Stolen debates: the financial crisis and Spanish media

Instead of acting as an open space for discussion and debate, Spanish media have been megaphones for the established powers supporting austerity measures and politics.

Héctor Fouce Miguel Álvarez-Peralta Cristina Peñamarín
7 July 2016

Flickr/Michael K Donnelly. Some rights reserved.

“There are guilty parties, there are solutions” was the motto of the general strike that took place in Spain in November 2012, protesting against the austerity policies of the conservative government. For many citizens, the guilty parties were easy to identify: financial powers, banks, big corporations and politicians. Fewer people referred to the Spanish media as one of the responsible parties for the crisis. But Spanish mainstream media have produced a dominant discourse on economics and the crisis that  is intimately linked to the positions and interests of the guilty parties named by citizens.

The press has played a key role in the adoption of austerity policies. Instead of acting as an open space for discussion and debate, media have been megaphones for established powers supporting austerity measures and politics. Media have stolen the citizens’ right to debate public issues.

Miguel Álvarez-Peralta has analysed the discourse about the crisis of the two main Spanish newspapers: El País and El Mundo. He has concluded that both newspapers share the same discourse on the crisis, based on “the construction of representations in favor of the aims of the banking sector”, although there is a slight difference in the “strategies of defense and erosion of the different political parties”. 

This dominant media discourse has allowed the conservative government to adopt radical measures and to reform the constitution in order to limit the public deficit. What are the basic lines of their discursive strategy? We can identify four basic positions: a) a representation of the crisis as the exception and not the rule in financial capitalism b) the silencing of those voices that warned about the possibility of the crisis c) the presentation of the financial bailout as a matter for governments and not banks and d) the confusion between the interests of the banks and those of citizens in order to defend austerity.

This last narrative was key in order to gain people’s support in order to carry through austerity measures. We will focus on the discourse of El País reporting the initial weeks of the crisis (15 September – 1 October 2008). Immediately after the financial crash, the narrative structure of the stories always presented President Bush as a heroic character trying to save “us” from disaster. The financial crisis that at that time led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Fanny Mae was presented as a natural disaster through the use of metaphors: the crisis was described as a perfect storm, a hurricane, a tsunami, a turbulence, an earthquake, a seism, a hecatomb.

Confronted with these problems, there was no place for reflection or criticism; people were expected to run while governmental bodies were expected to rescue, save, help, defend their citizens. The narrative structure of the news equated the needs of the people, citizens, humanity even, with those of the financial sector. To “save” the banks and the mortgage companies through a financial “rescue” is a way to save people. What is good for banks is considered good for citizens since banks are the engine of the economy. This naturalization of the crisis and the identification of a common set of interests between the public and the financial sector created the conditions to approve austerity measures. This kind of discourse makes it harder to imagine that there are guilty parties behind the crisis: mechanisms of control that had failed, shared interests between the financial firms and the political parties, risky or illegal practices and decisions. It does not allow us to reflect on how austerity measures have impacted on citizens’ lives such as the 171,110 people who have lost their homes because they were unable to pay their mortgages between 2008 and 2012.

The mainstream press in Spain has been able to create a discourse that supports the idea that austerity measures were necessary and unavoidable although traumatic. The use of medical metaphors, such as those involving surgeons, is a further trend in this discourse. This was “common sense” in Spain when the Conservative Party  won two parliamentary majorities in elections in 2011 and 20015. Here we can identify the first one of the stolen debates: a public discussion on the causes of and responsibilities for the crisis and on the best political actions to be taken in order to prosecute the guilty parties and to protect citizens from the consequences of these disastrous decisions.

This debate has been avoided by the mainstream press, but not by alternative online platforms, such as Diagonal, some commercial newspapers, such as Público, and of course social networks. Why has the mainstream media been so determined to link the interests of the citizenry to those of the financial sector? We need to move from the analysis of the discourses to research on the economic interests of media in order to answer this question. As in most Western countries, Spanish newspapers had been confronting their own crisis for more than a decade before the current economic crisis. In the realm of the transition from print to digital, most newspapers suffered a remarkable loss of profits, of readership and of advertising. Although television is still the most frequently consumed form of media, young generations are opting for online news and social media over TV news, while print newspapers continue their decline.

This is not only a crisis of profits; it is also a crisis of credibility. The latest poll from the Centre for Sociological Research in Spain found that Spanish citizens scored their trust in the media at 4.5 out of 10. More than 18% of Spanish citizens confess they do not trust media at all. This mistrust has been similar in previous years and the Madrid Press Association (APM) concludes in its 2015 Report that the reasons behind this mistrust are the perceived political and economic interests of media owners and the general lack of independence of media outlets and journalists.

The 2015 Media Pluralism Monitor published by the European Commission places Spain at the highest level of risk in the indicator of concentrated media ownership. The country does not have cross-media ownership rules and 58% of the media market is currently controlled by only three companies. In November 2015 the New York Times published a story denouncing how Spanish media were “squeezed by government and debt”. The article quotes Miguel Ángel Aguilar, a former columnist at El País, saying how “[t]he newspapers are in the hands of creditors, and also in those of a government that has helped convince the creditors that the papers should be kept alive rather than just asphyxiated because of their debts”.

The newspaper El País, once in the hands of the Polanco family, is now controlled by Liberty Acquisition. In 2008, it owed over €5,044m to creditors, with 51% of this debt being short-term. The New York Times story quoted a journalist who accused the newspaper of modifying stories about the Qatar Royal Family and Telefonica, two of the company’s shareholders. These accusations, along with the plight and protests of the many journalists made redundant by Spanish media outlets since the financial crisis – 12,000 between 2008 and 2015, nearly half of the total amount of workers in this field – have not been properly covered by the Spanish mainstream press. This is a second stolen debate: the range of the relationships between the press and financial power, and its impact on the issues and points of view presented in the news.

Media are a basic element of our democratic societies. If media outlets want to recover their prestige and the trust of their audiences, they need to be rebuilt as spaces for public debate: controversial, transparent, diverse and participatory. If media persevere in stealing debates about basic public issues, they will go deeper into their own perfect storm.


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

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