PARIS, (Reuters) – An upstart online news service has led the way in investigating France’s latest political funding scandal, defying President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to stamp his influence on the media.
The Mediapart website has published a stream of embarrassing reports of alleged cash donations by France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, to conservative politicians, and meddling in judicial affairs, drawing presidential wrath.
Mediapart’s reports have set the agenda on the scandal, forcing the rest of the media to follow, and turning the affair into a major headache for the government.
Mediapart is one of a new breed of muckraking, mostly left-leaning online news outlets that is shaking up the French press, which is reeling after years of sinking circulation and deteriorating ad sales.
Sarkozy’s close friendships with traditional media owners and control of state-funded TV and radio outlets have often allowed him to shape news coverage and isolate journalists or editors who displeased him.
Websites like Mediapart, Rue89, and Bakchich.info are less prone to such influence and are attracting readers by putting out scoops with a harder-hitting tone.
Unlike many newspapers, they are not dependent on government subsidies or industrial owners with deep pockets to survive. Yet most remain unprofitable so far, showing how hard it is to find a viable online media business model.
Founded in 2008 by four former investigative journalists on Le Monde, Mediapart says it has 30,000 subscribers who pay 9 euros a month to read its reports on social, political and environmental issues. Its president, Edwy Plenel, who made his name by exposing scandals under Socialist president Francois Mitterrand and rose to be editorial director of Le Monde, tells the staff of 25 reporters to focus on scoops instead of routine coverage.“From the beginning, he told us to take the time to investigate, come up with original material, and step out of the logic of the daily news cycle where everyone writes the same thing,” said Pierre Puchot, a journalist at Mediapart, who covers the Middle East and Africa.
The government’s response has been to blame the Bettencourt scandal on shoddy or partisan Internet journalism.
Sarkozy supporters have fiercely attacked Mediapart as a “cyber-cabal” that undermines democracy, doesn’t check its facts and only aggregates “tweets and blogs”.
“This famous website!” exclaimed Industry Minister Christian Estrosi in a radio interview. “It reminds me of a certain press of the 1930s,” a reference to extreme-right newspapers which denounced France’s political class as rotten to the