Spain’s highest-circulating daily, El País was born in 1976 as the country moved from dictatorship to democracy and has been a perennial advocate of liberal social policy. Today the paper faces tough times: publisher Prisa announced a net loss of €255m last year and is restructuring a debt of €2.9bn, with collapsing advertising revenue and a shrinking newsroom to add to the mix. Still, editor-in-chief Javier Moreno is undeterred – and believes the paper’s role has never been more relevant.
Monocle: What have been the hallmarks of your tenure as editor-in-chief?
Javier Moreno: I am very proud to have piloted the seamless transition to modern journalism while simultaneously driving the digital transition, establishing ourselves as leaders in this domain. It’s been about consolidating quality, with particular focus on the Spanish-speaking world at a time of declining resources. It’s been a very narrow path.
M: How do you respond to the criticism that ‘El País’ has forgotten its roots in recent years?
JM: This newspaper has never been a Socialist party newspaper. That image has been perpetuated by our foes for either commercial or political reasons. I think the real explanation is that from the outset we have always had a project in mind for Spain – one of modernisation, social progress, orthodox economic policies and the consolidation of freedom and democracy.
M: Is Spain’s media too partisan anyway?
JM: I don’t think it’s bad for a newspaper to have a position, nor do I believe that newspapers should remain neutral. However, I do believe that there is an excess of bias and a lack of honesty. There are far too many examples of professional journalism that are causing serious harm to democracy and social harmony in this country.
M: You recently upset the Venezuelan government after publishing an online photo of an ailing Hugo Chavez before his death – later proven to be a fake. What happened?
JM: It was a huge error. We relied on another agency that hadn’t followed the same scrupulous procedures that we abide by. However, I believe that when you make a mistake it’s important to correct it without spin or argument. This was a mistake that we rectified within 20 minutes and for which we apologised and printed three pages of explanation. In the media this is always important. We’ve learnt from the experience.
M: With so much upheaval in Spain, does a newspaper have to pick its battles?
JM: Indeed, and it’s a continuous exercise. Right now we are focused on corruption and the institutional crisis of the system, while a few years ago it was the outbreak of the economic crisis and Wikileaks. In my personal experience, if you do your job well you’ll always end up fighting with any government.
M: Amid all this turmoil in the news there have also been setbacks in the newsroom itself. Will quality journalism be affected?
JM: We had to lay off 25 per cent of the workforce here in Spain and have reduced regional information, believing that the newspaper needs to increase its global posture. Unlike other media outlets we have not cut our correspondent numbers. We’re on the way to consolidating our position as the global Spanish-language newspaper with an economic model that sustains quality.
M: You recently published damaging evidence of corruption in the highest echelons of government. Why hasn’t it prompted change?
JM: We have a lack of democratic culture, which means a government, a minister or mayor can effectively decide to remain in office, despite the evidence. But we have reached breaking point. The combination of the deteriorating image of politicians, the monarchy, the executive and judges, coupled with the economic crisis, is producing a level of societal exasperation that may produce profound change.
M: With so many scandals gripping the country, has the paper’s shift from criticism to prescriptive proposition been deliberate?
JM: Absolutely, and in fact we have offered several full-page editorials to this effect as well as the recently published Decalogue for Change: 10 concrete proposals that include reforms of political party law and transparency law, and we’ve also convened a series of debates with figures across the political spectrum.
M: What is the role of ‘El País’ in Spain?
JM: Right now it has a very important transcendental role. We’re in a period where societal disintermediation is occurring. We’re contributing to this with our own initiatives as best we can but what is missing is a profound national debate. Spain’s culture of debate only dates back 35 years, not 200. And it shows.
M: Is the paper’s shift in focus having a noticeable impact?
JM: Yes, and in recent months we’ve accelerated it further because we are concerned about the stifling of political debate here. There are signs that Spanish society is listening and many sectors have been supporting the initiative and urging it to continue.
M: Is this role what makes the survival of ‘El País’ imperative?
JM: It is one of them and probably the most important. El País is the only newspaper – and almost the only institution – that is capable of combining diverse figures and opinions. We have a duty to the country to fulfill this role and we won’t shirk the responsibility.