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Beating a retreat (‘En retirada’)

Spain is the only country in the European Union with a population of over a million without a law on access to public information - a fundamental tool not just for the practice of journalism but also for the people.

Marta Molina
13 June 2011

Spanish editors are beating a retreat. Bedevilled by the financial crisis and unable to find a viable business model, they are now reaping the last rewards of a sector that ate its fatted calf (a 6% growth in annual profits between 2005 and 2007) without taking stock or adapting to a digital reality that announced itself well in advance. Turning their backs on journalism, they prefer simply to leave a sector that has been devastated and distanced from its essence of public service to sowing their own crop for the future.

Journalism in Spain can now be summed up with one image: rinsing out a dirty rag. Pessimism has taken hold of all its practitioners, who amount to nearly 50,000. According to figures from Crisis Observation, which runs the Federation of Journalists’ Associations in Spain* (the Federación de Asociaciones de Periodistas de España, or FAPE - the first such Spanish organisation, with more than 20,000 members), the media industry destroyed 3,938 job positions between November 2008 and June 2011. More than 6,500 journalists are marked as unemployed in the books of the Public Employment Service* (Servicio Público de Empleo) at a time when universities offering journalism in Spain (37, 12 of them in Madrid), certificate 3,000 new professionals each year, according to figures from the Informe Anual de la Profesión Periodística 2010.

Large and medium-sized construction companies (the motor of the Spanish economy for the last decade) bought up some newspapers and television channels, and founded others - with the intention of promoting themselves and creating a media bubble whose bursting, in early 2008, spelt the end of the majority of these outlets. In Spain - a country of 48 million people - there existed more than 140 newspapers in 2009. Galicia, a region inhabited by fewer than 3 million people, had 12 local daily papers to its name while Guadalajara, with a population 90,000, still has four of its own television stations today.

For too many months, Spanish editors gazed at their navels, stuffing the armchair of abundance with the profits they raked in. It was not so long ago that they ignored the patterns of the market and dismissed their own country’s digital media as inconsistent and untrustworthy. Although it took a long time to wake up, the industry then expected to make in two years advances that it hadn’t managed in ten. It had been caught napping by digital modernity but suddenly decided to hop the train, and thought up a host of methods for achieving viability and recovering its audience. It plumped for forcing the early retirement of veterans and the most experienced workers, who are also those enjoying the highest salaries. They reduced payroll sizes, and therefore editorial teams, to their barest bones, overloading with tasks any who managed to hold onto their jobs. They substituted experienced journalists for 35-year-old interns that work 14-hour days to shore up the lack of staff in return for 300 euros a month - and those are the lucky ones. They resorted to huge lay-offs, which in the world of the politically correct are called Redundancy Programmes* (Expedientes de regulación de empleo, ERE). For the industry, this was dynamite!

The newspaper ABC, after 108 years in the business, laid off 238 people in 2009 (and loose tongues assure us that the Grupo Vocento charged the printing costs of its 12 local papers to this flagship title to obtain permission from the Ministerio de Trabajo). Unidad Editorial, which owns El Mundo, laid off 78 workers in the same year. And that same group has just melted down the news and sports services of Veo7, its television channel, leaving 73 journalists on the street. Magazines owned by Hachette Filipacci got rid of 90 staff members in 2009. Zeta, a company that enjoyed some glorious years in the eighties and early nineties, divested itself of 531 employees - a fifth of its workforce - in 2008. The business magazine Cinco Dias, which belongs to Grupo Prisa, reduced its team from 90 to 50 salaried members in one year.

This ‘decapitalisation’ had its worst episode in 2007 when the public body Radio Televisión Española forced the early retirement of 4,150 professional journalists aged fifty or over as of 1 January of that year. The organisation, a byword for quality journalism and a training ground for many of the industry’s most respected practitioners, thus dispensed with seniority and experience.

At the end of 2010, Prisa, the first Spanish-language media group, announced an ERE that will affect 18% of its staff - as many as 2,514 workers, 2,000 of whom are based in Spain. That piece of news coincided with the closing of CNN+, following the sale of Prisa TV to Telecinco, which belongs to the group Mediaset - property of Silvio Berlusconi. CNN+’s airwaves were then occupied by Big Brother 24. The directors of Prisa deny that the move was motivated by the sale of shares to the investment fund Liberty, which is listed as a special-purpose acquisition company (spac) and now accounts for half the seats in Prisa’s boardroom. All this closed the door on a year that was lethal for Spanish journalism, in labour terms as much as professional ones.

In case precariousness and unemployment weren’t dragging the quality of journalistic output down far enough, the political class also seems determined to do battle with the media. Congress is approving laws that attack freedom of the press head-on, such as by blocking political party propaganda during news programmes according to the results they obtained in previous elections. Politicians call press conferences in which questions are not allowed, a fad which has been adopted by those from the lowest rungs all the way up to the Prime Minister himself, as well as bankers and the odd football coach. And, while Parliament promotes the ‘General Audiovisual Law’ (la Ley General Audiovisual) which led to the creation of a State Council for Audiovisual Media (Consejo Estatal de Medios Audiovisuales) in October 2010, it is delaying the processing of a law on transparency. Spain is the only country in the European Union with a population of over a million without a law on access to public information - a fundamental tool not just for the practice of journalism but also for the people. Another victim of the deregulation that currently prevails, the bill for the Statute of Professional Journalists (Estatuto del Periodista Profesional) has been stuck in the courts since 2004.

And meanwhile, it is spectacle that triumphs in the media. As news programmes are moved over to marginal channels at off-peak hours, or simply disappear, talk shows and programmes about the lives of celebrities multiply. Talk show hosts occupy a space previously reserved for journalists and experts, thus muddling responsibilities, all the while pushing professional journalists further into disrepute.

In a country with more than 20% unemployment, it is significant that the government has committed itself to creating a White Paper on the Profession of Journalism, ahead of any other professional group penalised by the crisis.

 

Notes

* In Spain, a company requests permission to make layoffs. ‘Dismissal programmes’ is apparently an alternative.

Translated by Ollie Brock

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