Public media in France has been under critique as an industry that is losing sight of one of its core missions: democratising access to culture.

Public service media in France has the focus of recent discussions among media professionals, academics, and the Government. Describing it as one of “those monuments that cannot be touched without causing strong reactions”, an economy Professor, Olivier Babeau, analysed its current role in the country.

In an article in LeMonde, Babeau argued that public media in France needs “a thorough review”. According to him, public media in France is currently mirroring the content of private channels. Divided between the need to increase audiences and offering culturally diverse content, French public broadcasting channels have often focused too much on the first, to the detriment of the second. For this reason, he argues, it is almost pointless to entrust public media with the same functions that private companies can fulfill.

The principle is that public media should not offer mere entertainment or a replica of other programmes. “No one needs the State to entertain themselves,” he writes, and the costs to maintain it for doing just so are high. However, the existence of public media can be justified by the need for cultural pluralism. It is precisely around this need that public broadcasting must be “radically rebuilt”.

Babeau indeed proposes a radical shift for public broadcasting which he claims should re-focus on the production and dissemination of cultural content, therefore excluding all the programmes that can be supported by the market. Plus, the audience level should not be a binding target or the main focus for the companies operating in this sector.

The challenge is, among others, to add value and diversity in a digital world that is becoming more diverse and fragmented, a situation that is very difficult for the ‘classic’ public media systems. However, if public media concentrates its resources on content that does not have an equivalent in the private channels, it will be possible to give public media a strong identity that will be recognised worldwide and that “will allow French culture to shine more than ever”.

Babeau argues that public broadcasting must be reorganised around a much lighter structure, completely independent of politics and ideologies. Strict procedures should be put in place to avoid favoritism or clientelism, without hiding behind the need for more economic resources.

However, the president of Radio France, Mathieu Gallet, did not call for reform. According to him, to adapt and improve what public service media is offering there is no need for “expensive and risky structural reforms” but for more cooperation among experts. “We only need to bring the experience and commitment of teams from all public broadcasters on joint projects,” he said.

Gallet strongly stood in defence of public service media, especially against right-wing political ideas to privatise or cancel some of the channels and stations of French public broadcasters, which some have deemed as “not very useful”. The debate continued, also because of recent events such as the possible interruption of the public TV channel franceinfo, due to malfunctions and clashes between its directors and trade unions.

Yet instead of new reforms, Gallet has called for strengthening the service that already exists. There is, in fact, the need to give public service media “a new impetus, because it is a barrier against extremist discourse”.

Perhaps what is ultimately needed is a debate on the matter. A “real debate”, said Babeu, which should not solely include professionals and politicians who might be too concerned to control or preserve the current status quo of public service media in the country, but those who want to change and improve public service media for the better.

Header image: France Télévisions’ building in Paris. Credits: Omarukai/Creative Commons