Thursday, October 11, 2012

The news when in crisis

AOG, Madrid

One of the worst aspects of Spain’s current socio-economic situation is the effect it is having on the news. 

Last week I met up with a man who told me about his youth during the Franco years. 

He told me about the time he traveled to Italy, in the early 1970s, and about a small incident which told me a lot about the power of freedom of speech and information. 

It appears that at the time, Franco was having the last people he would order killed, killed. 

This man told me he was traveling with a small group of people, all from Spain, and that, when visiting the Vatican, their bus had to be diverted so as to stop them from seen a large anti-Franco banner which was hanging from a building. 

"That is when I first realised that Franco was not as loved outside of Spain as we had been told", he said.  

I was surprised to hear this, since I would have thought that people in Spain would have realised by then that the Regime was very in tune with propaganda.
But obviously not.  
A few days ago, J.L. Cebrián, CEO of Grupo Prisa, and owner of Spain’s top daily, El País, declared publicly that the paper had to lay off several members of staff.

In Spain, any large-scale lay offs have to be pre-approved and coordinated with the Spanish authorities.

Thus far, Mr. Cebrián, who it is rumoured earned over 11 million Euros in 2011, after declaring that “we can't continue to live so well”, has dismissed 150 journalists, and forced many over the age of 59 to early retirement –and sparked a public outcry for declaring that people over 50 (he himself is over 60) are “incapable” of producing the type of paper Grupo Prisa want to publish.

The remaining staff has to accept a 15% reduction in salary.

To this, the paper’s labor committee has responded by decided not to sign their work.  

Much like what goes on at The Economist, but as protest, not editorial policy.
In other words, anyone could be writing for the paper. 
In Spain, as elsewhere, signing your name to your work as a journalist is what gives it its value.

Unfortunately, Mr. Javier Moreno, Editor of El País, has threatened the  paper's foreign correspondents with unemployment, or with closing down their foreign post altogether.

The paper's newsroom will respond by taking him to court for coercion, threats, and bullying. And some articles have been published unsigned. 

For all intents and purposes there is an internal struggle going on at the paper and, unfortunately, the greater damage, aside from those people affected by unemployment, is the country at large.

You see, Spain, like anywhere else on Earth, needs reliable quality information, and media like El País ensured that it does.

Not long ago Spain’s current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, when talking about Spain’s possible EU bailout, or not, declared that Spain was not Uganda.

However, information-wise, his party has done its best to ensure that free speech in the media approaches third-world levels.

A few years ago, Spain’s Socialist government decided to ‘free’ the country’s public radio and television broadcasting network, RTVE, from government control, in a move seen by many as akin to turning it into  something as close to the BBC as possible.

Shortly after Spain’s Conservative party (the Partido Popular, or PP) took office last November, several changes at RTVE were implemented.

After having been questioned by some of the country’s top television journalist live on air by RTVE during the period immediately after its new charter was implemented, many at the PP felt that they needed to be taught a lesson, and they were removed.
Soon after, the Government repealed the Socialist Government’s law and, once again, turned RTVE into a Government mouthpiece by appointing one of its trusted men as Director of the public corporation: Leopoldo González-Echenique.

He in turn appointed as News Director a man in charge of doing that same job at TeleMadrid, a regional broadcaster criticised even by its own staff for manipulating the news.

As you may know, Spain is divided into 17 semi-autonomous regions, each with its own regional television and radio stations.

Of course, out of all of Spain’s news programs, those of TeleMadrid had of late (and for several years) experienced the lowest audiences, and its News Director is now in charge of the country’s largest broadcaster news programs.

Needless to say, where once TVE’s news shows had the highest ratings in the country, it now trails the private broadcasters. 

Not by much, but the trend is not about to change anytime soon.

It is not surprising that this is the case. 

Watching the news now is similar to watching a continuous party political broadcast. 

I'll give you an example.

Last September, when there were public riots in Madrid, on the day of the riots, TVE (although, to be fair it did mention the on-going riots at the start), spent 15 minutes talking about the Catalan President’s move to call for early elections (and the subsequent referendum concerning the independence of Catalonia) before it turned its attention to the situation on Madrid’s streets. 

 Fifteen minutes.

All the while the country’s other news channels, to say nothing of foreign channels like Al Jazeera, Russia Today, CNN Europe or the BBC, were broadcasting the riots live from Madrid’s streets.

But it is not just television. RTVE’s radio stations have also taken a turn for the worse. 
The Corporation’s president has also decided to swap radio presenters for people closer to his, and the PP’s, way of thinking. 

A case in point is  RTVE's Radio5, an all-news radio station. 

Popular presenter Juan Ramón Lucas was removed from his morning news talk show (En días como hoy – 'On days such as today') and replaced by Manuel Hernández Hurtado, who worked with him on the same morning show but, according to many, has different political views.

The morning news show in question has turned into, not surprisingly, a pro-Government three ring circus.
Whereas once you could expect to hear different voices arguing different sides of a particular story, these days you are expected to believe that what they serve as partisan views represents the view of  ‘most people’.

If you want to know what the official Government posture is on any issue  you need just tune your radio to them and you will hear it. 

In other words, they are biased.

Fortunately for Spain, there are still independent media struggling to give a voice to the other half of the country. 

Unfortunately, Spain’s current economic crisis, paired with unscrupulous businessmen like Mr. Cebrián, is ensuring that the country’s free voices may not remain free for much longer. 
Not so much because the Government will do their best to keep them quiet, which they will, but because the news, after all, are a business, and at present the economy is looking less than rosy.
And free speech is the biggest loser.