How a start-up site broke the Bettencourt scandal

French Web site Mediapart has been at the centre of a scandal that has stretched from French business life into top political circles. Founded by veteran journalist Edwy Plenel (pictured) the site has set its sights on a fresh New Media model.


It started out as a salacious, but mildly interesting clash between a seriously wealthy woman and her seriously disgruntled daughter, an updated Mommie Dearest-type tale of family bickering that’s hardly surprising when inheritances run into the billion euro zone.

March 21 2013 UPDATE: Sarkozy faces corruption charges

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been formally charged by a Bordeaux court Thursday 21 March 2013 with “exploiting the weakness” of the world’s richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, allegedly to illegally finance his 2007 election campaign.

Sarkozy’s lawyer Thierry Herzog said his client would be “fighting back immediately” against the charge.Sarkozy, 58, has always maintained that he visited Bettencourt's residence only once during the campaign, contrary to testimony from several members of the multi-millionaire's staff.

But over the past few weeks, “L’affaire Bettencourt”, as the scandal has been dubbed in France, has spread into top French political circles, from a Cabinet minister to - if reports are to be believed - French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

At the heart of the growing scandal lies a news Web site that has been steadily breaking stories, posting leaks, offering downloadable versions of wiretapped phone conversations, and publishing interviews with well-placed sources.

Over the past few weeks, Mediapart, the French-language investigative news site, has been at the forefront of a story that has gripped France with every seemingly impossible twist, driving the story in new directions while upping the site’s reputation and subscription.

Click here for the butler’s tapes

"L’affaire Bettencourt" kicked off when the daughter of Liliane Bettencourt, the L’Oreal heiress and France’s richest woman, accused a photographer of “abusing the weaknesses” of her octogenarian mother to extract valuable gifts of cash, artworks and insurance policies.

The political turn, however, emerged when the investigative judge in the case was handed wiretaps of telephone conversations between the billionaire cosmetics queen and her financial manager, taped by Bettencourt’s butler.

Enter Mediapart, the new kid on the media bloc, that managed to get a hold of the incendiary tapes.

On June 16, the site posted extracts of the taped conversations, which appeared to point to tax evasion schemes between Bettencourt and her financial advisor. More critically though, as the site noted, the tapped phone conversations were strewn with references to Eric Woerth, France’s labour minister and treasurer of the ruling UMP party.

“The tapes were the starting moment of the story for us. But that’s not the only thing, we have published several different angles of this case,” said Sylvain Bourmeau, a Mediapart journalist, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

According to Bourmeau, Mediapart was not the only news organization to get a hold of the tapes. The French weekly, Le Point, also received the tapes. But while the magazine pursued the Bettencourt family spat angle, Mediapart, according to Bourmeau, “decided not to publish things that were a private matter, but to focus on elements of public interest.”

The public interest angle apparently had a lot more legs in the echelons of French political circles. On Tuesday, Mediapart published an interview with a former L’Oreal accountant – identified as Claire T. - who reportedly told the site that Bettencourt had illegally contributed 150,000 euro in cash to Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign.

More Bettencourt news is good news for business

For Mediapart, the scoops have been good for business. In early June, the site had 25,000 subscribers. The site now has 30,000 subscribers, a 5,000 subscription increase in just over two weeks.

Founded in 2007 by Edwy Plenel, former executive editor of Le Monde, the leading French daily, Mediapart bills itself as a participatory pay-for-content site.

At the time of its launch, not everyone was convinced by Mediapart’s paid content model. Back in 2007, the online journalism industry had lost faith in the idea. But much has changed since, with publishers of the British daily The Times and its weekend counterpart, The Sunday Times recently announcing that the sites would be charging a weekly subscription.

“Two-and-half-years ago, a lot of people were laughing at our business model,” said Bourmeau. “Now, everyone is trying to make audiences pay for news.”

Besides Plenel, the editorial team features some of the best names in French journalism including former editors of leading left-leaning French dailies like Le Monde and Liberation.

Critics have charged that Mediapart has a political agenda directed against Sarkozy’s centre-right administration. But it’s a charge that Bourmeau vehemently denies. “It’s no secret that we’re from the centre-left,” said Bourmeau. “But that’s not the issue here. We aim to do journalism the way it’s being done in America, with extensive investigative reporting, without a political agenda,” he said, drawing parallels between Mediapart and ProPublica, the Pulitzer-prize winning US news site edited by the former Wall Street Journal managing editor, Paul Steiger.

The Mediapart editorial team comprises 25 journalists, some experienced and some relatively young and inexperienced. “The older ones learn from the younger ones about new media techniques,” explained Bourmeau. “The younger ones learn techniques of journalism. It’s an interesting experience.”

And one that has put the tiny start-up news site on the international media map.



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