Section Agence France-Presse du Syndicat national des journalistes
Agence France-Presse Branch of the French National Journalists' Union (SNJ)
News & Views
AFP Needs a Genuine Development Plan
The recent mobilization of AFP staff around the world against the waste and injustice symbolised by the huge bonuses handed out to a few top people illustrated yet again the attachment we feel to our company and our willingness to get involved to defend its mission as a news organisation acting in the public interest.
On France’s liberation at the end of World War II it was the agency’s journalists who ensured its rebirth. Much more recently, in 1980, it was thanks to its staff and trade unions that AFP was able to build an international photo service, as the management of the day wanted purely and simply to shut it down! And in the 1990’s it was again AFP’s staff who prevented the agency from being sold off to the Vivendi media conglomerate of Jean-Marie Messier, only months before the collapse of the Internet stock market bubble sealed that company’s fate.
We would not like to think what would remain of AFP today if either of those projects had gone through.
Now, with the ink barely dry on the agreement reached after the bonuses scandal, we are faced with yet another threat, which once again concerns the agency’s existence as a single entity.
New Threat to AFP’s Picture Service
During a meeting with the staff of the Photo Service in mid-October, management announced an extremely vague plan to turn the service into the equivalent of an AFP region, or "quasi-region" as one director put it. The aim being to provide the service, the development costs of which have quite naturally been borne by the overall AFP system, with "needed autonomy on the financial, technical, commercial, human resource management and editorial levels" (our translation).
Unfortunately not a single serious argument was put forward to justify the plan, which smacks of the measures some companies take prior to a privatization or sell-off. Staff were told only that if the photo service was given more autonomy, it would become easier to manage its staff rotas and allow management to pay a visit to photographers outside Paris!
Justifying such a major change by such ridiculous arguments is not only an insult to our intelligence, it also looks suspiciously like an attempt to sow confusion. Understandably in the present circumstances, it leaves people worried.
Is it really too much to ask that management should lay its plans out clearly, if they are truly being made in good faith? Such changes have to be backed up by serious commercial, technical or editorial arguments.
It should also be remembered that current technical and editorial trends all indicate a need for centralisation, rather than its opposite. We are slowly moving away from the old wires-only system towards the delivery of multimedia packages combining text, photos and graphics. So why decide at this point to detach the photo service from the rest of the agency? Why not decide instead to answer the many questions raised by staff in the photo service in their meetings with the unions?
Most importantly, nothing in management’s recent announcement appears to be based on a determination to develop the agency and give it better resources to carry out its task. Instead, the appearance of a confused and mysterious plan only leaves staff even more worried than before.
AFP staff find themselves working in extreme conditions, thanks to ever-less adequate human and material resources. Our incomes have not gone up for years, most regular bonuses are but a distant memory, and our authorial rights, as laid down in French law, are denied us.
The agency’s headquarters building in Paris has been sold, not to invest in the future but to pay off the debts built up by successive management teams, thanks to a string of failed pseudo-development projects that would be too long to list here. Recent examples have been the "Mine and Yours" financial trading plan that was stillborn in the mid-1990’s, and the "Global Ethics Monitor" news service that foundered under the present management team, leaving behind a rent bill that is still being paid for unoccupied office space in New York.
Not to forget other forms of waste, such as senior staff left without missions and who therefore win ruinous damage awards against the company, the controversy over the travel service, and of course the recent scandal over bonuses for top people. Plus the ongoing waste entailed by the company’s chronic failure to manage skills and careers.
More Heat than Light
An Amusing Coincidence
The Gras Savoye insurance group, chosen without a bidding process to manage part of AFP’s recently-signed early retirement plan, turns out to have sponsored a prize "aimed at encouraging young photographers" as part of the international photography festival held each year in the southern French city of Arles. (Cf http://www.grassavoye.com: check the "actualités - événement" pages). The chairman of the board of the Arles photo school, which organizes the prestigious event, is none other than AFP’s CEO. In itself this should make us proud; under the present circumstances it only adds to our concern.
Another reason not to be cheerful: Management has announced its intention to transfer the Spanish-language unit of AFP’s graphics service from Paris to the regional headquarters in Montevideo, with the loss of two posts at headquarters. Under an agreement signed last March, management undertook to produce a report on the future of the unit before making any further moves. So far we have seen no sign of the document in question.
Since taking up his post AFP’s CEO has given considerable attention to photography, his personal hobby-horse. The picture sales service has been shaken up, we have pulled out of the European photo consortium EPA (a good move) and entered into an agreement with Getty Images (more controversial), not to forget the business of the bonues.
The CEO puts forward strongly-increased sales figures for the service, but once again without any clarity as to what they mean. What, for example, is the part that goes to Getty in the total? Who is paying the sales commissions: is it just AFP, or are we sharing them 50-50 with Getty? And how much is all this costing? What is the real profitability of the photo service? Why is Getty taking news pictures inside France, and selling them in effect with our help? We need answers to these questions, but we get none.
Which is why we end up worried. Is perhaps the CEO planning in one way or another to turn the photo service, nicely fattened up and therefore potentially profitable, into something separate from the rest of the agency? The "unbundling" of units such as the picture and sports operations could eventually leave the rest of AFP as little more than a redistribution service, with chronic deficits that would have to be financed by French taxpayers.
(For more info on the Getty project, see the US Guild statement published on our site on February 13, 2004).
French Press Modernisation Fund
If such fears are justified, it will explain why the current management has not tabled any kind of a development plan for AFP. And why the "Aims and Means Contract" signed last year with the French state is nothing more than a bean-counting plan aimed at cutting wage and other operating costs. And why the CEO is so reticent to request any funding from the French government’s Press Modernisation Fund for the agency, as the SNJ has urged him to do on numerous occasions.
There is money left unused in the modernisation fund, which is financed by a levy on non-media advertising. And despite opposition to the idea from the French media barons, there is no reason why AFP could not benefit from such funding. To do so, however, we would need to have a bona fide development plan, and not just a few shaky "quasi-regionalisation" projects allied to a determination on the part of management to cut down on wage costs.
It is not as if there was any lack of development projects at AFP. There are Internet projects to be carried out, including the 2XML coding system, and there is of course the issue of TV, which would notably help us play a central role in plans for an international French-based rolling-news channel, which sooner or later are going to come to fruition.
SNJ continues to push for a real development plan for AFP. We call on all staff to support us in our demands for greater clarity in management plans, and to be ready to once again defend the agency by pushing for real growth and development.
29 October 2004