In recent months a number of high profile dismissals have been made at RTVE, the body which manages public TV and radio services in Spain. This follows criticism from the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and other left-wing parties in the country over the appointment of officials at RTVE with links to the governing Partido Popular (PP) party led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Jackie Harrison gives an overview of the controversy and argues that while it is still too early to come to firm conclusions, the developments may have future implications for press freedom in the country.

Austerity measures and corresponding cuts in public expenditure have brought to the fore the issue of press freedom in Spain. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and other left wing parties have alleged that changes made by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) have reintroduced overt political patronage in public appointments at Corporación RTVE, the body that manages public service broadcasting. By amending the 2006 Act governing State Radio and Television, PP has reversed PSOE reforms which introduced a representative Board and a President of RTVE selected by a two thirds majority in Congress.

Credit: 20 Minutos [CC-BY-SA-2.1-es], via Wikimedia Commons

The Partido Popular have appointed Leopoldo González-Echenique, a senior official in a previous PP administration headed by former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, as President of RTVE. The position had been left vacant for 12 months following Alberto Oliart’s resignation in July 2011, meaning amongst many things that RTVE’s budget for 2012 has not been agreed. PP have justified the direct appointment on the grounds that the new budget, which itself heralds a reduction in expenditure for public broadcasting, needs ratification and this required a functioning RTVE Board complete with a Chair.

On the one hand this represents political meddling in independent state broadcasting; on the other hand these are measures to meet the requirements of economic necessity in a time of public spending austerity. The divide in views is neatly summarized by the press’ reaction. The Spanish left-wing papers, El Pais and Publico fear the changes to the 2006 Act signal an attempt to control RTVE newscasts by PP, with some journalists speaking of a return to the censorship implemented by the Aznar government at RTVE during the early 2000s. In response, the conservative papers, El Mundo, ABC and La Razón, considered the changes ‘normal’ and necessary given that the post of President of RTVE had been left vacant for the last twelve months and the budget not yet awarded.

Aside from the traditional blame game played out in the Spanish media, Reporters without Borders have been moved to comment that ‘RTVE is abruptly turning its back on the progress achieved in recent years as regards independence from the government, progress that had been reflected in increased viewing figures’. Although, according to Professor Jose Garcia Aviles at the University Miguel Hernandez, allegations of political interference are nothing new and whilst he thought it ‘fair’ to say that the previous news managers had enforced a greater balance and objectivity since 2006, there were still complaints of left-wing bias on especially sensitive political issues. With regard to management interference, again this is not unprecedented. Indeed before PP assumed office, the RTVE Board was charged with editorial interference when it tried to access RTVE’s iNews system used by journalists to select and develop stories. The backlash against this perceived editorial interference forced the Board to backtrack – a sign that correctives against overt attacks on media freedom remain strong.

RTVE was back in the headlines again in June 2012 when RTVE President González-Echenique set about appointing new heads of TV and Radio News and of TVE and RNE.  The new news director, Julio Somoano, is seen by many in Spain as a professional who is more of a conservative, and his appointment was opposed by many journalists at RTVE.  Somoano has appointed new directors of news affairs, the 24 Hours News Channel, newscast presenters and editors, although most of them already worked within RTVE.  In this sense these new appointments are a familiar part of the reshuffle of professionals, which usually takes place with the arrival of new management.

The reshuffle is, however, set against several controversial and high profile dismissals at RTVE, which have been picked up on by the news media both inside and outside Spain. The dismissals included several people in senior management positions notably RTVE’s head of news, Fran Llorente who has consistently been accused of left wing political bias. A meeting of TVE’s newsroom council, made up by 200 professionals, rejected Llorente’s dismissal in June, but to no avail. Others dismissed included Alicia Montano, the director of the current affairs programme Informe Semanal, and journalist Xabier Fortes from Canal 24 Horas.

It was the dismissal of Ana Pastor, the host of TVE’s morning programme Desayunos, in August 2012 that attracted the most press coverage, because it took place against what was seen as her success in maintaining high viewing figures. According to RTVE, she left because she turned down a management proposal that meant moving to an evening programme, a view that was contradicted by Pastor who claims she was offered no specific alternative. On her Twitter account, she said she was ‘fired for doing journalism’. Pastor is known for her tough interviews and for her vigorous responses to PP accusations of left-wing bias at RTVE. In response to these changes in senior personnel at RTVE, Reporters without Borders stated that ‘The politicization of RTVE currently under way must stop at once and a new reform must be adopted in order to eliminate any suspicions about the independence of those in charge’.

Despite these appointments and dismissals it is still too early (TVE’s new programming season has just been presented on 3 September 2012) to definitively say whether or not the Board is ‘censoring’ the news, particularly given that access to iNews has been prevented and, at the time of writing it does not appear to be back on the agenda, nor have there been any other moves to protest the changes within RTVE to date. Outside the world of news journalism, public concern at the moment is focused more on poorer quality programming following the cancellation of some top fiction series in 2011 and not yet on any effects on news journalism.

With Spain currently 39th in the 2011/12 Press Freedom Index, these trends need to be monitored. A key measure of media freedom is whether reporters are genuinely free to follow any storyline they wish regardless of commercial, editorial, proprietorial or political pressures or influence. In this regard the dismissal of journalists accused of asking awkward questions of PP politicians, or of following ‘left wing views’ is worrying, as are the austerity measures in Spain that are affecting RTVE through budget cuts as well as the commercial challenges to state aid arrangements for public service broadcasters in Spain and throughout the EU.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Jackie Harrison – University of Sheffield
Jackie Harrison is Professor of Public Communication and Chair of the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) at the University of Sheffield. She has served as an expert advisor for the European Commission and has also undertaken research for the Media Subcommittee, Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe (PACE) on monitoring media violations and freedom, The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Media Freedom in Europe, The Soros Foundation on Public Service Broadcasting in the EU, and the British Academy on the use of User Generated Content at the BBC.

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