Critique & critic
Final year Masters project
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While the debate rises in intensity between pro Palestinian, pro Israelian, or more simply between neophytes caught into the storm, numerous are the reproaches held against French media. Accused of partiality, of voicing only one of the two camps, or of carrying propaganda, many exposed themselves to criticism. However studies factually establishing such bias remain rare.
If the Israelo-Palestinian conflict is of interest for so many readers in France, it is because both Jewish and Muslim communities have historical roots in the country. Colonies having facilitated Muslim population transfers from Maghreb to the Hexagon, Islam nowadays federates around 7.5% of the population. The Jewish community, for its part, is the first of Europe. The numeric importance is sufficient to extend problems of one or the other religion to the ensemble of the French citizens. Press reflecting the interest of its readers, it is not unusual to see topics with Jewish or Muslim connotations dominate headlines. If facts are not called into question, media’s equity is at stake. Regularly accused of partiality, press runs the risk to step by step loose credibility.
Alexis Franco, political journalist at Atlantico, the French online media outlet, underlines that the press may be partial, especially while covering the Israel-Palestine debate. “The Israel-Palestine topic is of great interest in France, even if thousands of topics may be more closely related to the French actuality. Far from being neutral, the French press globally stands for Palestine. Indeed, there are still pro Israeli media, however in general, Palestine related articles stay more positive than the ones covering Israel. It has to be linked with the fantasy of the insurgents against the oppressor. France has a strong history with Judaism, Islam, but also with the revolution! Diverse journalistic technics are in use to subtly influence the readership. For instance when counting the casualties of the Operation Protective Edge, journalists insisted on the fact that most Palestinian victims were civilians, detailing that they were women and children. It calls to the audience’s feelings.”
Scissions and controversies
Study the press objectivity is not that easy. In the case of the Islam/Judaism division, the first step was to define two similar media coverage, or at least comparable ones, in order to quantify them. Published articles may express opinion where statistics claim a certain neutrality.
In that optic of contrast, news items cannot be a reliable source of information. The horror attached to it is way too important. Far from underlining the favour of the media, it dives its readers into general indignation, as it has been the case for the murder of Ilan Halimi and Le Gand des Barbares. To understand the subtle implication of the press, a controversy must appear. Each side expresses a view and the observer, neutral, collect the number of articles published.
It is necessary to precise that finding two polemics with a similar importance is an illusion. Media are committed to an agenda and following its fluctuations, a topic gains or loses importance. The case of the girl who lost her dog gets a covert during summer while in September it would have only beneficiated of a column in page 8. It explains why only the core topic can be analysed, as well as the context.
The well-known caricatures of the Prophet (2006) as well as an article written by Siné, a French caricaturist (2008) beneficiate of similar circumstances. In the caricatures file, Charlie-Hebdo created the polemic by publishing drawings initially issued from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The edition cover showed Mahomet, his head in his hands, saying: “It is hard to be loved by dumbs”. Following worldwide protests, many French politicians stated on the topic. The debate, fed by interposed presses, tended to define the publication as satirical or islamophobic.
Two years after the caricatures, Charlie-Hebdo published a paragraph written by the caricaturist Siné, mentioning the possible conversion to Judaism of Jean Sarkozy, son of ex president Nicolas Sarkozy, associating the facts with pushiness.
“Jean Sarkozy, worthy son of his father and already UMP general advisor, got out of his trial for the offence of leaving an accident with his scooter almost with applause. The prosecutor even asked for his innocence. You have to notice that the complainant is an Arab! It is not over: Jean just declared willing to convert to Judaism before marrying his fiancée, who is Jewish, and heiress of the Darty founders. He will go far in life the little one!”
The author was dismissed following complaints against the article. The media debate turned this time around defining the publication as satirical or anti-Semitic.
Issued by the same magazine, Charlie-Hebdo, and published within 2 years difference, both controversies have evolved in a similar context. Beyond, each one deals with a fundamental notion of the French republic: does religious offence call upon censorship of the press?
To that question, globally the 3 newspapers answer’s was no. From the left, the right or the centre, Le Monde, Le Figaro and L’Express advocated for freedom of expression. Moreover they defended the right to satire against blaspheme. Their position seems a bit more contrasted when coming to the article of Siné than in the case of the caricatures. With 16% of articles condemning the publication of the caricatures, against 42% prohibiting Siné’s article, media are less definitive in backing up the said anti-Semitic publication, than the said islamophobic one. History could explain that sensitivity when it is about anti-Semitism.
