Parable of 'El País' bodes ill for democratic media
A great Spanish newspaper has been brought low by an age-old human defect – greed – just when it is needed most
Real democracy and free, pluralist media are joined at the hip. You can’t have one without the other.
Dismiss these as empty phrases, if you like, but for me they came to vivid life on May 4th, 1976, when I bought a copy of the first edition of El País in Bilbao. Spain was still a dictatorship then.
Almost every weekend, many thousands of citizens took to the streets, calling for democracy. The so-called forces of public order answered them with tear gas and, sometimes, live ammunition.
Until El País appeared, all newspapers were controlled by the old regime. News coverage was severely censored. Open, discussion of the country’s political options was confined to a few courageous, repeatedly banned, magazines.
El País changed all that, making democracy part of Spain’s daily discourse. Its influence on the relatively peaceful transition from the dictatorship that followed can hardly be exaggerated. Exemplary reporting of hard news, national and global, political analysis from diverse viewpoints, and even extensive philosophical reflections, made up an exceptionally nourishing menu.
And when all the ground gained for democracy suddenly fell away, on the night of February 23rd, 1981, with Lieut Col Tejero holding the Spanish parliament at gunpoint, El País rushed a special edition on to the streets in defence of the democratic constitution. Anyone who witnessed those events will tell you that this exceptional gesture made a palpable contribution to the coup’s failure. Had the coup succeeded, the paper’s founding editor, Juan Luis Cebrián, and his colleagues, would have paid a heavy price.
El País has its flaws, of course. It has, on occasion, become much too cosy with its friends in the Socialist Party (PSOE). But when PSOE leaders launched a shameful state terrorist campaign in the Basque Country in the 1980s, the newspaper’s editorials repeatedly castigated them.
On the face of it, the times we live in today are a little less dramatic than in the paper’s formative years. But perhaps, under the surface, they are not. Our globalised economies, in Spain, Ireland and many other places, are suffering. Great spoils are being seized by a self-selecting few, and our democracies lack all conviction to confront them.
It is all the more disturbing that, by coincidence or otherwise, great flagships of the democratic media are shipping water. The hitherto unthinkable demise of institutions like the New York Times now looks increasingly, well, thinkable.
El País, however, had seemed relatively safe despite falling revenues. It has never recorded an annual loss, though it may indeed do so this year.
But it has long been clear that its mother company, Prisa, has been overreaching itself with an avaricious and ill-advised international acquisitions strategy, in which Cebrián has been deeply involved. The paper he helped found is now paying a shocking price, not just in euro but in principles, just when Spanish democracy needed it most.