London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Due to launch this upcoming December, France 24 is a round-the-clock global satellite news channel that seeks to present “a different view and a diverse and secular vision”. Gerard Saint-Paul, the managing director of the network was already working for France 24 since last April as the managing news editor supervising over the network’s journalists. Saint-Paul confirms that France 24 will not be “France’s voice to the world”, its aim is to present authentic press coverage that will primarily be based on field coverage. With only one office of operations based in Beirut, the network nonetheless has big plans for expansion and development within the next few months.
Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper conducted a phone interview with veteran French journalist and the managing director of France 24 Gerard Saint-Paul:
Q: What can the International French network offer as new at a time when competition is intense with many western and Arab channels competing in the field?
A: It’s a well-known fact that professional competition in the field is extensive and there are many channels with long years of experience which we greatly respect, such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. However, we aim at presenting a new vision that will definitely not be the voice of France, instead our aim is to present a French, or rather, a Franco-European outlook on events. It’s a new lens through which to observe the world. This does not mean that we reserve criticism for the performance of associate channels, but it reflects the fact that the station will not look through the same ‘lens’ that CNN or Al Jazeera use. We will not convey the image of a one-dimensional, or two-dimensional world that is dominated by one force – or rather conflicted by one force against another. This doesn’t mean that I am opposed to the United States; in fact I spent seven years working there as a correspondent for the privately owned French television (TF-1) in Washington DC and New York. What I want to say is that we seek to convey an image of the world that is compelling, multi-dimensional and diversified.
This means that our image will be more panoramic as compared to other channels – but that doesn’t mean that the other channels are bad at all. Let me give you an example to better illustrate: Concerning coverage in Iraq, which constitutes a cornerstone in media coverage, I find that CNN conveys an American-directed message to a large extent, and more precisely one that is in favor of President George Bush. What we will offer is a wider vision that is different from what others present, and this of course, will be affected by the historical and emotional relationship between France and Lebanon, as well as the closeness of the relations between France and the Arab world. This is in terms of the content that the channel will offer. Concerning the structure, however, I have nothing to say as the network program is still confidential, but I can assure you that there will be many surprises, some of which will be very pleasant.
Q: What about the outline for this network, which is also supposed to reflect the difference that you refer to in the content?
A: I can say that we will broadcast a news bulletin every hour, on the hour, which will be continuously updated with a rerun of the main headlines between every news bulletin. The broadcast will be in French and English simultaneously and around the clock without cease starting with our first upcoming broadcast next December. The special quality to this coverage is that it will be bilingual, both French and English, yet it will retain the same discourse which will not vary under any circumstances, regardless of the geographical areas featured, or in accordance with the language of broadcast. Quite soon [next July], we will begin broadcasting in the Arabic language for four hours as a start, and this broadcast will be later developed, in addition to being followed by a Spanish broadcast also at a later stage. However, I do want to stress that our internet website [http://www.france24.fr/ ], which will be launched with the beginning of the broadcast will have a complete Arabic language version, in addition to the French and English languages. In between news bulletins, we will present other issues such as the art of French lifestyles, not neglecting one of our missions which is to propagate the values of the French culture, as well as a daily cultural bulletin, in addition to news related to the environment, health, economy and the review of newspapers. I really must stop talking now, so I don’t reveal the details of the network’s programs!
Q: How will you cover the events in the hot spots, Iraq in particular? Will you take into consideration France’s policy toward these events? Would you risk dispatching your correspondents to dangerous areas? And if so, what will distinguish this coverage?
A: We will offer a different and objective outlook, which means that we must be present in locations to transfer the news from there. Thus, it is absolutely essential to have correspondents in on location, as it would enable us to form a special identity. We will not risk sending correspondents to dangerous areas lest they be subjected to kidnapping, also there is no need for to send reporters who would have to remain imprisoned in hotel rooms for fear of venturing out into the streets. Special protection in Iraq now, for example, requires enormous sums of money which only major American institutions are able to afford. We have already found a solution to this problem by collaborating with French networks already present in these hot spots, and so this way we can have mutually beneficial contributions from these reporters. As for being autonomous from the French stance towards events worldwide, we have no problems in that regard. In France, we were, and always will be against the war. I do not speak of the French government because I do not represent it; I speak of the French people. We will never be a mirror that reflects the French government’s policy, but rather we seek to reflect authentic journalism that comes from fieldwork. We will not adopt a nationalistic French tone, again, our aim is to present press coverage that is actually based on fieldwork. We also issued a code of ethics for our work of which the first lines reads: “We guarantee to uphold full independence against all authorities, with all their different kinds, to ourselves and to our correspondents.” We adopt a diverse outlook, but it is predominantly a secular one. We are now witnessing a wave of extremism that is sweeping the world, and I do not refer to Islamic extremism alone but to all its other forms. We will thus distance ourselves from all parties, so that our message can be humane in recounting events, condemning injustice while offering a mouthpiece to everyone and all players in the field.
Q: What about the nationalities of the employees working in the station? Did you consider diversifying nationalities when selecting journalists and employees to work in this new institution? And what about the representation of women in this new network?
A: We have considered this a primary concern, the different geographic roots of the channel’s staff. I do not refer to ethnic roots because I do not like this word. Also, I do not refer to a quota because this type of categorization classifies people into quantities. This geographical diversity will be visible onscreen and will amount to approximately 25 percent at the beginning, with plans to increase in later developments. As for the representation of women, they currently represent 65 percent of the staff at the network. I sometimes say to my aides, let’s recruit some men so the network doesn’t become exclusive to women only!
Q: Will the new network have representative offices in the world, and if so, where?
A: We will not operate in big offices like the rest of the news stations. We will mostly benefit from the logistical and press support of our contributors [the commercial TF-1 channel and the state-funded company France Televisions], besides that, we will also have a network of about 20 correspondents who will chiefly be working for us, in addition to their contributions to other media outlets. This chain of correspondents will soon increase to become 30 very soon. The network will have a single office with a stable team, though not large in number, in the Beirut. Why the Lebanese capital? Because it is a city that is very close to us and we have a deep affection for it. Also, it is geographically located in the center of the Arab world so it facilitates movement to various countries in the region – and it is always at the heart of events. We also have some reporters in areas that are of lesser importance in terms of events, such as China and Japan, among others.
In its first stage, the channel will broadcast to greater Europe and the African continent including the Arab Maghrib, as well as countries in the Middle- and Near- East. Later developments will endeavor to cover critical spots on the US east coast; in New York and Washington DC, not to compete with our fellow Americans, but to convey our new vision. And also Asia and South America… Inshallah [says it in Arabic].
Q: What is the size of the budget allocated to the new network?
A: The initial budget of the network is 80 million euros, but we will also acquire the proceeds of international, or at least regional, advertisements. We will definitely not include advertisements from the local French market so as not to compete with our fellow French networks.
Bio in Brief: Gerard Saint-Paul graduated from the Centre de Formation et de Perfectionnement des Journalistes in 1969. He worked the channel Europe 1 as a correspondent and moved on to work with the commercial TF-1 French channel, as well as working seven years in the United States with the channel as both correspondent and other professions. Between 1987 and 1992, he worked as a correspondent in Germany before being appointed as editor-in-chief of ATRE channel where he remained in post until 2005. Saint-Paul was appointed as the managing director of the French news channel France 24 last August, which will be launched next December.