Testimony and remarks

Precarious Times for a Bulwark of Democracy

Vulnerabilities in French media could lay the groundwork for an Orbán-style takeover.

Hungarian flag background with Viktor Orban

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban holds a press conference in Budapest, Hungary. Credit: Northfoto/Shutterstock.com. 

Two major elections took place in Europe in April 2022 that demonstrated the importance of media pluralism and shed light on the linkages between media and democracy. In France, Emmanuel Macron ran and won reelection after 5 years as president, while in Hungary, Viktor Orbán became Europe’s longest-serving leader, scoring his largest victory after 12 years in power – and despite the fact that the opposition had united forces against him.

On paper, of course, the two countries and the two elections could not be more different. France is a democracy, where the media face problems but journalists can do their jobs and report independently without having to worry about political or economic interference. Hungary, on the other hand, is no longer a democracy – it is categorized as a hybrid regime according to Freedom House – and the ruling Fidesz party’s hostile attitude to the independent press has significantly contributed to the country’s accelerating autocratization.

In fact, the main reason behind Orbán’s outsized success at the ballot box was his unparalleled domination of Hungary’s political agenda. In the days leading up the vote, the country was plastered with ads berating the opposition as “dangerous,” and urging voters to “protect children,” ostensibly as part of a public information campaign related to an anti-LGBT+ referendum. Thousands of billboards also portrayed Orbán as the calm and collected leader, calling for peace and security. This deluge of propaganda demonstrated the extent to which Fidesz has transformed Hungarian politics.

It also helped Orbán avoid blame for 12 years of failed “eastern opening” and close connections with Vladimir Putin. In the short span of a few weeks after Russia attacked Ukraine, a well-oiled PR machine successfully convinced Hungarian voters that it was not the government but the opposition – portrayed as warmongers – that was to blame for the situation. Fidesz’s crushing victory was a testament to the sheer power of mediatized messaging and the party’s total capture of the press.

The election campaign in France, while containing a significant dose of far-right messaging and marred by instances of disinformation, was fought in a pluralistic political and media environment. Far-right candidate and former journalist Eric Zemmour received disproportionate attention and dominated the airwaves in the early stages of the campaign, but in the end barely took 7 percent of the first round vote. Marine Le Pen, Macron’s other far-right challenger, increased her vote share by close to 3 million in the second round, but the gap widened in favor of Macron in the last few days, and the old-new president scored a comfortable victory on April 24.

The obvious and somewhat predictable conclusion then is that in France, a vibrant and pluralistic media ecosystem – despite some hiccups – helped to keep the far right out of power and preserve the country’s democracy.

And it is indeed true that the center held. Yet, all is not well in France’s media. Looking beneath the surface, the election has revealed long-term trends and developments that are chipping away at the freedom and independence of the press. These trends, as a matter of fact, are not that dissimilar to developments in Hungary and in deteriorating democracies.

Points of vulnerability

Traditionally when we think about threats to a free and independent media, we think of legal restrictions, political pressures, and outright attacks and harassment against journalists. These are some of the obvious obstacles that press freedom advocates and media freedom indices have highlighted for decades. And certainly, there are sporadic instances of attacks and government pressure present even in democracies. In France, for example, Macron has often been criticized for what many see as a high-handed approach to the press, and journalists regularly get injured while covering violent protests.

Yet, it is not the traditional threats but the much less obvious problems – let’s call them vulnerabilities – that lay the groundwork for a Hungary-type of takeover of the press.

Chief among these vulnerabilities is the financial situation of the media. The ad-supported business model that funded private media for decades collapsed with the advent of digital platforms, and while subscriptions have made a comeback in recent years, they have not been able to plug the holes in outlets’ budgets. COVID-19 generated further losses – according to early calculations, news media have seen a decrease in ad revenues that ranged from 20 to as much as 80 percent in Europe.

Trafficking in influence

Financial problems open the door for all kinds of pressures, including oligarchic influence. Media can become a tool for business, and in Central Europe, where traditional outlets have long ceased to be profitable, it has become both a means of protection and a means of manipulation. A broader trend in the region has seen billionaires acquire stakes in the media not for profit, but for political and economic influence. Hungary is just the most extreme example of this trend – during Viktor Orbán’s 12 years in power, the media’s oligarchic takeover has been explicitly sanctioned and overseen by the governing party.

