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French media hope to tune out political interference

"An independent BBC-type media is not possible in France," observed a leading news director of one of this country's three state-run TV channels. "We are basically a Mediterranean country, and Anglo-Saxon impartiality, as much as we admire it, is simply not part of the French mentality. The politicians, whether left or right, will always find government control too tempting."

Despite the enormous expectations among many French for radical media reform when Socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected President May 10, the government has indicated that although it will introduce a new audiovisual charter to French radio and television it plans to keep a grip on the official networks.

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"We intend to allow pluralism of the airwaves, but conserve our authority in the public sector," said Georges Fillioud, France's new minister of communications. "The [state] monopoly will be maintained, but with modifications."

Observers are now wondering to what degree the new government will allow France's official broadcasting media to operate without political interference.

With the defeat of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, France witnessed an almost overnight change in radio and television. Under Giscard, the official media cultivated a distinctly pro-Giscard bias; now it has become more center-left, although there also appears to be a greater effort toward more balanced reporting.

Conservative politicians, for example, who in the pre-Mitterrand days had managed to float through mildly critical interviews, now find themselves raked over the coals with aggressive questioning. Socialist trade unionists or Communist militants seem to speak longer on the screen.

In Paris and numerous regional towns, the end to 23 years of conservative rule also released an overwhelming surge of local pirate radio stations to the FM airwaves.

Broadcasting anything from hard rock to municipal debates on baby care, there are hundreds of new stations with names such as "Radio Gilda" and "Radio Spartacus." These stations probably would have been raided under Giscard to preserve the government's broadcasting monopoly.

Today, however, until the new Socialist administration can work out the details of its proposed broadcasting policy, many pirate stations are simply jammed by the states postal services -- or ignored if they are considered fly-by-night operations. Mr. Fillioud says there will be no police intervention but warns that people must not take advantage of the interim situation. "One has to understand the dangers of allowing a total anarchy of the airwaves," he says.

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Eventually it is expected that local public-service and small commercial stations with limited transmitters will be allowed, but not large profit operations.

Since the establishment of state-run radio and TV after World War II, successive governments have tended to follow the maxim of "he who controls the broadcasting media controls the national destiny."

Although direct government intervention during the last administration was a far cry from the Interior Ministry's phone calls to the newsroom under President Charles de Gaulle, Giscard ensured his influence by appointing network directors himself.

The Socialists say they want to put an end to political appointments in the media. An independent board of directors, including government officials, media specialists, and private citizens, would be ideal, they say, although critics point out that such a system still does not prevent political abuse.

For the moment, no journalists in official radio and television have been forced out.

"I don't think the Socialists will carry out any witch-hunting," says Sen. Henri Caillavet, a former audiovisual committee director under Giscard. "A new form of censorship should not follow the old."

Anchorman Patrick Povire d'Arvor of Antenne Deux, feels that the new government will probably fall into the same trap as before of trying to influence the official media.

"I hope things will really change under the Socialists," he said. "But I have my doubts. All I am asking is to function as a journalist and no t as part of a political game."

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