Spain’s most famous paper stumbles amid Catalonia independence crisis

Catalan independence supporters react to the news that the Catalan Parliament votes to declare independence from Spain outside the Parliament of Catalonia on October 27, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Before his firing earlier this month, reporter John Carlin had been a contributor to El Pais, Spain’s paper of record, for nearly 20 years. But the Spanish daily abruptly terminated Carlin, who writes in both Spanish and English, just days after he published an essay in another European paper, The Times of London, sharply criticizing Spain’s king and Madrid’s government.

The subject of Carlin’s Times story, and much of his recent work for El Pais, was a month-long secession crisis in Catalonia, where local officials have just declared independence, sparking Spain’s worst constitutional crisis in the country’s 40-year democratic history. The Spanish government moved quickly today to retain control of the disputed area.

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Carlin has opposed Madrid’s hardline strategy to quash the secession. A few days before his firing, two other El Pais contributors, Juan Culla and Francesc Serés, left the paper, claiming unionist-leaning editors had “censored” their criticisms of the Madrid government.

Suspicion of El Pais has left much of Spain and Spanish readers without a place to read even modestly neutral coverage of the complex Catalan crisis. Elsewhere in Spain’s media landscape, deep partisan lines between outlets have made coverage of the Catalan events often unrecognizably different from one end of a newsstand to another. Local Catalan public broadcaster TV3 has come into criticism for being too secessionist, Madrid national channel TVE for sometimes shrilly unionist stories and famously raucous political talk segments. Unionist newspaper La Razon (Reason) and Fox-like radio show Intereconomia, not only disagree with secessionist newspapers like Barcelona’s Ara (“Now”) and El Punt Avui (“The Point Today”), they publish in entirely different languages.

Carlin’s abrupt dismissal—his current contract wasn’t up until 2018—provoked accusations that Spain’s most famous paper was cleaning ideological house and carrying water for Madrid political connections that were aiding the financially troubled daily to find bailout money.

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“If you’re someone who reads Spanish and you want to know what’s happening in the world you read El Pais,” says Carlin, who spoke to CJR by phone from his home in London but declined to discuss the reasons for his dismissal. “But in Spain El Pais defines itself as defending the establishment. They have many wonderful writers, but the priority is que dirán?” Translation: What will Madrid elites say?

Cue the inevitable, bilingual social media backlash.

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Carlin, 61, had been a star at El Pais, covering the Colombian peace process and the Basque terrorist group ETA, and writing a widely-read sports column. He’d won the prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize (Spain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer) and authored several highly-regarded books on South African politics while at the paper, one of which had been adapted into the hit movie Invictus.

El Pais’ Managing Editor, David Alandete, says Carlin’s firing was not the result of his London Times story or opinions on the Catalan matter. And, Alandete points out that no one had anything even close to proof that Spain’s leading newspaper was being pushed around by its owners.

Founded in the chaotic years after the end of Spain’s Franco dictatorship, which prohibited a free press, El Pais was once the reference point for Spanish journalism, serving as a symbol of free expression during the country’s 1970s and 1980s modernization. For most of its existence, however, the paper was also widely considered too close to Madrid’s power brokers, initially as a mouthpiece for Spain’s leftist Democratic Socialist party, which held power through the first half of Spain’s post-Franco history.

For most of its existence, however, the paper was also widely considered too close to Madrid’s power brokers.

The newspaper has often struggled with two conflicting identities, the paper of record of the Spanish-speaking world, and the propaganda outlet for Madrid’s power brokers. An extensive network of foreign bureaus, elite arts and literature features, and popular sports coverage has made it a respected international newspaper serving the world’s more than 425 million Spanish readers.

At the same time, the paper’s coverage of Spanish domestic news could read like “Democratic Socialist Pravda,” says Carlin, who mostly wrote international features during his years there.

The month-long Catalan crisis has exaggerated the paper’s double identity, with the twist that the paper is now strongly aligned with Spain’s conservative People’s party, whose hard line on the Catalan secessionist question has found favor with the paper’s sometimes bullish headline writers. Carlin argued that the paper’s suddenly sharp tone on the Catalan crisis is the result of El Pais’s, and particularly parent company Prisa’s, proximity to Madrid’s political class. “They are absolutely in bed with each other.”

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Perceived or real, he says, international attention on the ongoing Catalan crisis—and Carlin’s high-profile sacking—has increased scrutiny of the paper’s widely-perceived association with Madrid power-brokers.

El Pais says Carlin’s firing was just another piece of routine, if unpleasant newsroom business. “Fake news. There are no contacts between the editorial and business,” says Alandete, 38, by phone from Madrid. “We have no private investors. I have never talked to any stockholder.”

He refused to elaborate on the reasons for Carlin’s dismissal: “This is a privately-owned newspaper and I don’t think a private company has to explain why it ended a relationship with a contract employee.”

El Pais has a recent history of retaliation against columnists and critics. In 2015, the paper severed an editorial partnership with The New York Times after the Times printed criticisms from another longtime El Pais columnist, Miguel Ángel Aguilar, who’d been suddenly sacked.

Early on Thursday, another longtime El Pais contributor, political scientist Jordi Matas, claimed via Twitter that he’d had an opinion piece killed, and implied it had to do with the Catalan crisis. Matas did not reply to efforts to contact him.

Alandete agreed that Spain’s leading newspaper had positioned itself as a strong voice against the Catalan secession—but said the paper’s reporters are defending the Spanish constitution, not towing a government line. “El Pais is an institution in Spain, and an institution that is fundamental for Spanish democracy,” Alandete says. “We have a position on breaking up the state. We do not take the stance [that there is] a right to self determination or the freedom to choose [to secede].”

