Thursday, May 19, 2016

Remember When?: Tax cases

The only Spanish television series I have watched with what might be described as some regularity (I very rarely watch television at all) is "Cuéntame cómo pasó". I say regularity but when I last saw an episode it was still based in the Franco era. It has moved on a number of years since then.

The programme's producers have named the series "Remember When" in English. In June last year, there was an announcement that agreement had been reached with London-based New Media Vision for a possible adaptation: more likely for the US market rather than the British. There is a great deal of material to draw on. The series started in 2001 and it has told the evolving story of the Alcántara family from a fictitious area of Madrid. Over the years the background contexts have included Franco's death, the formation of the first democratic government and the 1981 failed coup.

From memory of when I did last watch it, this was a gentle, fairly undemanding, at times funny, at times tense or sad drama-cum-soap opera. Since 2001, it has won numerous awards, as have its actors. Its real glory seasons were the early ones. The third series, broadcast in 2003, attracted audience numbers over the 40% mark. In recent years this has dropped off. The provisional figure for season 17 is down to 17%. Nevertheless, the final episode in the fifteenth season had attracted a record audience.

Is a trend of declining overall viewing figures the reason for it being axed? They are certainly down on where they once were but this isn't the reason. The two main stars - Imanol Arias and Ana Duato, who play Antonio and Mercedes - and the production company, Grupo Ganga Producciones, have been caught up in a Panama Papers kind-of affair. The national television broadcaster, RTVE, believes that it would "unsustainable" to commission a new series because of this.

An ongoing investigation dubbed "Operación City" was opened by a judge at the national High Court. The production company is alleged to have engaged in tax evasion through an offshore network established by a Madrid law firm, Nummaria. The two actors are scheduled to appear before the judge and make declarations. The anti-corruption prosecution service claims that between them Arias and Duato defrauded the Hacienda of almost three million euros. Arias has also been named in connection with an offshore company called Trekel Trading, based in the South Pacific island of Niue.

The charges are clearly serious. But is the broadcaster right to cancel the series? As yet, they are only charges, but reaction - that of the viewing public via social media and newspaper website comments - is generally disapproving of RTVE's decision. Why penalise a whole programme, why penalise the viewers for actions (at present under investigation)? A distinction is being made between television life and real life. As one comment says, it is not Antonio Alcántara who is under suspicion, it is Imanol Arias.

RTVE, one feels, is in a no-win situation: damned if it does, damned if it doesn't. The decision may seem precipitous but the circumstances are embarrassing for the broadcaster. They could prove to be more so were things to pan out in such a way in the courts in the midst of another series being broadcast. On balance, it was probably left with no choice but to take the decision it has. And as the national broadcaster it does have some responsibility and duty. These are times for cleaning up Spain. A national minister, José Manuel Soria, has been forced to resign because his name has appeared in the Panama Papers. He has not been charged with anything, but the association with tax havens was sufficient to bring him down.

The point with what is now being referred to as the "caso Cuéntame" is that there are charges. Yet the actors are by no means the first public figures to find themselves hauled up in front of a judge for alleged tax crimes. Take the footballer Javier Mascherano, for example. He admitted to not paying 1.5 million euros of tax. A one-year sentence is unlikely to be effected. But regardless of the sentence, indeed regardless of the circumstances of the case brought against him, would anyone suggest that his club, Barcelona, be penalised or be somehow cancelled?

The cases are not directly comparable, but is there an argument for saying that Barcelona should have dismissed Mascherano? What does the club do about Lionel Messi, himself named in the papers and with a trial into his affairs due to start at the end of this month? It hasn't exactly been in a rush to distance itself from one of its star players - the star player.

Double standards? Possibly. But some will say remember when such cases might never have even come to light.

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