Politics, punditry, and the foreign gaze: the crisis in Portugal and the media

Porous boundaries between politicians and pundits, rigid austerity and a zealous attempt to please foreign observers can only have a destructive effect on Portuguese society.

José Borges Reis Rui Lopes
17 May 2013
A man reading a newspaper in Lisbon. Flickr/pedrosimoes7. Some rights reserved.

A man reading a newspaper in Lisbon. Flickr/pedrosimoes7. Some rights reserved.

This is a significantly expanded, updated version of a post originally published by Rui Lopes in the LSE Euro Crisis in the Press blog.

With the latest cuts announced by the Lisbon government, the Portuguese mainstream media seem to be gradually moving into a more critical assessment of austerity-based policies. Yet given the escalation of those policies, it is worth considering how some of their underlying assumptions came to gain such prominence. The confluence of official rhetoric, punditry and international media discourse has had a particularly strong impact in the climate of crisis that is today prevalent in Portugal.

Revolving doors

Portugal exhibits a peculiar articulation between politics and media, including a marked spillover effect. In a country where television has a disproportionate influence vis-à-vis the written press in shaping public debate, the main TV political commentators are predominantly professional politicians.

This trend was pioneered by Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a former leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the party which currently leads the government coalition. To further his political career, Rebelo de Sousa used the renown he had gathered during the 1990s through his comments on radio and television, arguably becoming Portugal’s most influential political pundit to this day. In the past decade, many have followed in his footsteps, including more recent PSD leaders such as Luís Filipe Menezes, Manuela Ferreira Leite, Pedro Santana Lopes, and Luís Marques Mendes – the latter two currently feature on weekly TV programmes.

Members of the other main party of the political centre, PS, have followed this trend, although ex-party leaders themselves seem more reluctant to do so. An important and picturesque exception is former Prime Minister José Sócrates – himself a pundit before being elected – who has recently returned to weekly televised political commentary on a public TV channel. After a two-year hiatus in Paris, during which Sócrates served for government and media alike as the proverbial scapegoat for the country’s crisis, his return to political debate caused wide uproar, including online petitions to prevent his being hired.

Besides living resentment towards the Sócrates’ governments, criticism has culminated in the notion that an ex-PM and ex-party leader could never make a credible pundit – that this was publicly discussed by multiple ex-party leaders turned pundits themselves was an irony that seemed to get lost in the deluge.

The inverse trajectory, from punditry to politics, is also becoming more fluid. The 2000s saw the rise of a new blogging generation that challenged the influence of more restricted circles of newspaper commentators. This generation gradually conquered its own space in the print media and spun its relations to political power. This was notably so in the case of a young neoliberal right, economically but also socially liberal, and struggling for space in the shadow of the traditional conservative right.

The former has spread from punditry to forays into organised lobbying and PR firms, gaining political influence and agency. Rodrigo Moita de Deus, for example, first achieved notoriety as a blogger and is now associated with a PR firm with connections to the government, while also sitting in PSD’s main political body. Pedro Lomba, a blogger and newspaper pundit, was recently appointed to a post in the government. Perhaps because the posts occupied so far are fairly low profile, these trajectories have been relatively overlooked.

In a hyper-saturated media landscape, even pundits with no official links to the government are increasingly becoming political agents. They sometimes serve as indirect spokespersons for the government, announcing measures still not taken as a way of testing reactions in a controlled manner, and providing a legitimate route for any necessary backtracking.

They also serve as political attack weapons, undermining through their influence newly arrived politicians struggling to consolidate their image. For example, last year PS leader António José Seguro felt compelled to enter into a media confrontation with pundit Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in response to disparaging remarks made in the latter’s weekly TV commentary segment.

The foreign gaze, and an inferiority complex

These developments are connected to the discrediting of politics and politicians - a recognised trend in core western countries. In the case of Portugal, this is compounded in its short democratic history by a yo-yo trajectory of upward and downward mobility (1980s and 1990s versus the 2000s) that instils insecurity and undermines the appeal of democratic politics.

One may argue that in the current climate being actively involved in party politics brings a stigma of partisanship and self-serving cupidity that instantly turns people off, while posing as external observer to the game of politics confers a legitimacy much more effective in shaping public opinion, regardless of one's affiliations and political past. Hence some pundits can be much more influential than they ever were as politicians, and parties themselves increasingly depend on them to get their points across. Indeed, at the onset of the crisis, pundits proved instrumental in voicing notions such as a righteous need for severe structural adjustment, or a lack of alternatives to the present policy, both serving to justify the government’s pursuit of austerity.