“This is the exact same situation as The New York Times under Trump, the UK press under Brexit, German press under Alternative for Deutschland,” he says.

This is the exact same situation as The New York Times under Trump, the UK press under Brexit, German press under Alternative for Deutschland.

El Pais’ well-documented financial troubles have exacerbated this sense of a void in Spanish media. Deep layoffs in 2012 decimated the newsroom, while early last year, a report in the Financial Times found El Pais’s parent company, Spanish media giant Prisa Group, had paid its board members 80 million Euros ($93 million) in individual payments since 2012, even as the company reported 2.2 billion Euros ($2.6 billion) in consolidated losses and a 95 percent crash in its stock over the past five years. Prisa has showed the worst recent performance of any large media company in Europe, the FT analysis shows.

Prisa’s financial problems have made its flagship property, El Pais the subject of nearly constant rumors that it is trading supportive coverage of Madrid’s ruling party for help finding bailout money to service outstanding debt of at least 1.5 billion Euros ($1.8 billion).

“It’s been very frustrating for many people. what’s happened with Prisa,” says Nuria Almiron, a professor of Communications at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University who has studied Prisa’s financial dealings. “They really have fallen into the hands of financial elites, who are naturally close to political elites. They need help from the banks, and that has a price.”

An October 14 story on Prisa’s boardroom politics by El Español, a website founded by the longtime editor of El Pais rival El Mundo, offered a detailed breakdown of negotiations over Prisa’s chairmanship between some of Spain’s largest financial and political players, and named Spanish Vice President Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. The story contained extraordinary details of the meeting, but quoted no one.

Last week, much as described in the unsourced story, Prisa’s influential chairman Juan Luis Cebrián agreed to step down after more than three decades, following a protracted boardroom battle. Cebrián’s dismissal had been long predicted, but the specifics of why he went now, and how, remain unclear.

A legendary figure in Spanish media, Cebrián oversaw the unpopular 2012 newsroom layoffs and had survived at least one serious challenge to his leadership of Prisa. But the details of his agreements with the board members who kept him in charge for more than 30 years, and his millions in payments, remain poorly documented in Spain.

That sort of opacity in Spanish media, the newly sharp tone of El Pais’ Catalan coverage, and events like star reporter Carlin’s oddly-timed sacking, have only fueled the widely-held perception in Spain that El Pais is having its strings pulled. But the claims remain at best circumstantial.

Spanish reporters have at times pushed back on the most extreme examples of politicized coverage, even at outlets widely understood to have taken a side.

Earlier this month, employees of Spain’s government-funded TV news station TVE called for the resignation of their station’s director after declaring the state channel’s coverage of an October 1 Catalan independence referendum, in which Spanish police attacked unarmed people as they waited to vote, “an embarrassment” and “unbalanced.”

The TVE protest, which involved much of the newsroom staff, was widely reported in Spain, often with a marked lack of the usual partisan jabs, including in El Pais.

In late September, Reporters Without Borders, quoting a handful of foreign correspondents, alleged pro-secession online campaigners had targeted reporters for harassment. At least one Spanish reporter on the Catalonia story is alleged to have had private information hacked and distributed, according to the reporter’s editor, who would not share the details of the incident, claiming privacy concerns.

On Thursday El Pais reported in its own pages that the hacker group Anonymous had carried out at least 12 Denial of Service attacks against the newspaper, apparently attempting to paralyze the newspaper’s website.

“The criticism is not new, but the degree of aggression against reporters is new,” says Alandete, the El Pais ME, who claimed several of his reporters had been targeted, one in person. “This is not a big country and the level of pressure is really high.”

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Still, most Spanish coverage of the complex crisis remains heavily spun and buys into the culture of rumors surrounding the Catalan story. That’s included coverage by by El Pais and ME Alandete himself. Authoring an October 20 news analysis, “Catalonia: The Gravity of the Situation,” Alandete reported that secessionist protesters in Barcelona had “stole weapons and ammunition” left in a vandalized police car during a large street demonstration on September 20.

Weapons charges are particularly serious in Spain, which has strict gun laws. But Alandete’s report appears false, or at least very thinly-sourced. Police say the theft didn’t happen.

“At no time were there weapons,” the Spanish National Guard press office told CJR. Nor does a Spanish court order detailing the destruction of the police car mention the alleged stolen weapons. “I don’t know what El Pais said but what matters is what the court said,” according to the National Guard’s statement.

The continuing Catalan crisis has served up a lot of stories like that—maybe true, probably not, and poorly scrutinized—in newspapers already facing deep credibility gaps with their readership. Spanish press, like Spain, appears to be fracturing under the strain of the Catalan crisis, costing mainstream publications like El Pais opportunities.

“If you compare El Pais to Le Monde, to the Guardian, even Corriere della Sera, they have made efforts to separate themselves from relationships that raise these kinds of questions,” says Nuria Almiron, the Communications professor. “El Pais has done so badly. They’d built a brand, the reference for Spanish journalism, but they haven’t tried to become something like the Guardian. They’re just not playing in that league.”

Carlin, whose mother is Spanish, said the national press may be representing the country well in one respect. The potential breakup of the country maybe just be driving all of Spain, including its journalists slightly mad, he jokes.

“Every country has its blind spot, and in Spain it’s this territorial sovereignty business,” he says. “Spain was admirably modern on gay marriage, and it’s extraordinary how receptive and decent the Spanish are toward refugees. But when this territorial matter looms into view, they just go slightly bonkers.”

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Marc Herman is a reporter based in Barcelona. He is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado, and a co-founder of Deca.