Alexis Franco brings together the media treatment of Jewish and Muslim polemics and the press coverage of the Operation Protective Edge. “Since a long time, standing for one or the other side of the Israel-Palestine debate is linked to the media outlet’s political orientation. In general, left wing media tend to support Palestine, whereas right wing media will back up Israel. It is possible that the division persists beyond the Israel-Palestine topic, even if it is never characterised as a Muslim or Jewish matter. Day to day press coverage gives a huge content to analyse and studies reviewing such literature are rare. It is therefore almost impossible to precisely determine the general orientation of the French press towards Muslim and Jewish communities. When religious debates are brought in the public’s eye, people defending one side often state that the other side had a privileged attention from the media, but it is really possible to prove it? ”
Editorial obligations and press neutrality
Apart from their orientation condemning or not the publication, the other factor taken in account to quantify the reaction of media towards Muslim and Jewish polemics lies in the number of published articles. Where the caricatures beneficiated from an international coverage, the Siné article was limited to a national scope. It is therefore not fair to consider statistics as furnished. They must be interpreted in the light of the editorial sight of each media, Le Monde, Le Figaro and L’Express.
Le Monde is, of the three publications, the one that covered the most the caricatures, and from far. Historically known for its extensive treatment of international topics, maybe its focus can be explained by the addition of the interest of its readership to the requirements of its editorial line.
On the other hand, of the three newspapers Le Figaro granted the weakest coverage of the caricatures, to treat more extensively the Siné polemic. Here again, it is possible that Le Figaro has privileged a topic in agreement with its editorial line, turned to national matters.
With an approach lightly favouring the caricatures, L’Express showed the more balanced approach.
“It is important not to forget that each media outlet is bound to its editorial line. At Atlantico, when we treat sensitive topics such as religions or immigration, on 3000 contributors, we make a drastic selection to interview only the ones who match with our editorial line. As journalists, we are giving the information, a true one, however we still follow our own editorial engagements. Most of the articles used to create the Jewish/Muslim Polemic infographic defending one side or the other are interviews or articles written by contributors, ex: tribune of X by Le Monde. There is no censorship or alteration of what people personally defend, if not offending, however the selection is still there. It is made even before the redaction of the article, when choosing who will be quoted.”
Regarding to the media weight as well as the directional line of each edition, there is no huge partiality displayed towards Muslim or Jewish polemics. However, comparing the number of articles published for each controversy to the total of Jewish and Muslim populations lead to new premises.
The French population counts 7.5% of Muslims against 0.5 of Jews. Starting with the assumption that media voice the preoccupations of their readership, it appears legitimate to think that the issues of a majority should be more covered than the ones of a minority. A similar reasoning would explain why the French press show a minimal interest towards Sikh and Buddhist communities, both numerically underrepresented in France. Therefore, in proportion to Jewish and Muslim populations, the media attention should be intensified on the latter. It seems true at first sight. After analysis, the caricatures have been covered 38% more than the Siné article.
Nevertheless, a global analysis reveals that compared with the numeric importance of each community, the Siné article beneficiated of a coverage ten times higher than the caricatures. Once again it is necessary to underline that media coverage are following the news flow, not the size of concerned populations. However the difference remains sensible enough to be noticed. Different hypothesis can be considered. The fact that the son of a famous French politician is at the heart of the polemic must have aroused the press interest. Beyond, would the polemic be so important if the Siné article had link Islam to a form of pushiness?
Justice, a reflection of media
Where the press reports a subtle difference of treatment between the two polemics, the French justice rendered an unequivocal verdict: freedom of speech must prevail on religious sensitivity. More global in the case of the caricatures, the judgement invokes the legitimacy of the satirical right over religious susceptibility. In the case of the Siné article, it is on the nature of the publication, satirical, that the judgement relies to discharge the cartoonist.
To summarize, the caricatures call upon a global decision; there is in France a right to satire against religions. It is not the same reason invoked in the Siné file, which implicates the nature of the publication and not a republican right to the critic. A difference that is to be find in the coverage of the three media, Le Monde, Le Figaro and L’Express. The caricature file was immediately presented in terms of defence of the freedom of expression, a notion used with more subtlety in the Siné case.
“French media will always defend the freedom of expression. Historically corrupted at their birth, and then violently repressed during the monarchy as well as under Napoleon, nowadays the freedom of speech is the basis of the republican spirit, indivisible of the Vth Republic. It is a notion that will always bring media together, whatever the topic may be. Beyond Muslim and Jewish divisions, the French press remained fundamentally attached to that notion. Moreover, mainstream French media such as Le Figaro and Le Monde receive subsidies from the government and will therefore never publish offensive statements that could endanger their relation with their investors as well as with their audience.”
Beyond the evocated hypothesis, conclusions to draw from these comparisons are not general statements. Extend the reasoning further than these two polemics would give more influence to the press than it really has. However it is not rare to see media incriminated in their whole, accused to favour one community over the other. The more virulent detractors unleash when the debate israelo-palestinian is at its peak. It is forgetting that each publication depends on its announcers as well as on its readership, while staying close to an editorial line established a long time ago.
I read 119 press articles and classified them, you can download the data here
Many thanks to The Noun Project for the images!