Premières Lignes is an independent press agency and production company focussing on investigative documentary on a European level. Since its creation in 2006, the company has become increasingly renowned for its commitment to unveiling hard-hitting stories of the public interest.
It has co-produced investigative documentaries with Arte, France 2, France 3, France 5, Canal+, Planète+, M6, TF1, LCP and Public Sénat, and has developed international co-productions with Netflix, NOVA Production, BBC, HBO and various other media.
Luc Hermann is a journalist, producer and director, and co-founded Premières Lignes with Paul Moreira. Here he talks co-production strategies, the challenges surrounding digital and why well-documented, substantiated and informed investigations are essential in the combat against fake news and other conspiracy theories.
What changes in investigative documentary production have you observed over the past 15 years? Would you say that the genre is now more important than ever?
In answer to the second part of your question, it has never been more vital, without a second’s hesitation. And that doesn’t only apply to documentary, but also to books and print media too, for example.
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a change in the right direction, as audiences’ appetite for these types of topics are growing. We produce the French show Cash Investigation. While our investigations are not an exact science, I would say that independent investigative journalism is currently proving to be very popular.
This same can also be said for digital media such as Mediapart, which now has 120,000 subscribers.
There is a real public interest in television formats. But space is limited and there are less investigative cases on linear TV – especially over the past four years. The only example I have is Canal+, who I know well as I’ve worked with them for the past 18 years. Premières Lignes has produced numerous investigate documentaries, but there is no longer any suitable TV slots for them.
If I had to single out one change, one development in investigative documentary, it would be the reaction of politicians and big businesses.
Meanwhile on the other hand, we must acknowledge the public service broadcasters who support and maintain this essential service, now more than ever in these such troubled times. For example, we led over a year-long investigation on the financialization of the pharmaceuticals industry. The resulting documentary “Big Pharma, Gaming the System” was broadcast on Arte and had a wide international distribution.
If I had to single out one change, one development in investigative documentary, it would be the reaction of politicians and big businesses with the incursion of what I call spin doctors. PR is increasingly present in public intuitions and multinationals.
Ironically, these communicators are increasingly equipped for refusing interviews, threatening us with lawsuits or even taking us court. So it has become much harder to carry out investigations, and that’s why production companies, journalists and TV channels who have such editorial courage and, more importantly, time are essential.
Time has a price: We’re often talking of a 12-month-long investigation which we must pay. But we need a long period of time to complete an investigation, interview the right people, obtain not one but all the documents related to the enquiry and, finally, perform an analysis.
You often talk about independence. Why is this important to you, Premières Lignes and, more broadly speaking, investigative documentary?
It’s true, it’s a word I use often. There are only two of us behind Premières Lignes. We work with public broadcasters who have little or no ad revenue.
I’d also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the continued, constant support of the French public service during our difficult investigations. But to go back to “Big Pharma, Gaming the System”… Out of the six laboratories that we contacted, only the French laboratory Sanofi agreed to be interviewed by us. As for the others, well, it ended up with the legal team! Independence is clearly essential.
We’ve experienced the same loyalty with Belgian and Swiss public TV channels who also broadcast our work in extensor. And the same goes for public channels in Japan (NHK) and Australia.
On the whole, over the past 11 years an international channel has never once asked us to rewrite a particular sequence.
And we also found this independence which I champion so often at Netflix.
So what is your relationship like with platforms such as Netflix, Apple, Amazon and the rest? Is it easier to embark on co-productions? Does their approach radically differ from that of “traditional” TV channels?
We co-produced with NOVA Production (Radio Nova’s digital media branch) a series called “World’s Most Wanted”, which was available online this summer on Netflix. It was based on an original idea by Thomas Zribi and it follows the hunt to trace down five of the world’s most wanted criminals. It was the first time working with Netflix, although since then, we’re now in talks for a one-off.
World’s Most Wanted – Premières Lignes / Nova Production
They’ve proved to be effective and we’ve seen the results on the BBC and HBO, for example.
The Netflix teams were very pragmatic. Their editorial team is based in London and made up of former directors. My partner Paul Moreira (who directed one of the episodes), Thomas Zribi and I had a great deal of editorial freedom, but we had to grasp their narrative frameworks.
They’re rather similar to the codes and conventions of a thriller. They’ve proved to be effective and we’ve seen the results on the BBC and HBO, for example. They favour the use of suspense in the best sense of the word, with a fluid narrative based on interviews to make the story progress. It’s a sort of like a dramatic work.
On the funding side, we have to admit that they have rather substantial resources, which means longer investigations and purchasing a larger quantity of archives. The latter point is important because everyone will tell you how expensive archive material is. With a comfortable budget we were able to purchase the best archives possible.
We mustn’t forget that not all genres are represented, such as major current affairs reporting. Just like you know you’re going to be producing for the whole world, with an incredible audience.
