Television channels and radio stations still have a few weeks to get into battle gear. As it does before each election, Arcom, the regulator of audiovisual and digital media, has just set the rules for political pluralism in anticipation of the European elections on June 9. This year, the audiovisual media will be asked to count the speaking time of the different political forces and their supporters, always according to the principle of fairness, but from April 15. Arcom has chosen to extend this period of reinforced control to eight weeks, compared to six traditionally, “because the campaign has already largely started” indicated Arcom President Roch-Olivier Maistre.

The rule of fairness is assessed with regard to the political weight of the candidates. To measure it, Arcom takes into account “the results in previous European elections and other ballots, opinion polls, involvement in the campaign, including on social networks”, explains Anne Grand d’Esnon, member of the Arcom college and chair of the “Pluralism and ethics of information and programs” working group. The speaking times taken into account for two months will be those of the candidates and their supporters, all broadcasts combined. Beyond politicians, “an editorialist as well as a citizen interviewed during a sidewalk microphone or an artist for example” could be considered as supporters, as long as they show their support for this or that candidate, specifies the expert.

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The rule also applies to foreign personalities, as was the case with Steve Bannon in 2019. The statements during the Europeans by Donald Trump’s former strategist were deducted from the speaking time of the National Rally (RN). As for the particular case of Emmanuel Macron, his words will only be counted if they relate to “political debate”. Not if it relates to his duties as president. The next elections are an opportunity for Arcom to update its list of political figures. In the coming days, the speaking time of Roselyne Bachelot on BFMTV and Philippe de Villiers on CNews will be deducted from the “Divers Droite” camp. The sovereignist, who co-hosts “Face à Philippe de Villiers” every week on CNews, a program rebroadcast on Europe 1, was no longer there. Arcom considered that he was once again intervening “in the political field”.

Enough to make one’s teeth cringe. His regular interventions could “cannibalize” the speaking time of the “Miscellaneous Right” camp. In the same way that Ségolène Royale’s regular visits to Cyril Hanouna siphon off that of the Socialist Party, which gets annoyed by it. The list of political figures counted is not published by the regulator. But she is known by TV channels and radios. Broadcasters are informed of the withdrawal or integration of a personality, in order to take their speaking time into account or not. Digital platforms are not subject to this principle of respect for political pluralism. They will therefore continue to be, for candidates and their supporters, “paradises” of unlimited speaking time. However, Arcom has introduced something new, within the framework of the recent regulation on digital services (Digital Services Act). The regulator has issued a series of recommendations, a sort of guide to good conduct, for platforms.

“We are well aware that this European election will be of major importance for the democratic life of our continent,” insisted Roch-Olivier Maistre, pointing out a double challenge. Respect for political pluralism, which translates into “the balance of speaking times in the audiovisual media” and, beyond that, “the issue of reliability of information, taking into account the risks of manipulation of information and foreign interference”. This campaign takes place in a very specific context. The question of respect for pluralism has become explosive since last February 13, the Council of State ordered Arcom to strengthen its control of television and radio stations. The decision of the Council of State, relating to information pluralism, which reinterprets the 1986 law on freedom of communication in France, does not directly influence the rules of political pluralism which will govern the next election. But it could be added to it. Even if Arcom has six months to find a new modus operandi, “the decision already applies,” recalled the regulator.

Television channels must now ensure pluralism of currents of thought and opinion on all of their programs and their speakers. “If we were seized on the basis of this decision, we would apply the reasoning that the Council of State developed in its conclusions,” indicates Roch-Olivier Maistre. The regulator is working “actively on the development of a text of general scope”. It should be adopted in the coming weeks. “The regulator will be very vigilant in respecting editorial freedom” of channels and radios, he wanted to reassure. “The system that we will put in place will not lead us in any way to intervene either in the choice of themes covered by broadcasters, nor in the choice of speakers on their set. I repeat, there is no question of entering into a mechanism which would lead to cataloging and counting all the participants on the sets.

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However, this text should allow Arcom to broaden its scope of action regarding the control of “obvious and lasting imbalances” with regard to the principle of pluralism. Roch-Olivier Maistre essentially recalled that the decision of the Council of State applied to all publishers. Not only to CNews, targeted by the appeal of Reporter Without Borders (RSF) which contested the “inaction” of Arcom in the face of the “failings” of the channel of Vincent Bolloré’s group. “I had the opportunity to remind publishers that it is also up to them to already comply with the principles recalled by the Council of State.”