French blogger lashes out at YouTube for trying to ‘censor’ her interview with Juncker

Screenshot of the interview between video blogger Laetitia Birbes and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker © Youtube
A French video blogger who interviewed European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker has exposed a video in which a YouTube representative tries to censor her “super tough” questions. The embarrassing scene was caught on hidden camera.

“You don’t want to get on the wrong side of YouTube and the European Commission, or of the people who trust you. Except if you don’t care about having a long career on YouTube,” a YouTube employee tells Birbes, adding that he would have to discuss potential “red-flag” questions with Juncker’s spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud.

“At the beginning, I realized that YouTube was trying to gently influence me,” Birbes said in her video statement on Facebook. “Then eventually it got more serious, and at some point I felt threatened.”

YouTube wanted the conversation with Juncker to be a politics-free chat, nothing to write home about. “They wanted me to ask super soft questions. The goal was to give advertisement to Juncker.”

“They suggested I ask Juncker ‘What is happiness?’ [and] discuss his vintage Nokia phone and his dog named ‘Plato,’” Birbes told French news website Rue 89.

The French blogger, who is the host of the YouTube channel ‘Le Corps, la Maison, l’Esprit’ (The Body, the Home, the Spirit), with over 64,000 subscribers, said she was pressed to make a tough choice.

“What was difficult for me is that I felt a ball in my stomach when I talked to the YouTube guy,” she recalled.

“Clearly, I had to decide: Take the risk and lose everything I’ve succeeded in so far in order to ask the questions [that I chose], or stay within the system and ask the questions suggested by YouTube. I decided to run the risk. I wanted to be honest with myself and with all those people who trust me,” the blogger said in her video.

Birbes jumped at the opportunity to grill Juncker about his predecessor José Manuel Barroso’s controversial job at Goldman Sachs, as well as about Luxembourg’s tax policies under his terms as Prime Minister and Finance Minister.

A spokesperson for Google (which owns YouTube) has denied any intention to shape Birbes’ interview with Juncker.

“Laetitia had some tough questions for President Juncker and before the interview, asked for our advice on how to phrase them,” the spokesperson, who declined to be named, told Politico. “Our colleague encouraged her to be respectful, rather than confrontational — that is all that happened here.”

Birbes said in her video that after the Juncker interview, Google offered her a chance to become a YouTube ambassador for humanitarian projects, with a grant of €25,000 ($27,900).

“I feel at a loss. Why are they proposing this contract at this particular moment? Is it honest or not? Are they doing it to buy me off, for not showing the video, not talking about this?” Birbes asked. “I can’t sign it right now.”

“I was really shocked to have been manipulated and threatened like this. I can’t keep silent [about it],” she said.

“I’d like YouTube to pledge publicly for no more manipulating, threatening and instrumentalizing YouTube content makers,” she added.

European Commission Chief Spokesman Margaritis Schinas responded to the incident by saying that Juncker has gained more than enough experience with interviews during his long political career and therefore needed no protection, Reuters reported.

“Frankly, we are a bit annoyed that for some reason we are now becoming part of the story with which we have absolutely nothing to do,” Schinas also said.

YouTube, in its turn, later explained that its employee only answered a question from Birbes, who was not sure how to pitch her questions to Juncker.

“Our colleague encouraged her to be respectful rather than confrontational,” the company said, also stressing that the blogger asked the questions she intended to ask anyway.