What is French President Macron planning to do with public broadcasting?

fact finder

As of: 06/13/2022 3:02 p.m

In France, the license fee is to be abolished. Opponents of the public service broadcasters see this as confirmation of their course. At the same time, broadcasting threatens to become more dependent on politics.

By Pascal Siggelkow and Wulf Rohweddereditorial team ARD fact finder

It is news that should please critics of public broadcasting in this country in particular: “Macron fulfills its first election promise and abolishes broadcasting fees” writes “Focus Online”, and other media also report on it. The message was well received by some AfD politicians in particular: “Bravo!” is written on a tile shared by AfD member Sascha Siemens on Twitter, and further: “When will we finally be there?”

The broadcasting contribution in Germany has been an important concern for the AfD for years, and the party wants to abolish it as soon as possible. The news that the newly re-elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron, is abolishing the fee in his country comes at just the right time. But what exactly is changing?

138 euros broadcasting fee in the year

Public service broadcasting in France – the television channels of France Télévisions and the radio programs of Radio France – is currently financed by the broadcasting contribution, which is payable with the so-called “Taxe Habitation”. Every household with devices that enable the reception of television programs is obliged to pay 138 euros per year. In total, the public broadcasters earn more than three billion euros a year.

It is precisely that housing tax – which is by no means paid by all households – is to be abolished in 2023, which makes it necessary to reorganize broadcasting financing. Before the presidential election, Macron had repeatedly announced that he wanted to reform public broadcasting and turn it into “a kind of French BBC”. For example, consideration was given to merging the two groups France Télévisions and Radio France and massively expanding the digital presence of the media channels.

Macron also promised to abolish the broadcasting fee before his re-election in April. This should increase people’s purchasing power. And he was not alone in this in the election campaign. Above all, the candidates from the political right wanted to significantly reduce public service broadcasting and even privatize it in some cases. They also promised to abolish the post. So this proposal is not new.

Three and a half weeks before the presidential election, incumbent Macron presented his election program.

tax money instead broadcasting fee

At the end of May, the French government finally announced that it wanted to abolish the license fee “permanently from this year”. However, this does not automatically mean the end of public service broadcasting. The government explicitly emphasized this. The television and radio stations should not be privatized, it said. The financing of public service broadcasting should also be ensured in the future – however, in future it could be financed via a budget in the state budget. In this way, citizens would continue to co-finance broadcasting with their taxes, even if only indirectly.

This is exactly what is causing criticism in France. This would entail the risk that public service broadcasting would become dependent on politics. “When the state has a hand on the budget for the programs, it’s an attempt by politicians to influence, to say these programs are good and these aren’t,” said Matthieu Darriet of the French journalists’ union SNJ ARD Studio Paris. “Politicians can then put financial pressure on public service broadcasters and thus influence them. That’s the danger.”

Despite the wafer-thin lead, Macron hardly has to fear for the majority, analyzes Julia Borutta.

A model for Germany?

Frank Lobigs, Professor of Journalism with a focus on “Economic Foundations of Journalism” at the Technical University of Dortmund, also sees this danger: “If this decision is given to the government or the parliamentary majority due to tax financing, the independence of the broadcasters will be in great danger ” he told him ARD fact finder. “The political majority then has a powerful means of exerting pressure to influence broadcaster reporting.”

There are certainly arguments in favor of such financing: for example, a certain degree of fairness can be established. Because the contribution is currently not linked to income, all households pay the same amount. “In times of high cost inflation for private households, this is a big chunk for more and more households – and that doesn’t exactly increase enthusiasm for the levy,” says Lobigs.

President Macron’s alliance and Mélenchon’s alliance are almost level after the first round.

However, it is extremely questionable whether tax financing can be linked at all with an independent determination of income via the commission for determining the financial needs of the broadcasters. “If the majority of the Bundestag could use tax financing as a content-related control instrument, one of the cornerstones of German democracy would be shaken: the independence of media reporting by public broadcasters.”

Ultimately, the determination of the tax revenue that is to be transferred to the broadcasters would have to be taken away from Parliament and transferred to an independent body, according to Lobigs. “However, this idea clashes with the venerable principle that budgetary law is the actual ‘royal right’ of the Bundestag.”

In France, in fact, already a tax

In fact, the current broadcasting levy in France is already, in principle, a tax, as the journalist and scientist Isabelle Bourgeois points out ARD fact finder says – and it has always been used to exert political influence on broadcasting. Although there have been isolated attempts to curb this, these have largely failed. In addition, public service broadcasting in France is viewed as part of the public service – but its mandate has never been defined.

Discussions in other countries as well

Efforts are also being made in other countries to abolish the license fee and instead to finance public broadcasting with taxpayers’ money. In Great Britain, the broadcasting fee is initially to be frozen for two years, then slightly increased again and completely abolished in 2027. Norway, on the other hand, abolished the license fee in 2020 and replaced it with a tax linked to income. Public service broadcasting is also tax-financed in the neighboring Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

“The conversion of the license fee to the tax-financed model in Denmark came about in 2018 under strong pressure from the right-wing populist Dansk Folkeparti, on which the liberal-conservative government at the time was dependent,” says media economist Lobigs. At the same time, a cut in spending by a fifth was decided and much narrower content expectations were placed on Danmarks Radio.

According to the relevant Media for Democracy Monitor 2021, the independence rule of Danmarks Radio, known as the “arm’s length principle”, has come under some pressure in Denmark, but has not been overridden. “It will probably always be a question of which parties or movements form the political majority.”

Macron and his government have not yet presented a detailed plan for the future financing of public service broadcasting in France. The reform is to be tackled after the parliamentary elections.

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