Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Manipulation Game: Spanish broadcasting

In 1968, Tony Benn launched an attack on the BBC and gave us a memorable quote. "Broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcaster." Benn went on to call for the establishment of "representative broadcasting" instead of that controlled by the "constitutional monarchs" at the BBC.

What Benn was referring to has long been and in truth always has been behind the media's conduct, namely the wielding of influence over the output. Arguably, there is no such thing as true freedom of the press (or wider media) and never can be. To offer another quote, that by A.J.Liebling, an American journalist who died 50 years ago: "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one". Even then, the freedom is subject to influence.  

Interference, ideology, bias all collide in massaging the message, with influence bordering on being synonymous with interference and determining the ideology or bias. Yet, is this influence as strong as it once was? When Tony Benn was making his speech, communications media were limited. The internet has changed the rules of the game and has made the more overt use of influence in manipulating the messages of the conventional media subject to far greater scrutiny and potential ridicule.

Theoretically, the democratisation of information that has been enabled by the internet exposes the ways in which influence is brought to bear. This hasn't stopped the peddling of influence or the degree of interference, but because of the existence of a present-day media-savvy, cyber-connected public and bloggerati, this influence is shown up for what it is, to the extent that one wonders whether some of those who seek to wield influence really understand what world they are living in.

In Spain, there are some troubling examples of seeking to influence and of outright interference. They are so obvious that one is left to conclude that certain politicians are either ignorant of the changed rules or are perfectly well aware of them but choose to thumb their noses at them in acts of craven disregard.

The interference at the national broadcaster, RTVE, has already been chronicled. It has manifested itself in the sidelining of certain journalists and in the downgrading of importance attached to specific news items; these journalists and news items not being to the liking of the government. Last weekend, the Partido Popular government attempted to interfere with what was entitled "The Great Debate" on Telecinco. The debate was to be about the scandal that has erupted regarding the party's former treasurer. During the programme's broadcast, a text message was sent by the PP which made it clear that it was threatening to sue.

In effect, the party was looking to stifle the great debate, yet seemingly nothing that Telecinco raised wasn't already in the public domain. Crucially though, the scandal is massively important; it required debating, not neutering.

Once upon a time and under a former regime, such a debate couldn't have occurred and the public wouldn't have been aware of any alleged or actual corruption. The PP seems to be living in the past not just because it lumbered in with its heavy, censorious boots but also because it neglected the scrutinising other world of the media on the internet. It might want to take on the conventional media, but it only succeeds in web-viralising its actions.  

If the PP nationally is engaged in overt attempts to influence or interfere, its regional wing in the Balearics is acting in an even more overt fashion. President Bauzá, likened by opposition parties to Berlusconi because of his rewriting of the law on political transparency, is taking the comparison further by acting like Berlusconi in controlling a television station. Or so it is being alleged. The charge has been made that the public IB3 channel is being manipulated by the director of Bauzá's cabinet, Javier Fons.

It has been suggested that certain organisations are in effect banned from IB3, and Fons has been vetoing the appearance of some individuals. He had previously prohibited one particular journalist from being involved in an interview. He is also said to have interfered with an interview with the president of the Fundación Kovacs, a research organisation that has clinics for the treatment of neck and back complaints. A grant of a million euros was one topic for the interview. President Bauzá is on the foundation's board. 

Broadcasting may indeed be too important to be left to broadcasters. Faults they may have, influence they may be unable or unwilling to reject, but broadcasting is too important to be left to politicians in whose hands it becomes undemocratic. The PP would do well to understand this.

Any comments to please.

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