France got a “taste” of the financial influence of rich Central European billionaires in 2018, when Czech energy magnate Daniel Kretinsky announced that he was buying a stake in Le Monde. A long-running crisis ensued at the paper, and even President Macron reacted, promising to remain “extremely vigilant” for any threats to journalistic independence. In the end, however, Le Monde’s journalists managed to eke out changes that would protect the paper’s independence.

On its face, the Kretinsky story was the perfect example of oligarchic influence flowing from east to west: a billionaire, who is little-known in France, acquires clout by purchasing a stake in the country’s most widely read paper. In reality, however, the story was more complicated. While many feared that Kretinsky’s involvement could be beneficial for the far right due to his Russian “connections” (he owns a stake in Slovakia’s pipeline that transports gas from Russia), that ended up not being the case. The Czech tycoon’s only high-profile editorial interference has so far favored President Macron. In April 2022, Kretinsky put pressure on the editors of Marianne, a weekly magazine, to change the cover to a version clearly supportive of Macron over Le Pen.

The biggest threat to Macron’s reelection came from the direction of Vincent Bollore, a billionaire who – through a “strategy of takeovers and makeovers” – has grown into France’s most influential and infamous media tycoon over the past few years. Bollore owns three television channels, a radio station, and two magazines. He is known to be an interventionist boss, who occasionally censors programs that impact his business interests.

Bollore has exerted control over the media agenda extremely skillfully. His outlets, and primarily CNews, France’s second-most-watched news channel, have become a stepping stone for Zemmour, propelling the far-right pundit straight into the limelight. In the months leading up to the election, the media covered as much as “created” Zemmour as a candidate – on an influential weekly talk show, he received twice as much airtime as the president and almost four times as much as everyone else taken together.

At the same time, Macron has not been without friendly coverage either. Besides his unlikely ally Kretinsky, the president’s supporters include Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man and owner of Les Echos, a leading business newspaper, and Le Parisien, one of the most popular dailies. In the long run, Macron may also benefit from a planned merger between the country’s top broadcasters TF1 and M6, which could create an “opposite pole” to Bollore’s media empire.

In fact, over the past several years, French media have become increasingly concentrated, and Macron’s probusiness government has not done much to oppose that. The level of concentration and the potential for increasing sway in politics have grown so significantly that in 2021, the Senate decided to launch an investigation, with public hearings featuring media owners earlier this year. The hearings, however, took place in an exceedingly jovial atmosphere and the investigation has yet to have any tangible impact.

For now, France’s media remain diverse just as its politics remain diverse, featuring a plurality of voices and opinions. But buying influence – in addition to buying something potentially profitable – has become part and parcel of businesspeople’s calculations. And on a market that is less and less profitable, such considerations have the potential to play an increasingly destructive role.

Distrust and disinformation

Ownership is more and more intimately linked with trust; readers have become conscious and skeptical of owners’ intents behind an acquisition. But societal trust is also being undermined by unscrupulous political actors, who often thrive on the presence of dis- mis- and malinformation. The marketplace of ideas – the notion that the free flow of information will inherently allow for the truth to prevail – no longer holds in an environment of too much information. In fact, more information has lately led to more confusion, more division, and less trust.

Political actors have certainly shaped French public opinion towards the press and democracy in a negative way. Zemmour, unlike former US president and media personality Donald Trump, did not win; he did not even make it into the second round. But his messaging may have helped to normalize bigoted, hateful, and racist sentiment, potentially making a lasting impact on public discourse. Zemmour voters overwhelmingly voted for Le Pen and contributed to a further entrenching of the far right, which has been steadily gaining support since the early 2000s. In a way, Kretinsky’s intervention in favor of Macron may have aided Le Pen, too: a day after the news came out, the National Rally’s leader thanked Marianne’s journalists for “revealing the influence of money on the editorial choices of the media.”

Disinformation, often originating with extremist or conspiracy groups, also polluted France’s information environment before the vote. False claims had been widely shared about voting machines rigged in favor of Macron and Yellow Vest supporters barred from voting, while doctored images, seemingly from the BBC, showed Macron supporting mass immigration. The most absurd story, receiving hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, claimed that French first lady Brigitte Macron was in fact her own brother.  