How is Netflix’s documentary production organised?
In London, we worked with a team who focus on, let’s say, “global documentaries”. In Amsterdam, there’s more of a focus on documentary series covering more regional-orientated topics, such as the series around the Grégory Affair, even if it did, I believe, attract an international audience.
Apart from documentary productions for television channels and streaming platforms, Premières Lignes has also established a digital strategy with content adapted to broadcasters’ platforms. How does it differ in terms of writing, financing and broadcasting?
In addition to these “long” investigative documentaries, we’re indeed working on short formats for a web or YouTube audience. This was the case with Tous Les Internets made for Arte and Data Gueule, which was coproduced with StoryCircus and broadcast via Slash and YouTube. It was made for younger viewers more accustomed to digital media.
We’re currently producing another series for Slash that combines humour with investigation.
Of course, there is less funding but it enables us to work with funding from France Télévisions and CNC.
It’s very bold of France Télévisions and Arte to launch such programmes. What we’re interested in is being able to reach other audiences.
Would you say that the webdoc is experiencing a bit of a revival?
TV channels today must expand their digital offering. This can be achieved by putting documentaries online before their prime time broadcast (or the whole series in one go, as Arte does), or by producing information modules as a webdoc which complement and add additional information to the documentary broadcast on TV.
One of our lines of thought is to design short documentary formats which aren’t just extracts from our “long” productions.
But for this to be done well, you have to design the short formats before production, as soon as the investigation phase begins.
Premières Lignes’ productions are often designed as an ecosystem, with a documentary broadcast via various television channels backed up with an individual impact strategy. How do you become an impact producer and what are the advantages – and disadvantages – to this strategy?
© International Consortium of Investigative Journalist
We’ve had a partnership with the ICIJ consortium (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) for the past eight years. Along with Le Monde and Radio France, we’re the only three French representatives of this Washington-based non-profit association. Don’t forget, it was the ICIJ that revealed the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers.
These days, you can no longer go it alone on such investigations. We can organise much stronger investigations by exchanging information between the best journalists in the world and having unfailing coordination in total confidentiality. Can you imagine the impact of an investigation coming out the same day, at the same time, in 40 different countries? News organizations are stronger together and can withstand any attack. Individually, they can be put under pressure – a pressure that is much harder to apply when faced with a group. Now that’s what I call public service journalism!
In my opinion, impact producers must think very early about the campaign they want to establish. This can involve an awareness campaign or partnerships with NGOs.
In fact, we’ve started a new investigation with the ICIJ. Our revelations won’t be made public for many months to come.
There are several annual events in France and Switzerland which focus on impact producing. There are also training courses to help producers and directors with their impact campaigns.
In my opinion, impact producers must think very early about the campaign they want to establish. This can involve an awareness campaign or partnerships with NGOs. They mustn’t forget the broadcast date either: it could correspond with an “International Day of…”, for example.
Funding exists outside of the “traditional” circuits, like foundations or crowdfunding. It’s important to take this financial element into account because it can double the financing of your production!
At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, Premières Lignes took part in launching a collaborative platform to support long form television investigations into Covid-19. The initiative was lead by the Global Investigate Journalism Network and in partnership with CBC (Canada), RTS (Switzerland), PBS Frontline (US) and even BBC Global News, BBC Arabic and BBC Africa. Why? And what are the initial results in terms of documentary production?
The idea was to organise conferences, round tables and training sessions to aid investigative work with investigative journalists from all around the world.
We had our first webinar in April, during which we launched many leads and work is now in progress.
Can you tell us about any upcoming national or international projects and co-productions?
It’s too early to say, but we’re currently developing a new collection on the environment with help from France Télévisions. We’re looking for international partners to help move the investigation and production stages forward.
Sunny Side of the Doc is on the theme of #StorytellingMatters. In your opinion, should storytelling be pushed forward? Should the industry continue to pursue this editorial direction initiated by the marketplace a few years’ ago?
I would like to pay tribute to the enormity of Yves Jeanneau’s work, his tenacity and his pugnacity for putting storytelling at the heart of any project.
We were talking about Netflix earlier. It would be a mistake to simply reduce them as being the platform behind Casa De Papel or The Crown. There is huge interest from a wider general audience in investigative documentaries, and major platforms and television stations alike have both understood this perfectly.
They’re also the ones who are shaking storytelling up and allowing “small” stories to pass through the main gate, thanks to significant archives. Small stories, international resonance. We must continue to champion the talent of auteurs, directors and producers who express a substantiated point of view.
Strong democracies are well informed democracies!
I am convinced by the sudden urge of platforms, major broadcasters and important documentary channels to have independent investigation on offer, to inform citizens and counter imprecise information.
Strong democracies are well informed democracies! French documentaries are exporting very well, so let’s continue in this direction.