Frankly unfair?

Fact checking Sputnik France’s claim that it is reporting the French election fairly

Comparison of En Marche Moscou’s Facebook post of “our team” (R) and Sputnik France’s quote that “all the French correspondents in Russia” donned Macron T-shirts (L). Source: Sputnik; En Marche Moscou / Facebook.

Sputnik’s French edition is upset. It has been accused by mainstream French and English-speaking media of bias in favor of far-right, pro-Kremlin presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and hostility to her main challenger, centrist Emmanuel Macron, and his movement En Marche!.

On February 8, the outlet issued an indignant refutation, saying that it was not biased against Macron, and citing three articles as proof. “It’s up to you to judge whether Sputnik is ‘attacking’ Macron or not,” the refutation ended.

On February 9, the DFRLab decided to accept the invitation.

A Facebook picture…

Sputnik France cited three articles to defend itself against claims of bias. The first was a factual report on polling figures, with Macron tipped to win the presidency. The second headlined British bookkeepers’ predictions that Macron would win, and the third quoted Macron as criticizing US President Donald Trump’s ban on refugees from seven Muslim countries.

All three stories do, indeed, feature on Sputnik France’s website. However, Sputnik’s claim that this counts as a “review of the articles published” about Macron is woefully incomplete.

As of February 9, the latest article published by Sputnik France to mention Macron concerned the media coverage devoted to him. Entitled “When French journalists wear En Marche! T-shirts in Russia”, the article was based on an interview with Alexis Tarrade, a supporter of Macron’s presidential rival, François Fillon, and the leading representative of Fillon’s party, Les Républicains, in Russia.

Source: Sputnik France. Archived on February 10, 2017

The opening paragraph ran:

“While the media campaign against the republican François Fillon is in full flow in France, Les Républicains Russia is under the same pressure, Alexis Tarrade tells Sputnik. While demonizing LR in order to make Mr Macron win, French journalists in Russia are showing their soft attitude by wearing En Marche! T-shirts and taking part in militant events.”

Tarrade claimed that the French media were treating Fillon unfairly and taking sides with Macron. As proof, he alleged that Macron’s En Marche! group had held a rally in Moscow on February 4, “and at the rally, the French correspondents in Russia all put on En Marche! T-shirts and promoted their candidate’s movement”.

Immediately above Tarrade’s claim, Sputnik posted a photo showing a group of people in En Marche! T-shirts:

Source: Sputnik France. Archived on February 10, 2017.

No caption was attached to the photo, but its juxtaposition with Tarrade’s claim implies that the claim and picture are connected. The photo was hyperlinked to an un-captioned post on the Facebook page of the En Marche! movement’s Moscow branch.

However, the same photo also appeared in a separate post on the same Facebook page, where it was given a caption, identifying the people in T-shirts as “our team” — that is, the team of En Marche! Moscow, not the Moscow French press corps.

Source: En Marche Moscou / Facebook

On February 10, Isabelle Mandraud, Moscow correspondent of leading French daily Le Monde, tweeted to Tarrade that “none of the media correspondents you quote wore a ‘Macron T-shirt’”. Mandraud reported from the February 4 event, and is thus an eyewitness.

While the Sputnik article quoted Tarrade at length, including when he “denounced the French media’s conscious lies multiplied by militant actions on the ground,” no comments were provided either from the Macron campaign, or from any French journalists in Moscow.

Sputnik’s piece was therefore wholly unbalanced and rested on an unsubtantiated accusation by one of Macron’s political opponents, and a photo which was taken out of context, if not actively misrepresented.

… and the bigger picture

This is not the only Sputnik France article to have accused the mainstream media of favoring Macron. As early as December 24, when the presidential race was expected to be a showdown between Fillon and Le Pen, Sputnik France wrote, “Emmanuel Macron is not suffering from a lack of media attention. Alas, it can’t help this politician ‘on the march’ to the [presidential] Élysée [palace], his popularity ratings prove it.”

The claim of unfair reporting resurfaced after January 25, when it emerged that Fillon was under investigation for payments made to his wife for work she might not have done. In the wake of the revelations, Fillon’s poll ratings slumped, and Macron surged into position as Le Pen’s main challenger.

Fillon’s supporters quickly counter-attacked, accusing Macron of using ministerial representation funds to support his campaign. Macron denied the claims, saying that “not one centime” had been taken unduly. (Ultimately, Le Monde fact-checked the story, and concluded that he had not used ministerial funds for his campaign, and that it was “improbable” that an investigation would follow.)

On January 27, Sputnik ran an analysis of the investigation into Fillon’s affairs and the allegations against Macron. Under the headline, “Fillon and Macron aren’t in the same boat,” the piece argued that Macron was also tarnished by scandal, but the media were ignoring it: “The affair touching Macron hardly seems to have moved the media, which have only given it minimal coverage.” It also claimed that Macron is already “dragging several scandals in his wake, despite his young age.”

