By Bernd Debusmann Jr
At a time of politically slanted TV, Euronews CEO Michael Peters hopes to buck global trends by building trust and adopting a 'McDonald's' approach to the headlines
No matter where you are in the world, chances are you’re watching politically slanted reporting, paid content or, even worse, fake news. At least that’s according to Michael Peters, the CEO of France-based pay television news network Euronews.
“The vast majority of the players in this market are here for just one reason: to give ‘soft power’ to their owners,” he tells Arabian Business before rattling off a long list of culprits including Al Jazeera, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and Russia Today. “They are here to deliver just one perspective on the news of the world.”
It is for that reason that Euronews first began broadcasting in 1993, having been established by 10 broadcasters as a counterweight to CNN, with the stated aim of covering the world from a pan-European perspective. Although it receives ample funding – a whopping $138m between 2014 and 2018 from the European Commission – it is not tied to any particular government or country. These days, it claims to reach 137 million people each month around the world through its TV and digital platforms.
To make his point about networks with just one perspective, French-German Peters – who, with his slicked back, lightly greying hair and energetic, chatty demeanour, seems younger than his 48 years – locks in on one particular target: French state-owned international news TV network France24.
“France24 exists for, and is paid for, by the French government. They’re making hundreds of millions in losses, maybe billions,” he explains. “And this isn’t something they hide: [they] are here to give the French perspective of the news that happens in the world.”
This is what Euronews, with Peters at its helm, hopes to avoid. The Lyon-headquartered company is now jointly owned by a number of European and North African state broadcasting organisations. Since 2015, it has been majority owned – now 60 percent – by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris’ Media Globe Networks. In 2017, American broadcaster NBC also gobbled up a 25 percent slice of the company for $30m.
But the Euronews of today is very different from the one that Peters first knew as a younger man in 1998. In 2017, the company revamped its traditional business model – in which the same content would be shared across languages – by launching 12 distinct cross-platform editions. These, Peters says, allow the network’s 600 journalists to cover the world 24/7 in languages ranging from English, German and French to Hungarian, Turkish, and Arabic.
Arabian Business catches up with Peters in Dubai during a whirlwind tour of the UAE, a country at the heart of a region that he says Euronews now considers a key part of its future expansion plans. Until recently, that wasn’t the case.
“The Middle East was near to zero for us three, four years ago. It was a market like any other market. We had a few clients from here that we dealt with from London or Paris. It was something very basic,” he recalls. “Then two years ago, we opened an office here.”
That office is just the beginning of the company’s plans in the region. Already, it has worked with Dubai Tourism to produce content to be broadcast around the world, and is in talks with Expo 2020 Dubai and other entities for similar projects. Additionally, the channel has launched programmes such as ‘Inspire Middle East’ – which Peters likens to CNN’s Connect the World – to highlight the region’s vibrant cultural and business communities.
This, he says, has already resulted in growing interest in the region, particularly the UAE, among Euronews’ core base of viewers based in Europe. “Things are definitely happening in this region. You have Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, and if you take the three main players, the UAE has the enormous privilege of having, in Europe, a totally neutral perception, [in contrast] to Qatar,” he explains. “I think that the interest is great. This region is still not well-known…Dubai is a fantastic window for the region.”
Peters, who has been CEO of Euronews since December 2011, is presiding over a news business at a difficult time for the industry. Besides the issues of slanted news outlets that he’s vocal about, Euronews and other outlets have to contend with changing formats, fake news and instant competition from social media.
Collectively, Peters believes these challenges have created an environment allowing for the rapid spread of unverified news that has largely eroded the public’s trust.
“It’s not like it’s a new phenomenon. Everyone always wants to make ‘bad’ news. The only new thing is the technology that helps do it. To modify real news into fake news is [easy] because you have a lot of means.
“That’s something that it easy to understand. But I think that there is [something] probably more global than fake news today – that’s unreliable brands. As a consumer, you can be totally smashed by fake news, but, beyond that, you can have real news which gives you only one perspective. This can be incomplete and bias your judgements,” he says.
