Spanish Government Seeks Good News with Broadcaster Purge


imageIn 2011, the journalist Ana Pastor was scanning her Twitter feed when she saw a tweet from an opposition politician warning her that when his party got into power, she would lose her job.
A few months later, that party, the conservative Partido Popular (PP), won the Spanish general election by a landslide. And sure enough, in August 2012, Pastor, who was the anchor of one of the most high-profile TV interview programs on Spain’s RTVE state broadcaster, was sacked.
The politician who posted the tweet, Ángel Mínguez, tried to downplay the controversy sparked by his indiscrete warning, insisting it was a joke. But Pastor is not the only one who isn’t laughing. Several high-profile journalists at RTVE whom the PP has accused of media bias have lost their jobs this summer. This has prompted accusations that the new government is meddling with the national broadcaster – particularly its TV arm – in an attempt to ensure favourable media coverage during a period when bad news is coming thick and fast.
The development led to Reporters Without Borders warning that Spain’s state media was becoming “a political battlefield.”
“All the movement of personnel under way within RTVE seems to confirm the worst fears of a reassertion of political control,” the NGO said in a statement.

“RTVE is abruptly turning its back on the progress achieved in recent years as regards independence from the government.”

Sweeping Changes

Pastor’s departure followed those of several other big-name TV journalists, such as Alicia Montano and Xabier Fortes. The broadcaster’s head of television news, Fran Llorente, was sacked in June.
The Partido Popular had accused all the aforementioned journalists of political bias against it. In Pastor’s case, the PP had said she questioned members of its party more rigorously than Socialist politicians.

But even some conservatives have come out in her favour.
“I’ve had the opportunity on some occasions to go on [Pastor’s] programme and she’s hard on the Socialists, hard on the PP, hard on whoever she interviews,” said Antonio Basagoiti, who leads the PP in the Basque region.image
The combative Pastor is an exception in Spain, where journalists rarely grill public figures in a tough fashion.
“There is a media culture of being reverential towards political figures in Spain, particularly in television,” said Ramón Pacheco-Pardo, a lecturer in Contemporary Spanish Politics at King’s College, London.
Several of the new faces at RTVE have close associations with the PP, including some who worked at the broadcaster prior to 2004, when the party was in power under José María Aznar. During that period, the company’s status as a megaphone for whichever government was in power reached a new peak, summarised by its farcical news coverage of a 2002 general strike, which attempted to show the entire country to be working as normal. The High Court subsequently sanctioned RTVE for “manipulation” of the strike coverage.

A Patchy History

“RTVE has traditionally been controlled by the government in power, often broadcasting pro-government propaganda,” said Rafa González, a television journalist who has worked in Spain for national and international media (although not RTVE) for 10 years.
González says RTVE was vulnerable to political meddling under both Socialist and conservative governments until the arrival of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004. Zapatero, a Socialist, sought to depoliticise RTVE with a sweeping reform. Among the changes was a requirement for increased cross-party consensus on senior appointments within the broadcaster.
“During the eight years Zapatero was in power, RTVE was less politicised than at any other time in its history,” said González.
But those advances were knocked back within weeks of the arrival of the new government of Mariano Rajoy at the end of 2011. In February, it altered the rules for appointing RTVE senior staff, so that the government in power needs only a simple majority to approve personnel. With just such a majority in Congress, Rajoy’s PP can  – and has – pushed ahead with a root-and-branch approach.

Autumn Challenges Loom

Many of the key recent changes at RTVE have taken place during the summer period, when hard news is limited, making it too soon to tell whether or not the broadcaster has altered its editorial line in favour of the government, as critics charge.
But in the coming weeks, a series of stiff political challenges face the Rajoy administration: a wave of street protests, elections in the Basque and Galician regions, and the possibility of an EU sovereign bailout. These issues will offer RTVE ample opportunity to show whether it remains a credible, independent voice, or if it has reverted to being merely a government mouthpiece.

Tags: spanish government, spain, rtve, public broadcasting, press freedom, politics, mariano rajoy, josé maría aznar,