Source: Sputnik France. Archived on February 9, 2017

The article was not bylined, nor was there a disclaimer attached.

On February 6, another feature followed. This largely concerned French attitudes to the political system, but concluded that Macron “is at once anti-system in the form and pro-system in the essence, which perhaps partly explains why he is the media favorite. However, his critics should cling to a ray of hope: An IPSOS poll shows that in France, 68% do not trust the media, a mistrust which could end up bouncing back on their darling.”

Again, no disclaimer was attached.

A day later, Sputnik returned to the corruption question. On February 7, an article again compared the rising Macron with the faltering Fillon, accusing both men of being responsible for France’s soaring unemployment rate.

Despite Macron’s own denials and Le Monde’s fact-checking, the Sputnik article stated bluntly that “Ah yes, he used his ministerial function to raise money for his campaign”, and referred to “the Macron affair — because it must be said here that there is a Macron ‘affair’”.

This time, Sputnik inserted a disclaimer that the article was the sole responsibility of its author. However, its editorial stance was consistent with the earlier articles, insisting that Macron is as touched by scandal as Fillon, but that the media are not giving him fair coverage.

Leaning to Le Pen?

Strikingly, neither of these analyses of political corruption mentioned the fact that another French presidential candidate has been touched by a recent scandal, and that is Le Pen.

In October 2016, the European Union’s anti-corruption body ordered the National Front leader to pay back over €300,000 in EU funds which she was said to have used to pay party workers; on February 1, just a week after the scandal around Fillon broke, she missed the deadline to do so.

Sputnik has recently mentioned the issue twice in brief. A review of current French scandals on January 25 reported it accurately, albeit below reports of the Fillon investigation and Macron accusations; however, an article on February 7 simply stated that Le Pen had been accused of misusing EU funds, leaving aside the fact that she had been ordered to pay them back and missed the deadline.

Overall, Sputnik’s coverage of Le Pen has been broadly positive, certainly compared with its coverage of Macron. For example, the outlet ran no fewer than three articles about a meeting of far-right parties in Koblenz, Germany, on January 21, which Le Pen attended.

The first quoted her as welcoming US President Donald Trump’s election; the second quoted her as criticizing French President François Hollande for his handling of the Ukraine conflict, without including any quotes from Hollande or his administration — another clear case of unbalanced reporting.

The third did not quote her, but featured her picture prominently together with a headline saying that “European patriots want good relations with Moscow.”

Source: Sputnik France. Archived on February 9, 2017.

The word “patriots” is intrinsically biased, representing a value judgement by the author. Its use to describe far-right, populist and anti-Islam politicians from across Europe appears an expression of support, rather than an objective description.

Other articles have actively defended, or amplified the messages of, her and her party. One feature focused on the widely-reported fact that her party, the National Front, took a loan of over €9 million from a Russian bank, leading to accusations of Kremlin influence:

“So where will Mrs Le Pen go for money, if French banks do not accept the risk of a loan when all the polls put her in the lead in the first round? Isn’t this a case of collusion between France’s banking establishments and the current power? … Moreover, when your liberties are infringed at home, it maybe makes more sense to turn to those who don’t base their loans on political prejudices but only on the applicant’s credit capacity.”

An article on a question of foreign investment in the port of Saint-Nazaire quoted three commentators: a union leader, Le Pen herself, and a member of the local council called Gauthier Bouchet, who was quoted as supporting Le Pen’s position. According to the Saint-Nazaire municipal website, Bouchet is one of two members of the National Front to sit on the local council (in opposition). It is therefore hardly surprising that he endorsed Le Pen; it is curious that he was the only councillor, out of the 49 elected in Saint-Nazaire, quoted as commenting on Le Pen’s words.

One January article even quoted Le Pen as comparing the media coverage of Macron to fans of Canadian heart-throb Justin Bieber:

“It’s almost funny. Over and above that, there are the young girls who come out of Justin Bieber concerts.”

Source: Sputnik France. Archived on February 10, 2017

The story did not include any comments from the Macron campaign, merely pointing out that he was in third place.

Conclusion

Sputnik France’s comment that it has published articles which did not attack Macron is technically true: the outlet has run a handful of stories about him which could be viewed as individually balanced or positive. It has also, on occasion, included negative news about Le Pen.

However, the three articles cited in its own defense do not tell the whole story. Repeatedly, Sputnik France has focused on accusations of corruption and media bias towards Macron; it has defended Le Pen and amplified her party. It has published unbalanced reports, giving one side of the story and leaving the other silent — such as Tarrade’s attack on Macron and the media, and Le Pen’s attacks on Hollande and the media.

Sputnik France wrote that it was up to its readers to judge whether it is attacking Macron. Judging by the articles discussed above, it certainly is.

Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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