Je Ne Regrette Rien 

1 May 2001 tbs.pm/1658

Broadcasting developed in different ways in different countries. The prevailing ideology in each state in the world decided how radio would develop and therefore how its younger sibling television would be used.

In each country it was also a product of the times. Thus broadcasting in Britain began with a private monopoly that was compromise-nationalised into a public monopoly. A multiplicity of private operators in Germany’s many regions became a single state weapon under the Nazis. A similar set of private stations remained private in Spain as a sop to the people who bankrolled Franco.

In France, private stations were the norm to start with under a series of governments unwilling or unable to come up with a different system. Various private stations were established under the benevolent wing of local politicians, owing their existence and financing to particular parties. As the 1930s wore on, the government itself began to take control of these stations, starting with Radio Paris, and each became a mouthpiece for every succeeding government of the Third Republic.

In 1940 the Nazis marched into France and independent government was extinguished. This meant little for the stations in the occupied areas – they continued to output the thoughts of the government, but now the government was in Berlin, not Paris. For the puppet state of Vichy, with the perennial air of embarrassment at the position they had got themselves into that pervaded the air of the country, it was obvious that all the stations in the semi-state had to also be nationalised and to speak with Petain’s voice. All were, and the airwaves of Vichy soon echoed those of the rest of former France.

But Vichy, located in the south of the ex-state, had an additional problem. French language stations were dotted around the area in minor states like Monaco and Andorra. The solution was to assume the shares of the company that ran the stations – SOFIRAD – and turn these into puppet stations as well.

After liberation, the de facto state ownership of both the ex-Nazi and SOFIRAD stations meant that the new Fourth Republic controlled broadcasting utterly. The RTF was formed as a government department to control all broadcasting and all broadcasting was to be literally state controlled.

But television in France stagnated because of this. The SOFIRAD radio stations broadcast relentless popular programming, whilst RTF television was dull beyond measure. Thus when de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 television was watched by fewer than a million households.

De Gaulle assumed office in the face of howls of derision from the press. This made him determined to find an outlet favourable to himself and his plans for the Fifth Republic – a system where the power rested with the president rather than shaky-coalition prime ministers. Thus the RTF was changed from being a state-owned department into being an official arm of the government with no goal other than to support the president. De Gaulle was often to be seen on screen explaining his policies and creating something of a personality cult around himself to get those policies across.

In the 1962 National Assembly elections, the RTF was so desperately Gaullist that even the Gaullists were embarrassed. After an interim period of control by a board of magistrates a new body, the ORTF, was installed to ensure autonomy and independence along the lines of the strictly neutral BBC.

But this was not to last. The tide of revolution and demonstrations begun in the United States against the draft and the killing fields of youth in Vietnam spread to Europe in the late 1960s.

I watched the reports of ‘student’ protests in London, Bonn and Paris with interest. Full of the fire of a 26-year-old, I imagined myself, as an undergraduate, getting involved in these disturbances. I didn’t manage it, but I felt a false kinship with those who would rebel. Watching DX reception from a holiday home in Kent or on visits to coastal France I felt I understood what the protests were about. This is not so true today.

However, it meant that as a social historian-to-be, I was in a position to see how the famously tame French television services would respond. The truth was, as always, an anti-climax. I saw more on the BBC than on French television. RTF had obviously made a stab for complete independence, with early reports showing the barricades on the streets of Paris. Filmed reports shown in glorious 819-line monochrome – a luxury compared to the only-adequate 405-line version at home – brought home the reality of urban unrest, with petrol bombs and stone-throwing belying the ‘give peace a chance’ ethos since claimed.

And then the reports disappeared. The BBC still reported the violence. ITN also kept me informed. But the independent commentary on RTF stopped suddenly, replaced by a supernaturally calm “all is well” view. The politicians had taken control, I surmised. And I was right – proved so when a one-day strike took much of live French broadcasting off-air. This was quickly followed by a bigger strike which took virtually the entire service away, and finally, towards the end of the month, a journalists strike that was to last until the fall of 1968.

The strikes failed, of course, as they are apt to, even in France. But the damage done to the reputation of both de Gaulle and French television would not be so easily repaired. De Gaulle excused himself in 1969 – but his influence on the control of French broadcasting would last much longer.

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