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been concerns in the past. The 2015 deal that saw famed Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris take a majority stake in the company, for example, led to alarm in some corners about the future of Euronews’ editorial independence. The now 65-year old Orascom chairman, after all, has been heavily involved in politics and co-founded the anti-Islamist Free Egyptians Party after the 2011 Revolution.
The following year, Euronews’ claims of impartiality were again in the public eye amid reports of discontent among some of its own journalists and union members for uncritical, sponsored content for a number of regimes around the world. At the time, a Euronews’ spokeswoman responded by saying that “for all international news media, advertising and brand content is a key source of revenue”.
When asked about Sawiris’ involvement in the everyday operations of Euronews, Peters visibly bristles at any suggestion that his presence had jeopardised the quality of its journalism. “No. No. He’s never involved on a day-to-day basis,” he snaps back at the question. “He never even tried. Honestly, Naguib has 6 million followers on Twitter. If he wants to be powerful and deliver a message, he doesn’t need us. He has no personal agenda.
“He’s also not stupid. He knows that if he begins to alter it by interfering, the value of the brand will decrease,” he adds. “It’s about business at the end of the day. There is no interference at all.”
In fact, Peters credits Sawiris – and his $40m investment – with giving Euronews an opportunity to change its approach to news. “Before his arrival, Euronews was one channel, with one video and comments in 12 languages,” he recalls. “When Naguib came – because I needed the money – I set up a business plan where we have transformed your news. Now we have 12 specific editions in 12 different languages.”
“The vast majority of the players in this market are here for just one reason: to give ‘soft power’ to their owners”
Although Euronews’ English edition remains the most popular and serves as its “world edition” anchored between 7 AM and 11 PM, Peters compares the new approach to that adopted by McDonald’s in different markets.
“I’m not stupid, I know that journalism is not hamburgers. I’m not comparing news to French fries,” he says with a chuckle, clearly keenly aware that the comparison is likely to go unappreciated by many reporters. “But, in terms of strategy, McDonald’s is the first brand, at such as scale, which has managed to implement what I call the ‘glocal’ offer – adapting a global brand to local specifics.”
To illustrate his point, Peters uses a world favourite: McNuggets. These pieces of battered and deep-fried chicken are available at any McDonald’s around the world. As Peters says, however, McDonald’s in diverse markets – whether in Europe, Asia or Latin America – will all have offerings tailored to a country’s particular consumers.
“In France, you’ll find a lot of salads, a lot of cheese and whatever. Here, you’ll find something else,” he goes on. “It’s what we try to do.”
That approach, he adds, is made possible by the 12 unique language platforms under the Euronews umbrella.
“We’re now able to offer our local audiences global, and international information, but which makes sense to a local,” he says.
“I think that there is probably more global than fake news today – that’s unreliable brands”
“If something big is happening in Angola, it will make much more sense for a Portuguese audience. If something is happening in Tunisia, it makes much more sense for a French than a German audience… you can still be international, but at the same time…we are keenly aware that the competition is not only global, but local as well.”
As Peters says, in the world of broadcast news, the competition for Euronews is stiff, with the brand having to face off against local channels and global behemoths like CNN and the BBC. This begs the question – why should we, the consumers, watch Euronews instead of its better known rivals?
Peters claims the network had retained impartiality where others have lost it.
“We really believe that the way to give you news is to deliver many perspectives, which is very difficult, costs money and costs time,” he says. “You can’t rush through it in one slot or one report. That’s impossible and is too much work. But at least we try, over two, or three days….of course, we’re not here to show extreme perspectives like Daesh. I’m speaking about normal and common perspectives.”
“I’m not stupid, I know that journalism is not hamburgers. I’m not comparing news to French fries”
When push comes to shove, Peters says he and the entire Euronews team is aware that, faced with increasingly biased and often unreliable news outlets, viewers have three options: stop watching, watch a number of competing channels, or turn towards those that offer multiple viewpoints.
“The role of media is to help you understand, to empower you. ‘Empowering people’ is on my business card. It’s our motto,” he says with a smile as he slides a card across the table. “We believe, in truth, that all views matter.”For all the latest Media news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.