AFP ignores scoops, say French papers


Agence France Presse (AFP), one of the world’s top news agencies, was accused in a Libération editorial published on 7 August of ignoring or downplaying some of the newspaper’s scoops. Under the title ‘L’agence France-frousse’ (or Agence France-fright), the daily’s Director, Laurent Joffrin, writes that the agency was “strangely shy” following three revelations in recent months. The acerbic editorial goes on to call AFP an “auxiliary of powers.”


The accusations refer to three stories: Sarkozy’s private comments about Spanish PM José Luis Zapatero, the heavy losses of a subsidiary of French bank Société Générale and the size of bonuses handed out by another French bank, BNP Paribas, to its traders in July. “In these three cases, the Agency started by ignoring our newspaper’s information, then it mentioned them in the conditional tense or drowned them in official denials”, claims Joffrin.

AFP replied in a statement: “AFP has never been scared of the authorities, whatever or wherever they may be. The thousands of journalists at AFP are not chicken,” it added, calling the editorial “insulting”. “The AFP has to verify information … It’s a basic rule for every news agency, an obligation in these days of hyper-communication,” says AFP Director of Information, Philippe Massonnet.

A key source for the media
The row highlights the element of subjectivity in the choice and handling of information by the media, even if it is one of the major news agencies, renowned for accuracy of its information and breadth of its coverage (5,000 text stories in six languages every day, according to the AFP website).

The incident also highlights the importance of wire services in general and of the AFP in France in particular. As Laurent Joffrin writes in his editorial, “The AFP benefits, rightly so, from great credibility from other media. They often wait for it to take up a piece of information before adopting it themselves.”

Not an isolated case
The grudges of Libération are not isolated, reveals a report by news website Rue89. Following Joffrin’s article, Rue89 called several “major scoop providers” in France to ask them about their relations with AFP. Satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaîné, the weekly Marianne and Internet pure player Mediapart all had negative things to say about the wire service.

“On certain delicate subjects, they stay out of it, considering that it’s too polemical, that it’s not an agency’s business”, says Mediapart editor and former Le Monde journalist François Bonnet. “But this isn’t new – he adds –, when I worked for Le Monde, we already had rows with them.”
Le Canard Enchaîné‘s Hervé Liffran claims that AFP sometimes ignores stories when there is no official reaction to them. “But,” he says, “when we publish massive scoops, the AFP always talks about it”.

The Libération affair
AFP says that Libération was wrong about the way they handled the Zapatero scoop, a view confirmed by Rue89. For its part, AFP’s trade union SNJ-CGT claims that two of Joffrin’s three allegations were false, in a statement issued on 10 August.

However, SNJ-CGT admits one case “clearly gives the impression that we tried to protect BNP Paribas”. It thanks Joffrin for “shaking the coconut tree”, a French expression which loosely translates as “getting rid of dead wood” or perhaps more accurately in this case, “stirring up the hornet’s nest”.

Article 1 of the AFP statutes, agreed in 1957, says that the AFP is “an autonomous civil entity functioning under commercial rules”. But several unions at AFP are worried that the agency’s statutes may soon be changed.

A petition has been launched against what the union feels is “an increasing desire, inside and outside the agency, to put an end to the AFP’s special statutes”.