The long shadow of Spanish politics over public media

A recent wave of personnel changes at Spanish state-owned broadcaster Radio Televisión Española (RTVE) has raised concerns about political and ideological influence, with many fearing that journalists closer to the current conservative government are being promoted at the expense of those with alleged progressive views. It is the latest controversy in a long debate about the model for Spain’s flagship public broadcaster and, especially, its relations with the government of the hour.

On Aug. 4, Ana Pastor, a popular anchor of the channel’s breakfast news program, announced on her Twitter account that she had been removed from “Los Desayunos de TVE.” Pastor, one of Spain’s most well-known journalists, had built a reputation for asking frank questions of politicians from across the spectrum. A common journalistic style in the United States and United Kingdom, such intense interviews are not as widespread in Spain. In April 2011, months before the Popular Party (PP) won a landslide election victory over José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s Socialists in November, Pastor had clashed with María Dolores de Cospedal, the PP’s secretary-general, after the party accused the state broadcaster of bias. “I think we are not seeing the news impartiality one would expect from public TV,” de Cospedal said at the time.

Pastor had clashed on air, too, with Esperanza Aguirre, the PP president of the Madrid regional government–but also with then-Parliament Speaker José Bono and former Home Affairs Minister José Alfredo Rubalcada, both Socialists. Her departure came a day after another TVE journalist, Xabier Fortes, was told he would not be anchoring the late program at TVE-owned news channel “24 horas,” and after Alicia Montano, another TVE veteran, ceased directing the nearly 40-year-old Saturday news magazine, “Informe Semanal.” Since the appointment of News Director Julio Somoano in June, most desk editors and program directors have changed.

According to TVE’s statement, “Pastor has turned down an offer to conduct a weekly night show (…), thus ending her brilliant career at TVE.” The 34-year-old journalist from Madrid, however, said she was not offered an alternative when Somoano called her to explain his decision to remove her from “Los Desayunos.”

“They got rid of me for acting as a journalist,” Pastor told CPJ. “Unfortunately, politicians in Spain don’t like it when they face tough questions from a journalist, but I still believe it was the right way to fulfill my duty,” she said.

Somoano himself had been removed from prime-time programming after Zapatero won the general elections in May, 2004. Now, critics argue that Somoano–a former morning news anchor for Telemadrid (a Madrid TV channel controlled by the PP-led regional government)–is taking revenge and promoting those at the losing end of the 2004 changes. Others simply see the routine staffing changes of a new boss. In any case, such in-house gerrymandering has been a feature of the Spanish public broadcaster for years, under both left-wing and conservative governments.

“RTVE has two main problems–its financing model and its feeble autonomy from political power,” said Fernando González-Urbaneja, an economics journalist and professor and former president of Asociación de la Prensa Madrileña (Madrid Press Association).

From 1980, the president of the public corporation RTVE was directly appointed by the government, a formula that granted control to the party in power. In June 2006, a new law put forward by Zapatero introduced a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament, with the express goal of turning a political appointment into one of consensus. The president has day-to-day operational control, appoints the news director and chairs a management board of 12 members–eight appointed by Congress and four by the Senate. But a political standoff followed, with parties unable to reach agreement on the renewal of half the management board or a new president.

In May, further reform was introduced by the PP government, establishing an absolute-majority vote to elect the president of RTVE in the absence of a two-thirds majority. And the board was reduced to nine members, allocated to political parties based on their proportion of parliament seats. Five board members are now designated by the PP, three by the Socialists, and one by the largest Catalan nationalist party, CiU, in exchange for its support of the government’s proposal. Political control over RTVE was thus enshrined.

The latest jockeying has received some attention from foreign media. “Madrid accused of media interference,” said the Financial Times on Aug. 9. “Spanish government accused of purging critics from national radio and TV,” said the Guardian on Aug. 5. However, it has not been addressed by the Spanish Federation of Press Associations (FAPE), its president, Elsa González, told CPJ. “We have always asserted the need for independent public media, notably RTVE and EFE [state-owned news] agency,” she said. “At this point, we are particularly worried by the negative impact of budgetary cuts in the network’s quality, by the break in the transmission of professionalism with the heavy losses of jobs, and by the absence of a clear financing model,” she said.

Ironically, Spanish politicians on both the right and left have often said RTVE should aspire to emulate the BBC. Operating under a royal charter reviewed every 10 years, the BBC is managed by 12 trustees appointed by the British monarch on advice of government ministers. It is currently chaired by Chris Patten, a conservative politician and a former European Commissioner and governor of Hong Kong. Trustees are drawn from different sectors of society with the mandate to uphold the BBC’s mission “to inform, educate and entertain.” Among the current trustees are former journalists and editors, a banker, a lawyer, and a theater producer.

Such profiles indicate a diversity and independence from politics that is at the heart of the BBC’s successful formula. “In 12 years I have not seen a single political interference in the newsroom, not one,” said Hernando Álvarez, editor of BBC Mundo, the Spanish-language service of the BBC World Service. “The reason is a very simple one–British society understands the BBC belongs to the state and not the government, and a royal charter and our diverse trust prevent any such interference,” he told CPJ.

In France, most analysts and media historians agree that political tutelage of the three main public media–France Télévision, Radio France Internationale (RFI), and the agency Agence France-Presse (AFP)–was eliminated under President François Miterrand in the 1980s. “The idea of respecting the independence of public media is globally accepted by politicians in France, but we must remain vigilant given the risk of regression as seen under President Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Augustin Scalbert, a documentary film producer and former journalist at the digital daily Rue89. “Generally speaking, reporters and editors at French public audiovisual media are not submissive to political pressure and most grassroots journalists would not pay attention to such attempts,” he told CPJ.

In 2008, Sarkozy re-established presidential appointments of the heads of public media. “Sarkozy’s staff had a true desire to meddle with the public media,” said Scalbert, the author of “La voix de son maître” (Their master’s voice), a recently published book about public radio France Inter. Socialist President François Hollande has pledged not to oust the personnel appointed under Sarkozy but has committed to reviewing the presidential appointment mechanism. Many analysts agree that the risk of political interference is higher among French private media, most of which are owned, fully or partially, by large industrial conglomerates.

In the U.K., also, public inquiries into the hacking scandal at News Corp. publications and other newspapers have led to increased concern about cozy relations between private media and top politicians. To some extent, close relationships are unavoidable; but clear lines must be drawn and institutional transparency must be in place to prevent those relations from stepping into the realm of editorial direction. Every political landscape is different, but the British and French cases offer experience with public media management for countries such as Spain that need to find a sustainable formula for keeping politics away from the press room.

UPDATED: The eighth paragraph has been corrected to reflect that the president of RTVE was traditionally appointed directly by the government, not by a Parliamentary vote as stated previously.