It’s not every day that journalists score a major coup for editorial independence.
But that is exactly what has happened at Le Monde, France’s paper of record.
It’s a complicated story with more twists and turns than a detective novel and an unusual one at that.
Jon Allsop takes us through this gripping drama filled with heros and villains in a story in the Columbia Journalism Review. It leaves one gasping for air over the sheer tenacity of journalists fighting over principles at a time when so many of their jobs are at stake and wondering that this could even happen at a time when traditional media giants are toppling, one by one.
In October 2018, staff and readers, representatives of whom own 25 percent of its parent company, lashed out after one of Le Monde’s shareholders furtively sold a chunk of his stake to a controversial tycoon from the Czech Republic. The paper’s editorial independence, staff said, was under threat, reports Allsop.
Recently, with tensions running high, hundreds of Le Monde journalists took an extraordinary step, demanding—in a column published by the paper—that their owners accede to their demands, or else face the consequences.
A little history here.
Journalists held a controlling stake in the paper from its founding in 1944 – a rarity in the newspaper world – until 2010 when faced with dire financial straits, they ceded control.
A trio of businessmen bought in: Xavier Niel, the founder of French telecoms company Free; Matthieu Pigasse, an investment banker; and Pierre Bergé, the former business partner of Yves Saint Laurent. The new shareholders sat in a delicate equilibrium, with none of them holding a majority of the parent company. To guarantee Le Monde’s editorial independence, a group representing journalists, staff, and readers retained a quarter-ownership stake, and a say in decisions going forward.
When Bergé died, in 2017, Niel and Pigasse agreed to split his shares. The same year, the paper turned a net profit for the first time since the takeover. The arrangement (mostly) seemed to be working well.
Then, about a year ago, the potboiler took a new turn. Enter from stage left a new character: the Czech energy and media magnate Daniel Křetínský who had been on a media shopping spree in France.
Křetínský’s involvement roiled the newsroom—when staff finally found out about it. Journalists at Le Monde learned of his interest not through official channels, but via a tip-off from Blaise Gauquelin, a reporter at the paper whose beat includes the Czech Republic.
The lack of proper communication rankled; staffers felt it violated the terms under which they’d ceded financial control in 2010. During a meeting last October, Le Monde’s owners promised a deal: they would sign an agreement effectively allowing journalist and reader representatives—who feared that Křetínský would not stop at a minority of Pigasse’s stake—to veto new controlling shareholders. The deal was supposed to be finalized within weeks. It was not.
In the months that followed, tensions grew—both inside the newsroom and, reportedly, between Pigasse’s camp and Niel’s, as Pigasse eyed further shares. In early September, the plot thickened. Representatives of journalists and readers demanded Niel, Pigasse, and Křetínský OK an agreement within two weeks—for real, this time—or else face possible legal action. On September 10, more than 460 journalists signed the unprecedented open letter. Three days later, more than 500 public figures—including Edward Snowden, Salman Rushdie, and the pop star Christine and the Queens—signed a letter of their own backing staff’s demands for independence.
Late last month, Le Monde’s journalists finally got what they wanted: Pigasse and Niel signed the veto agreement. Under its terms, if a shareholder wants to sell a majority of their stake to a given individual, journalist and reader representatives will be entitled to block that person from buying for six months; in that time, they’ll have the opportunity to find an alternative buyer.
In an editorial, Jérôme Fenoglio, the paper’s director, praised the exceptional mobilization that secured the deal. “Between those who read and those who write, this show of force reflects a shared responsibility: the defense of a common good.”
As he pointed out, this protection of editorial protection is unprecedented in a global media landscape dominated by private interests.