victory.
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić’s domination of the media has also underwritten his success at the polls this year. In 2019, a report by Freedom House had already noted how Vučić followed Orban’s footsteps to consolidate media ownership in the hands of his cronies ensuring that the outlets with the widest reach support the government and smear its perceived opponents. The system worked for Vučić too, and his right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) cruised to a second term.
The role the media played in his re-election was also noted in the conclusions of a preliminary report by OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on Serbia’s 2022 elections: “While media covered all electoral contestants, most public and private broadcasters with national coverage favoured the incumbent president and the ruling coalition, limiting the opportunity of voters to make fully informed choices”.
Then there’s Malta and its unique media landscape dominated by the over-sized role party media occupies in Malta’s fractious public discourse and the complicity of the country’s public broadcaster that underreports or ignores altogether news items that put the government or its officials in a bad light, all to the benefit of the governing Labour Party that secured a third term in government.
French media watchdogs and media observatories suggested that Zemmour’s over-exposure and the normalisation of Le Pen’s ideologies are the symptoms of a shift to the right affecting swathes of France’s media establishment. In short, if Marine Le Pen and her ideas look more mainstream now, it’s because the mainstream is starting to look more like her.
As the independent media observatory Acrimed noted in one of its assessments, ‘”Le Pen is no longer scary”: whose fault is it?’