Public debate about the crisis was further hindered by the disproportional impact of international discourse on domestic opinion - and policy makers. Portuguese journalists, pundits and politicians closely monitor every reference to the country’s situation. They frequently cite foreign speeches and articles to justify their own interpretations of the crisis as well as possible solutions to overcoming it.

In early April, one day after Prime Minister Passos Coelho announced further cuts in health, education, social security and state companies, the online edition of Público, Portugal’s main newspaper of record, ran a story listing excerpts and soundbites from mainstream American, British, French and Spanish news outlets. American Economist Paul Krugman also made the day’s headlines after the state news agency LUSA called attention to a post in his New York Times blog urging the Lisbon government to ‘just say nao’ to more austerity. A week later, a New York Times editorial about austerity in Portugal and Italy was reported in the first minutes of top news shows, right after the day’s leading story – the Boston bombings. Opinion columns regularly cite the Financial Times, and every mention of Portugal in the Economist inevitably finds its way into one of the multiple talking heads panel shows airing in each of the cable news channels.

The government itself constantly invokes the importance of the country’s depiction abroad, particularly when seeking absolution for policies which have caused the economy to contract, unemployment to rise to a record high, and the budget deficit to widen, in stark contrast to governmental aims and predictions. Ministers have presented the allegedly positive image of Portugal abroad – i.e. of a country peacefully and unequivocally adopting a wide range of austerity measures in order to fulfil its commitments to the Troika, in supposed contrast to the turbulent Greek case – as the government’s redeeming success. Conversely, they have criticised Portuguese opposition parties, unions, confederations, protesters, the media and, more recently, the Constitutional Court for actions which could harm this painfully constructed international image.

The obsession with representations of Portugal in the international media combines recent and traditional concerns. On the one hand, the government and its defenders stress the practical need to establish the country’s credentials in terms of stability and determination to repay its debt. Instilling the necessary confidence among financial markets and rating agencies, they argue, is a crucial step for Portugal to once again be able to fund itself. On the other hand, the notion that foreign data and analysis are more reliable than the home-grown kind, the quest for foreign approval, and the subconscious vanity of being a topic of discussion in the rest of the world reflect a historically rooted inferiority complex that for decades has inspired the works of philosophers as well as satirists.

Both impulses fuel an exaggerated depiction of international press coverage, with short op-ed pieces blown out of proportion (the abovementioned Krugman post was only 74 words long). If one were to rely solely on the indirect accounts of the Portuguese media – as most Portuguese do – one could be fooled into thinking that Portugal’s presence in the international press is nearly as ubiquitous as that of Greece or Spain.

Read it but don't rely on it

There is certainly value in paying attention to the way in which foreign newspapers discuss one’s issues, but it is important to be aware of their limitations. The distant and dispassionate outlook of an outsider, not to mention the ability to contextualise a national case within a wider regional framework, can serve as a relevant contribution to public debate by complementing (or challenging) narrower domestic narratives. Yet, the overreliance on foreign depictions to inform policy or, worse, the decision to regard the rehabilitation of one’s external image as the primary political goal can be dramatically counterproductive.

After all, the detachment of an outside perspective in itself is not enough to offer an objective assessment: as projects like the Euro Crisis in the Press LSE blog have shown, each perspective – whether Portuguese, German, or Greek – can be shaped, distorted and conditioned by its own cultural context. For all its poignant insights into the causes, consequences and eventual solutions to the crisis in Portugal, the international press should not be expected to capture key nuances of the country’s history and society.

By taking the dominant discourse at face value, using it as an incontrovertible analytical basis and central focus of policy, there is the risk of underestimating the full implications of the current situation. This is particularly the case with a prevalent discourse that ruthlessly condemns public spending over the last decades, accusing the country of having ‘lived beyond its means’, and advocating a substantial impoverishment of the population through austerity. Such a discourse disregards the origins of the relatively young Portuguese democratic state, whose identity was built on the repudiation of over 40 years of brutal authoritarian rule rooted in poverty and ignorance, including abysmal levels of illiteracy and child mortality, and increasing international isolation.

The last four decades, for all their undeniable strategic mistakes and shortcomings, saw the overall rise of living standards, the modernisation of the country’s infrastructure, and a massive increase in people’s access to health, housing and education, as well as the replacement of a colonialist identity by a Europeanist ideal through integration in the Common Market and the Eurozone.

What the international press fails to appreciate, either when simplifying Portuguese over-expenditure or praising the current ‘good student’ attitude, is the psychological violence and the political damage of a rhetoric that portrays these achievements as undeserved privileges and evokes a return to conditions of deprivation not yet forgotten by older generations. Uncritically adopting, then, the international media image of Portugal as a yardstick for domestic discourse and politics is not only politically unfruitful, but can also be profoundly socially destructive.

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