Spain: national television, government tool?

The Spanish government's  determination to manipulate public television and treat viewers as idiots is backfiring. Liz Cooper reports on the response of the private sector, backed by social networks and free press

Liz Cooper
19 August 2013

 As the democratic world mourns the sale of “The Washington Post” in hundreds of “obituaries” recalling its greatest days, particularly its role in bringing down President Nixon and its influence on investigative journalism, it seems important that such determined defenders of democracy should continue to thrive in a modern society.  Radio too had its day in Prague in 1968, the capital of the then state of Czechoslovakia, when the Russians, uninvited, entered the city in tanks.   Radio cars were set up, mobile and difficult to trace, broadcasting for a maximum of 9 minutes, then replaced by others. They maintained links with the outside world; distributing essential information in support of a spontaneous, non-violent resistance by the citizens of Prague against an invasion by a foreign power. 

Modern systems of communication have been a thorn in the flesh of 20th century governments both on the right and the left.  In Spain control of the media was close to 100% during the 40 years of the Franco dictatorship including dubbing and even changing, the scripts of foreign films and documentaries. After the dictator's death in 1975 and the rapid opening up of the communications sector, one of the principal media groups PRISA established “El País”, Spain’s first ever liberal independent newspaper and still Spain’s leading daily.  PRISA also owns the radio network SER and is part owner of the subscription television channel Canal+.

PRISA operates in the private sector, along with other independent commercial companies providing newspapers, radio and above all television programmes.  Alongside the private channels the state runs two major television national channels TVE1 and 2 and a national radio station RNE.. Each autonomous region runs its own publicly funded television.. In Article 20 of the Spanish Constitution approved by the people in a referendum in 1978, the Spanish Parliament was defined as the ruling body for all media under state control, but it was not until 2006, nearly 30 years later that the public television and radio network RTVE  was taken, briefly, out of the hands of the  presiding Government and handed over to Parliament. Every change of Government since the end of the dictatorship had meant removing the RTVE President and major personnel, turning to those more in tune with the ruling Government policy. As a private commercial channel programme pointed out last year, public television in Spain is run by the politicians “and always has been”.  

By the 90s television had become the main source of news and information for the whole population and by the end of the 90’s people were watching over four hours a day.  The “tele” was by then of major social and political importance. When the conservative right, the “Partido Popular” (PP), won its first election in 1996, Eduardo Zaplana, President of the region of Valencia, convinced that Spanish television was “the last bastion of the Socialists”, took control of the regional network (RTVV )turning it into a Government mouthpiece.

In the run up to the 2004 elections the socialist leader, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero promised to free the media from government control.  After a lengthy consultation process a reform of state television, based on British and French models, with advertising banned as a source of income from 2010 and a radical change in the governance of the sector became a possibility through the Law of State Radio and Television published in June 2006.  The President of state television channels would be elected by Parliament with a mandate to last 6 years.  Advertising was to be dropped and the major unions the General Workers Union (UGT) and the Workers Union (CC.OO) were to be represented on the board.  It was a radical change, persistently attacked by the right and full of difficulties, but a serious attempt to provide a publicly funded media company free from party political interference for the first time in the history of modern Spain.

After the defeat of the Socialist Government in 2011 the conservatives had within months returned RTVE to the control of the Government, put advertising and bull fighting back on the screen and had begun moving out journalists  replacing them with many who had worked under the previous PP government in the 90’s. It was back to treating national television as a government tool, to the extent that Television Madrid, one publicly funded regional channel, published pictures of a violent demonstration in Greece purporting to depict anti-government demonstrators in Barcelona. More recently some members of the PP have apparently asked that the Director of News on the national channel be replaced as “the channel is not serving the best interests of the Government”     

There appears to be an unexpected cost to the current Government’s determination to manipulate public television.  After years as the favourite channel for its news bulletins, another relic of the dictatorship when all news came from a government source, TVE has lost its top position, registering its lowest viewing figures in its history in June this year. The Spanish seem to be voting with their thumbs and now favour private over state channels for news and information. One private channel “La Sexta” was reported in the New York Times earlier this year to have made a very effective investigative programme “speaking for the people” on a serious accident on the underground train system in Valencia.  Spanish television is not often applauded from beyond its frontiers.

A statement by the Director of News on TVE, Julio Somoano, has done little to persuade the viewing audience to return. He has suggested that the drop in audience figures is related to the “high level of quality, rigor and independence” of the public channel, an oddly disparaging comment on the people who pay his salary.  Canal 24, part of TVE and the site of the documentary programme “Parlamento” recently alluded to the 11 M bombings of trains in Madrid in 2004 as a terrorist attack by ETA the Basque independence movement. The whole of Spain and half the world knows that in fact the bombs were the responsibility of the Al Qaida organization. 

Factual inaccuracies on the part of state television both in news and documentary programmes and the treatment of viewers as idiots, complaints about which have been aired on the internet social networks, probably has something to do with viewers opting for other channels.  Last month TVE had to apologise for its appalling coverage of the train crash in Galicia, in which 80 people died and over 100 were wounded. The national state channel provided neither immediate nor correct information, leaving it to a private network and local television to fill the gap.

Television has taken over as the main provider of information in many European countries. In Spain it now seems likely to be between Government controlled public television on the one hand and the private sector, backed by social networks and a free press on the other, that the next big battle will be fought out in the struggle to preserve democratic practice and institutions.



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