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Spanish TV journalism’s identity crisis

A controversy has flared up concerning the alleged bias of public broadcaster TVE. This furore speaks volumes about the Spanish media's curious relationship with politicians.

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José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero visits the Canary Islands and the sound of onlookers booing him is edited out of the evening news; the prime minister and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy both speak on the same issue, yet Zapatero gets half a minute more TV coverage; Popular Party (PP) number two María Dolores de Cospedal gets interrogated on a breakfast-time show over her party’s attacks on the public broadcaster. It’s quite clear, isn’t it? Televisión Española is a puppet of the Socialist government.

Camps: "Don't point that camera at me!"

At least, that’s what the PP is alleging. The party charges that the public broadcaster, which Zapatero pledged to depoliticise and free of government intervention, is more susceptible to meddling than ever before.

“Freedom? That makes me laugh so much my sides are splitting.” That was the response of former TVE head of news Alfredo Urdaci to the broadcaster’s assertion that it is free of political control.

But it’s not quite that simple. There’s a reason this dispute has flared up over the last couple of weeks – the May 22 local elections are approaching, and beyond that the 2012 general election. The political stakes are high and television is crucial in any political campaign.

But the PP’s claims need to be examined more closely. It’s virtually impossible to verify the editing-out-of-booing allegation, but as far as giving the prime minister marginally more coverage than the leader of the opposition, TVE itself insists that is not the case (although isn’t it common practice around the world to give the person in power more minutes on the screen than his or her political opponent?). TVE says that 45 percent of its political coverage is dedicated to the PP, to which the party responds that this may be true, but this is mainly negative coverage, as opposed to the rosy picture the channel paints of the government.

But the most telling complaint is levelled at TVE’s treatment of interviewees, specifically the performance of Ana Pastor, who anchors the ‘Los desayunos de TVE’ morning program.

Pastor is demanding in her interviews, setting her apart from the majority of her colleagues. Her interview with Cospedal has sparked fierce debate in the media and the blogosphere, with many accusing the journalist of “rudeness”, “lack of professionalism” or just plain bias.

 

With Pastor, it’s hard to make a serious case that she is blatantly impartial. Firstly, her treatment of Cospedal was neither rude nor amateur, it was the kind of conversation that an American or British politician, for example, would expect on a regular basis. Moreover, her breakfast grilling has been dished out to Socialists as well as conservatives, such as the veteran Alfonso Guerra. This balance compares well with the dark days when Urdaci controlled the news at TVE, until 2004. His ludicrously skewed coverage of a general strike against the Aznar government in 2002 not only outraged opposition politicians and public opinion – a High Court ruling condemned it too. Broadly speaking, TVE is much more professional and less partial than it was 10 years ago.

Ducking the issue

The really intriguing question is whether Pastor’s rigour heralds a new style of TV journalism in Spain, whereby politicians actually have to justify their actions, rather than simply dishing out blithe declarations and ducking inconvenient questions.

“Politicians are not used to being so harshly questioned in public,” political analyst José Ignacio Torreblanca told Iberosphere. “They are not so used to being asked questions they wouldn’t like to answer; and when they don’t answer, they are not used to the same question again and again until they very openly say ‘I don’t want to answer that question.’”

Pastor’s approach marks a refreshing departure from a common interviewing style on television and radio in Spain, whereby a politician is asked for their views on an issue and allowed to ramble on without interruption, perhaps without even addressing the question directly.

Unaccountability in the media is not restricted to soft interviews. Politicians of all stripes have become increasingly prone to circumventing pesky journalists altogether by issuing announcements on their websites, through videos, or perhaps most notoriously, via no-questions-allowed press events.

Francisco Camps: the new Chávez?

Torreblanca highlights the case of Valencia regional premier Francisco Camps, of the PP. The analyst compares him to populist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, due to their shared contempt for “unfriendly” media. That may sound far-fetched, but look at the facts: Camps, who presides one of Spain’s 17 regions, granted his first interview in two years last week. In the intervening years between campaigning for re-election, he saw no need.

There may be many issues that politicians such as Camps wish to sidestep – corruption most obviously – but they seem to want it both ways. Many of Spain’s regional television networks do not keep the public informed in a balanced way at all, but are grossly partisan political foghorns, such as Esperanza Aguirre’s Telemadrid.

Encouragingly, journalists are showing signs of running out of patience and their frustration has started to brim over as the local election campaign has got under way.

“We accept them refusing to debate, we tolerate them not answering questions, we publish their pre-recorded messages… But then we complain about our politicians,” was the succinct view of Cadena Ser journalist Antón Losada in a recent twitter post.

It may be optimistic to believe that the likes of Losada and Pastor are ushering in a new age of journalism. But right now, their country desperately needs them.





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Published: May 13 2011
Category: Uncategorized
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=2821
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2 Comments for “Spanish TV journalism’s identity crisis”

  1. Michael Clarke

    “Public” Broadcasters the world over tend to have a liberal or left-leaning Bias… TVE1 is no exception. (Nor is the BBC, ABC, PBS, CBC etc. ) For those readers who do understand Spanish, I would recommend “59 Segundos” on TVE1, where the debating format is rather good, and gives equal time to print journalists from the main Spanish dailies.

  2. Pastor’s “new style” is a rough copy of what American, British, and if I may add others like French and German, journalists are achieving already for a long time. It is nevertheless a welcome phenomenon. Losada is certainly spot-on, and one hopes he and others make the necessary conclusions and adjustments; and that they be allowed to.

    The general background is a lack in democratic consensus in Spanish politics, which expresses itself as a near to anything-goes attitude within a gregarious mindset, resulting in a strong partisanship in journalism. One cannot hope that politicians will change any time soon, but because journalism is a well established profession that follows just a few universal rules, it should be expected that Spanish journalists finally live up to their social role.

    If they do not, they may not be questioned by the people they should serve and whose freedom of information they owe their position to, but they’ll continue to be exposed in articles like this.

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