Europe - Issue 88 - Magazine | Monocle

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Muddied waters

By Liam Aldous

As millions of Spaniards tune in to political debate shows every Saturday night, a creeping sense of anxiety is beginning to take hold. The reticence of the media-averse prime minister Mariano Rajoy – who had just three interviews in 2014 – may have encouraged a fresh swell of preened-for-TV politicos to wrest control of the national narrative but opinion polls show these would-be saviours are struggling to convince a sceptical audience.

If the political class has fostered pessimism, a tainted media landscape has perpetuated it. While the four main contenders – Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos), Pablo Iglesias (Podemos), Pedro Sánchez (PSOE) and Rajoy (PP) – are pitching plans for national renewal, much of the commentariat has eschewed level-headed discussion for a heavy dose of character assassination.

Dizzying questions underwrite headlines. Is Iglesias in fact Hugo Chávez reincarnate? Is Rivera a conservative wolf in a progressive sheep’s clothing? Is Sánchez a hologram of party-engineered lights and magic? Spain is at a pre-electoral crossroads but the street signs that should guide an informed public debate are obscured by smoke. With the ballot expected before Christmas, cynical voters are struggling to find the slip road.

Marred by editorial decline and government meddling, broadcaster RTVE has disoriented much of the traffic. After coming to power, Rajoy reversed a reform enacted by his predecessor that had tried to buffer the network from political interference. After a new party-affiliated director took the reins of rtve, news coverage of the ruling PP became less critical and the tag of “government mouthpiece” soon stuck. The Telediario bulletin, once the golden standard in nightly news, saw its ratings plummet by 64 per cent in three years.

It’s no surprise that the country is reaching for the remote. Despite a strong showing in the polls, Podemos’s leader Iglesias has only been invited in by the broadcaster twice: in the first interview he was congratulated for the prison-release of an eta terrorist; in the second Podemos filed a complaint after a presenter quipped, “How did he smell?” as Iglesias exited the studio. Meanwhile, much of RTVE's newsroom is protesting government manipulation, decrying the creation of a separate editorial team to cover the election.

The print media has also struggled to catch up to the redrawn roadmap. In 2014, after months of pursuing ruling-party barons about a far-reaching graft scandal, leading dailies El País and El Mundo replaced their editor in chiefs. The latter, Pedro J Ramírez, claims he was fired at the behest of the government (which refutes the charge). This September, four journalists from El País resigned, saying the paper had re-edited text to avoid riling the government. Papers rely on the revenue from state advertising more than ever and seem to be picking their fights as a result. Sadly this perception of compromised editorial independence is feeding the faith deficit: a recent study showed that only a third of Spaniards trust news sources.

With the political atmosphere clouded with mistrust, Spain is poised to deliver one of the most fragmented parliaments in its short democratic history. The air is thick with doomsday scenarios perpetuated by the traditional political guard, published by the media establishment and foisted upon a jittery public. The outcome will reflect a country that has had to rely more on emotion than information, particularly as voters ask themselves the question: “Who do I fear the least?”

Three influential political journalists

Ana Pastor, La Sexta
After being dumped from rtve’s flagship morning show, Pastor made a comeback in 2013 on the La Sexta network with her news hour El Objetivo.

Pedro J Ramírez, El Español
The former editor in chief of El Mundo recently launched investigative-news website El Español.

Iñaki Gabilondo, El País
The 72-year-old Basque journalist’s video blog The Voice of Iñaki Gabilondo is a voice of reason in a mediasphere rife with hyperbolic sensationalism.

Reich for a refurb


The island of Rügen has been one of Germany’s most-beloved seaside destinations since the 19th century. On its eastern edge is Prora, a never-completed 4.5km-long resort that is one of Hitler’s strangest architectural legacies. Designed as part of the Nazis’ “Strength Through Joy” programme, the complex was built for 20,000 German vacationers but since 1945 has mostly remained an empty reminder of the Third Reich.

Property developers are buying portions of the landmark to turn it into luxury vacation homes. Some see the renovations as historically insensitive but early investor Axel Bering argues: “For a monument to survive, it needs to be taken care of.”

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