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Silly season divides Spanish and English-speaking media

Foreign newspapers’ treatment of Spain may be erratic and often distorted, but it offers a counterbalance to the dull flow of local news in the summer months.


It’s August: the silly season. The month when newspapers and the media in general have little real news to cover, so they pay even more attention to B-list celebrity love triangles, local politicians’ sex-changes and garbage collectors’ concerns about being suspected of being paedophiles.

That’s in Britain, at least (all those stories featured in The Sun on August 11). For the summer months illustrate better than any other the gulf dividing the Spanish media and its English-speaking counterparts.

The summer holiday period is observed by Spain perhaps more assiduously than any other European country. Many bars, shops and other businesses shut down for most of August as ordinary Spaniards, as well as their political leaders, go on long holidays. This makes it all the more surprising that the country’s media insists on offering “serious” news, often in the form of utterances by minor political figures or prosaic details about how senior politicians are spending their own down time.

Unusually, this summer has already offered some major news stories from Spain that both the local and foreign press have been able to feast on: the football World Cup victory, most obviously, but also a massive “anti-Madrid” march through the streets of Barcelona by Catalans and, on a related note, their region’s banning of bullfighting.

But other stories from recent weeks have been more illustrative of the news agenda that divides Spain and the English-speaking world.

Most famously, there was the article run by UK paper The Times which suggested the captain and goalkeeper of the Spanish football team, Iker Casillas, had been distracted by the presence of his girlfriend reporter on the touchline during his team’s shock defeat to Switzerland at the start of the World Cup. Quoting “fans”, the article said many Spaniards were angry at the fact that the glamorous Sara Carbonero was just yards away from her beau as she commented for TV station Telecinco.

The Spanish media did not seem interested in the story itself, so much as in the fact The Times had decided to run with it. National dailies and provincial newspaper blogs alike appeared stunned by the British paper’s assertion, and one football commentator even felt obliged to defend Casillas’s reputation live on-air against the accusation.

But given the ingredients of the story –a beautiful TV journalist is highly visible pitchside as her world-class goalkeeper boyfriend fails to stop his much-vaunted team from sliding to a truly shocking defeat– it would have been surprising if a story had not been created out of it.

The Times’s treatment may have been mischievous and a little disingenuous, but the paper was following the prerogative of all media in the UK: find a good story.

“The pressure to hype, exaggerate or cut corners has increased as sales have fallen and competition has intensified,” according to Ben Schiller, who has worked as a journalist in several countries, including the United States and Britain and whose blog analyses media issues. “But inevitably, foreign news will be seen from the domestic perspective. It will be informed by the prejudices of the home country for the foreign one,” he told Iberosphere.

The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and others also ran with the story, while many media simply enjoyed the bizarre sight of Casillas being “grilled” (Los Angeles Times) and “berated” (The Daily Mail) by Carbonero live on TV after the game.

So while this incident reflects how in Spain a patriotic fig leaf can prevent the nation’s media from attacking its own sporting heroes, even when a juicy story beckons, it also highlights how sensitive the country is to the foreign media’s perception of it.

One of the comments beneath El País’s coverage of “Carbonerogate” said: “It’s our fault for taking any notice of this. Every time a British or American medium does a story on Spain it’s as if the divine oracle has spoken.”

The esteem in which publications such as The Economist or The Financial Times is held by Spaniards is indeed remarkable, as is their sensitivity to the less serious articles about their country in other papers. References to what foreign papers are saying about Spain abound in the national press and politicians seem equally well informed. In one extreme case, a Socialist deputy quoted the FT at length –albeit to little effect– as he interrogated José María Aznar in the commission investigating the March 11 Madrid bombings in 2004.

Race row? What race row?

And yet, even the more “serious” English-speaking papers are liable to take a relatively racy approach to news compared to their Spanish cousins. The use of bold verbs and strong quotes in both headlines and texts helps create a readable angle for these papers’ readers, contrasting with the wordier, more fact-filled and less storified style of Spanish publications.

This difference was amply shown when it emerged in early August that the US state department had warned African-Americans on its website about racist incidents involving the police in Spain. The warning was removed just ahead of Michelle Obama’s arrival in Spain, prompting The Guardian to declare: “US officials scrambled to defuse embarassing (sic) allegations of institutional racism against their host country.” While no dispute as such was apparent, the removal of the offending text was tantamount to a “race row”, according to the British paper.

Curiously, in Spain the racism issue received relatively little coverage. After the apparently diplomacy-driven removal of the warning by US authorities, El Mundo’s subsequent article read strikingly like an official press release, quoting three different local police representatives, who vehemently denied their force was racist and described the US warning as “ignorant”.

This sort of lack of distance from the news is one reason why the foreign media can, at times, offer a balance and perspective that local journalists lack. In the immediate wake of the 2004 bombings, for example, there seemed to be a good deal more confusion surrounding their authorship in Spain than abroad.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that the English-speaking media is liable to twist a story for effect, seeing a “snub”, “row” or “imminent crisis” where none necessarily exists. And as long as the summer drags on, expect to see a few more of them in black and white on your newsstand.

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