Section Agence France-Presse du Syndicat national des journalistes
Agence France-Presse Branch of the French National Journalists' Union (SNJ)
D. Kochko Platform for Board (05)
Dimitri de Kochko: Our Ambition Must be on a Par with our Potential
Dimitri de Kochko
Journalist on the Paris francophone economics desk, SNJ union delegate and candidate for the post of journalists’ staff representative on the AFP board in 2005.
Agence France Presse scores editorial successes all over the world, as seen in the latest international crises such as Iraq and the Asian tsunami. Its worldwide potential is considerable. Up against the main English language based media, it has once again proved its originality and importance.
Paradoxically however, the agency finds itself staggering from crisis to crisis. It never manages to solve the key issue of its own financial viability. Far from rising to the occasion and building a true development plan, recent management teams have shown an interest in nothing more than financial expedients and self-serving machinations, of which the recent scandal over top people’s bonuses was but one example. AFP’s editorial staff have to suffer the humiliations and frustrations implied by this situation, all the more so in that their commitment to the company is strong.
To fully take advantage of the agency’s real potential, to win contracts worldwide by exploiting our originality vis à vis the competition, we first and foremost need to show a little ambition on the managerial level.
A Litany of Delays and Lost Opportunities
The list is long, and it notably includes:
Instead of releasing all our potential we find ourselves locked up in an "Aims and Means Contract" with the French state based on nothing more than an obsession with cost-cutting and penny-pinching. And needless to say the first costs to be cut are those pertaining to the company’s key source of wealth, its staff. No investment, no innovation to help us win new markets or develop products.
On the key issue of TV, for example, after having shamefully missed the boat around ten years ago, management refuses to provide the means that would allow us to keep abreast of the competition as regards news gathering, and to play a role in line with the company’s ambitions, as something more than just a sub-contractor to the future international TV channel.
The only source of funds management has been able to generate has been via the sale of our main asset, the headquarters building in Paris. And that without even using the proceeds to push forward a development plan. The cash is being used only to pay off other debts, and finance bonuses for top staff.
In coming years a lot of studies and ideas are going to be thrown about in France, as often as not in the political arena, concerning AFP’s future. An answer will have to be found to the key question, which has been around for years: What is AFP to become?
The Company’s Strengths and Weaknesses
All of which adds up to the fact that Agence France Presse is no ordinary media company.
In the past, management teams have thought they could solve our problems by handing us over to the likes of Vivendi for a fistful of dollars; it is hard to imagine where we would be today if that had been allowed to happen. Who knows - tomorrow someone might want to try the same thing with one of the two big military-industrial companies which now dominate the media in France.
Staff Need to Know What’s Going on, and Need to be Heard
Without seeking to either over- or under-estimate the importance of the role played by the AFP board, staff need to know what goes on in its meetings, and also be able to make their voices heard loud and clear to the French media barons and state representatives who sit on it.
Which is precisely the role that I propose to fulfil if you elect me as the journalists’ representative on the board, one of the two set aside for staff under the AFP statutes.
Once elected, I would be the representative of all journalist staff without exception, be they union members or not, based in Paris or elsewhere, of local or headquarters status, and members or not of the Société des Journalistes. In practice that would mean that I would consult widely with all representative forces, and if possible with the entire editorial staff, to obtain a mandate for any decisions to be made on key issues. A vote either "for" or "against" a board resolution, in distinction to the more usual abstention, would only be cast if there was a clear and powerful consensus, and if there could be no suspicion of partisan influence. In all doubtful or borderline cases, abstention would remain the rule. All of which would be of course coordinated with the other staff representative, elected for non-journalist employees.
A Trade Union Outlook is an Absolute Requirement
I see my experience as a representative of the French National Journalists’ Union (SNJ - www.snj-afp.org) as a major plus. It gives me in-depth knowledge of the issues, experience of the tricks our employers get up to, and of course a finger on the pulse both of staff concerns and the agency as a whole. This would be essential, for example, to defend AFP against any dubious deals concerning the fate of the Photo Service!
I have also been a member of the Société des Journalistes since it was set up, but I feel that it is my trade union experience that is most important in approaching issues handled by the board. Any temptation to yield to the sirens of market efficiency needs to be tempered by the example of an agency like Reuters, which certainly makes profits, but is also busy firing people left, right and centre.
I have been at AFP for 25 years, and also have journalistic experience elsewhere. I have worked in several services at headquarters, and have worked and run bureaus abroad. I am convinced, as I am sure you all are, that AFP’s mission as an international and above all worldwide company working in the general public interest is crucial.
French media leaders are in the curious position of being both customers of AFP and members of its board. We need to make those of them who still refuse to understand it realize that the news they get from AFP on Sri Lanka or Bolivia is there precisely because we provide the same services to India or Venezuela. (On that last issue, what a good job the unions were there to save us from a meltdown when management shut down the Caracas bureau!). Not to speak of our importance in conflict zones such as the Middle East, which is also easy to underestimate.
It is also high time that the mission carried out by the Agency within France takes on the dimensions of an authentic European project.
Dimitri de Kochko - Feb 20, 2005