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Franco and the red pen

Spain’s Royal Academy of History is an outdated and ideologically questionable institution which has published a dictionary praising Franco. But its farcical view of history also reflects the low esteem in which the post of sub-editor is held in Spain.


One of the upshots of the recent furore surrounding the recently published Diccionario Biográfico Español has been how it has highlighted the decrepit and ideologically questionable nature of the Spanish Royal Academy of History (RAH). Of its 36 members, 15 are over 80 years old, only three are women and among its many right-leaning experts, several are seemingly pro-Franco. The most obvious example is Luis Suárez, the historian who wrote the now-notorious dictionary entry on Francisco Franco, painting the dictator in a flattering light.

Clearly, the RAH has a problem in terms of its personnel, which makes providing objective and serious accounts of Spanish history difficult, if not impossible. However, there is another side to this controversy, which helps explain how Franco was allowed to be described as  “authoritarian, but not totalitarian” and it has to do with how the task of editing is seen and carried out in Spain.

Having worked in a Spanish newspaper and seen how a day’s news is reported, edited and published here, I can say that the job of sub-editor is very different in Spain to the United States or Britain, at least in the news media. Any journalist who works for an American newspaper, news agency or magazine has to get used to eagle-eyed sub-editors treating his copy with ruthless rigour. That can mean not only checking and querying facts, but cutting redundancies, recasting leads, and re-jigging sentences. However painful that can feel for the reporter, ultimately he or she has to accept it is for the best.

In Spain, the writer is generally held in such esteem that reworking of this kind is seldom seen. The writer is trusted to provide copy that needs little more than a read-through. Sub-editors are not the feared newsdesk army they are in other countries, but a small, overworked platoon with little heft.

The RAH seems to follow this tradition of hands-off editing. In a statement released last week in response to its National-Catholicism-tinged dictionary, the academy insisted that it respects “the principles of intellectual freedom and the responsibility of writers.” This suggests that it has little time for meddlesome editors who might be inclined to curb the ideological or linguistic excesses of some of those involved.

Of course, a lack of sub-editors is not the RAH’s main problem – its archaic structure and membership are. But I can’t help feeling that a different attitude towards the editor’s red pen might have saved at least some of its blushes.

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Published: Jun 6 2011
Category: Iberoblog
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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