Parable of 'El País' bodes ill for democratic media
Spain’s crisis is not only economic but systemic and existential. Hard-pressed citizens are, understandably, losing faith in their political institutions. The idea of Spain as a unified nation state is challenged by leaders in the powerhouses of Catalonia and the Basque Country.
So a journalistic forum in which all options can be discussed is vitally important, especially in a country where democratic culture is still not embedded in all sectors of society. Hitherto, El País has stood almost alone for pluralistic opinion in the Madrid press. Other powerful media are routinely sensationalistic and vitriolic, relishing ideological hysteria and division and scorning reasoned debate.
Today, however, it seems that the paper’s cherished values are under severe threat. Two weeks ago, the paper sacked 149 people, one-third of its journalistic staff. Many are veterans, with a wealth of experience the paper can ill afford to lose. Some of them served the paper unflinchingly, though under daily death threat from Basque terror group Eta.
They were all summarily dismissed by email, and under the miserable minimum redundancy conditions imposed by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government. El País had previously severely criticised these measures.
There is no doubt these journalists were very well paid. It is arguable that high salaries should be trimmed in these straitened times – if there were any sign that the pain was being spread evenly in society. “Journalists cannot continue to live this well,” said Cebrián recently.
However, as in our own ever- more inegalitarian republic, the very rich in Spain get richer while the poor become unbearably poorer and the middle class sinks towards poverty. Imagine how Cebrián’s words rankle with his erstwhile colleagues, who know that he earned €13 million (yes, million) in 2011.
‘Liberty and democracy’
And it is Prisa’s international strategy, presumably in pursuit of such super-salaries for executives, and not the wages of the staff, that is bringing the paper down.
However, the most serious problem at El País is not the sackings but the paper’s subsequent censorship of its most distinguished contributors and columnists. Some 30 writers, including Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa (not exactly a bleeding heart of the left, you may recall), have written to its editorial committee.
They describe the recent events “as one more step in the deterioration of the basic values of this paper, crucial for liberty and democracy in Spain . . . in the face of the deep economic, political and institutional crisis facing Spain and Europe”.
That El País has not published this letter, let alone replied to it, speaks volumes about a situation where plutocracy has supplanted democracy as a guiding principle. The decline of this once-great newspaper bodes ill for democratic media everywhere, and for democracy itself.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of two books on Spain.