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First Time, Last Time; All Very Predictable

Public broadcasters are, as seen in many settings, inextricably intertwined with national authorities. Naturally, politicians with their own futures uncertain find purpose in change. And changes are most visible at public broadcasters. But the gamesmanship rarely achieves more than distraction.

red blue moonIn a move without precedence, French media regulator CSA (Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel) has dismissed public broadcaster Radio France president Mathieu Gallet. Radio France employees expressed “shock” though little surprise after M. Gallet was found guilty of malfeasance during his prior tenure as chief executive at the National Audiovisual Institute (INA). Others point to political gamesmanship by Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen, suggesting the CSA’s independence is tainted.

Officially, the CSA has withdrawn M. Gallet’s mandate, effective March 1st. “The Council is particularly sensitive to issues of ethics, prevention of conflicts of interests and morality of public life,” said the CSA statement, quoted by Le Monde (February 1). He was dismissed to maintain “a relationship of trust between the public authorities and the public company that is Radio France.”

M. Gallet is appealing the lower court conviction, rendered in mid-January, which ordered a one-year suspended jail sentence and a €20,000 fine for “favoritism” in contracting outside consultants. Until that appeal is heard he is, under French law, presumed innocent.

"This is a decision that we deeply regret,” said M. Gallet’s attorneys in a statement, quoted by AFP (January 31). “The pressure of the state was stronger than the presumption of innocence.” The CSA’s decision can only be appealed to the Conseil d’État, the French administrative supreme court. The attorneys have not indicated whether or not they will pursue that process.

“Everyone here was expecting this possibility,” said an unnamed France Inter employee, quoted by Le Monde (January 31). “It's still a shock. A horrible uncertainty on the future.” Another, also unnamed, Radio France employee said: “Change, instability; it is the public broadcasting way.”

M. Gallet was named president of Radio France in 2014, succeeding Jean-Luc Hees. At the time Radio France channels, according to aggregate Médiamétrie audience estimates, languished under 22% audience share, a five year low-point. He came in, at age 37, with an ambitious plan to revitalize Radio France. The most recent Médiamétrie national radio audience estimates (November-December 2017) show Radio France channels, altogether, delivering better than 26% audience share, an historic high-point. Under M. Gallet Radio France zipped into the digital radio world.

A plan proposed by Culture Minister Nyssen will, if approved, rejoin Radio France and France Télévisions into a unified public broadcaster. Part of the justification is cost savings, the rest fighting Netflix. Last November M. Gallet was widely assumed the favored candidate to lead a new, larger public broadcaster. He had youth, success and a strong relationship to French president Emmanuel Macron in his favor.

Culture Ministers seem not to be fans, however. Less than a year into M. Gallet’s term at Radio France he clashed with Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin as Radio France employees undertook one of their periodic strikes and budgets seemed out of control. She was replaced a year later, one of those periodic changes at the Culture Ministry. “French (public broadcasting) is the real world Game of Thrones… unpredictable and unforgiving,” noted (March 25, 2015), at the time.

A new president for Radio France will be nominated by the CSA - selected, actually - within the next six months. It will likely be the last time the French regulator will choose chief executives for the public broadcaster as an expected law change by the end of the year will place that responsibility on the Radio France board of directors.

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