Spain’s democratic deficit is reflected by a timid media

IMAGE: Alex Skopje — 123RF

I wasn’t in Spain when the brouhaha erupted over a recent article in The New York Times entitled “Spain’s News Media are Squeezed by Government and Debt, which prompted leading daily El País to sack one of its longest-standing journalists who had spoken to the US paper about what he called the “self-censorship” he claimed Spanish journalists increasingly impose on themselves. After publishing an article supposedly exposing The NYT’s financial problems (pdf in Spanish), El País then obliged Spain’s association of daily newspaper publishers, the AEDE, to release a press note “defending the besmirched honor of its members” (pdf in Spanish).

My doctoral dissertation, back in 2000, was about the transition of the Spanish newspapers from the paper to the screen, and I have been collaborating regularly with Spanish media since then. Therefore, based on many years of study and collaboration, I would like to share my thoughts on the sorry state of the Spanish media.

To begin with, the situation in Spain is actually much grimmer than the picture painted in the NYT article, and I have been warning about it for quite some time.

In recent years, the quality of Spanish democracy has declined markedly, to what I would say is its lowest point since the death of General Francisco Franco almost exactly 40 years ago. Spain is now a country ruled by a government obsessed with controlling the media, that has forced three of the main newspapers to get rid of their editors, and that sees nothing untoward in contacting editors to remind them on a daily basis if it feels they have overstepped the mark in criticizing its policies. State broadcaster RTVE has also come under fire, and its management structure adjusted accordingly in the run up to general elections in December.

Having been suitably enfeebled, most of Spain’s media has now fallen into line. Their editors and senior staff routinely meet with government press officers, and are told when to give extra coverage to certain events, and when to back off.

Media outlets that were already sympathetic to the current administration have been rewarded with generous advertising from state-owned companies and institutions. Among the more egregious examples of this cozying up is La Razón, whose editorial line might well be dictated directly from the prime minister’s office, and is regularly quoted by television news and current affairs programs, despite being one of the country’s least popular organs.

In contrast, television stations ignore the new journalism to be found in Spain’s burgeoning online publications, such as El Confidencial, El Diario or El Español, (I should say at this point that I am a member of the board of the latter). These online publications, along with a few others, look now like the last resource to find independent journalism in Spain. The country may not yet have sunk to the level of Venezuela, but its government appears to have learned a great deal from such regimes about how to control the media.

The root of the problem is Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, with whom I had the opportunity to speak prior to his election win in late 2011. During our conversation he made abundantly clear his obsession with what the print media said about him and his policies.

This is a man who doesn’t speak any language other than Spanish and who never uses a computer, hence his focus on the print media, radio, and television.

Online media, aside from being denied any institutional advertising, are ignored and their growing importance as a source of unbiased news played down. Like the social media, which has successfully been used here by dissenters, they now find themselves threatened by recent legislation to further limit free speech in Spain.

Then there is the corporate side to all this. Never, over the two decades or so of writing for different media have I experienced so many problems with my opinion pieces as in the last few years. My situation is, I must admit, a privileged one: I do not make my living from writing, and instead do so because I want to, and usually because I have been invited by media that seem to appreciate what I have to say. This has allowed me to say whatever I have wished, and arguably in ways that others are unable to, the result being that sometimes what I have to say makes some people uncomfortable.

But I had never been subjected to anything like censorship: at worst, in very few occasions, a suggestion that my language was a little inflammatory. However, in recent years I have found myself in more and more situations involving not just attempted censorship of my writing, but veiled threats toward the business school I work for, after I had published the censored article in full on my own website. I can confirm that I am far from alone in having been subjected to such pressure.

The problem has become endemic. The influence that some companies have over certain media seems limitless. These are large, highly profitable companies that we normally hear little about, and when we do, if those companies don’t like what they hear, they have no compunction in contacting the offending media directly to put them straight. Something that started out as characteristic of a few companies has now become widespread. It is extremely worrying.

This is the situation Spain now finds itself in. If you want to know what is really going on here, don’t bother reading a newspaper, or at least one that still prints on paper: with very few exceptions, they are now subject to control by the government and big business.

At the same time, the AEDE is in cahoots with the government over the latter’s efforts to impose a tariff on providing links to newspaper articles, and that prompted Google News to pull out of Spain, making this country the only democracy where it has been obliged to take such action.

This all may sound incredible to anybody outside the country, or the result of a fevered imagination prone to conspiracy theories. But the sad truth is that close scrutiny of the Spanish media will confirm all the above.

If this government has done one thing over the last four years it has been to erode Spain’s democracy, and one of the ways it has achieved this is by gradually taking control of the traditional media, particularly the press. As said, if you want to know what is going on here, you won’t find out much from the main newspapers. El País and the AEDE can complain all they want: The New York Times is absolutely right.

(En español, aquí)