Still, the extent of fake news hardly compares to Hungary, where the main purveyor of disinformation has long been the government and outlets and social media influencers affiliated with it. “Blaming” the opposition for Putin’s aggression was just the tip of the iceberg – over the past decade, Hungary’s progovernment media have accused critics of serving foreign interests, ranging from “Brussels” to Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. Soon after the war broke out, government-allied outlets and influencers broadcast Kremlin-friendly propaganda, spending massive amounts of ad money on Facebook and accusing the United States of being behind the conflict, while occasionally veering into revanchist messaging.

Too much information causes uncertainty and is difficult to navigate. That is what Orbán realized early on. He has built up a narrative framework in Hungary that may be ideologically flexible, but nevertheless offers a compact, comprehensive worldview for his right-wing electorate. This approach is somewhat different from what has happened in Russia, where the information environment has been littered with propaganda, lies, and fake news, but so much so that it has generated further uncertainty and – as a boon for the regime – kept people politically passive.

In France, in the meantime, it has been hard to judge the actual impact of fake news and disinformation. According to an April study, the distribution of false claims about potential voter fraud did not influence broader views on democracy but did generate an impact among voters on the extremes of the political spectrum. It also seemed to lay the groundwork for increased skepticism and distrust in institutions.

Irrespective of whether people believed the lies and distorted facts, however, disinformation’s most worrisome consequence is already present on the French media market. Only 30 percent expressed trust in the news in 2021 in France, half as many as in the Netherlands and the lowest percentage among democracies, except for the US.

Reservoirs of resilience

Despite these negative trends, there are significant reservoirs of resilience that can help to carry France and other democracies through this difficult period.

First and foremost, the amount of accessible quality reporting, as well as initiatives that work in the public interest, serve as important guardrails for democracy. Watchdog journalism in particular – which promotes transparency and accountability – is alive and well in France. The investigative portal StreetPress and the regional paper Ouest-France, for example, have covered the far-right in detail, with the latter reporting on the activities of an extremist group in Angers that was eventually dissolved by the government.

Certainly, not all investigative articles result in police action, nor should we expect them to do so. But they contribute to a vigorous public debate and, in France’s case, have prevented the far right from setting the agenda. While there are tenacious outlets doing watchdog reporting in Hungary too, their impact, given the lack of a genuine public debate, could never be comparable to democracies.

Second, even though the number of French readers willing to pay for the news is still low, recent years have seen record increases in digital subscriptions. In fact, growth has been so strong at Le Monde that the paper announced its plans to reach 1 million subscribers by the end of next year, possibly becoming the first non-English language paper in Europe to do so. Outlets are also innovating, with regional and local papers, which are among the most trusted institutions, often taking the lead and experimenting with hyperlocal coverage and new business models.

At the same time, it is clear that women, people of color, Muslims, and people from certain sociodemographic backgrounds remain underrepresented in French media, even if there is a growing awareness of such. Diversity and inclusion at the workplace and in the media are topics fraught with tension, especially as the collection of personal data based on race, ethnicity, or religion is banned in the country. This has already led to blind spots. According to a 2019 study, French media showed signs of polarization similar to the US, though not along clear political lines but between traditional “elite” media and new, online “anti-elite” outlets. The latter, however, covered the Yellow Vest protests in a more responsive and participatory manner.

Epilogue

Some may argue that the differences between France and Hungary are so deep that it makes little sense to compare the two. But there was a third election taking place in Europe in April 2022.

Citizens cast their votes on the same day in France as in Slovenia, a country that has dropped precipitously on media freedom and democracy indices due to prime minister Janez Janša’s hostile attitude to the press.

Janša, unlike Orbán, failed at the ballot box, however, which may have had to do with the extent of coverage his antidemocratic actions had received. Media attention and reporting ahead of the elections focused voters’ attention and helped newcomer Robert Golob, whose victory and high vote share was partly the result of protest and tactical voting. While Janša has gone all-out in his attacks on journalists and has undermined the independence of public service outlets, he has not been able to capture the media – despite receiving significant help and investment from Hungary.

The April elections in Europe have shown that the media, as long as it is free, still serves as an important bulwark for democracy. But they have also demonstrated that there are a number of disturbing developments underway, and that time and attention are of the essence for democracy’s advocates if they want to stop a Hungary-style takeover of the press.