During our Fifth Annual Hispanic Digital and Print Media Conference last week, Edward Schumacher Matos, NPR Ombudsman, told the audience: "I have this great job, in which I can say pretty much whatever I want to say”. Well, it turns out journalists in public media outlets in Spain can not say the same. Last week Spanish politicians in the Board of public TV network RTVE granted itself the right to preview journalists’ stories, something they had never done since the Franco Dictatorship that ended in 1975. Our Global Correspondent, Madrid, Spain, based Jose Cervera (photo) analyzes the public uproar against the RTVE board decision and the crucial role social networks played in changing the Board's mind.
Politicians and journalists have different interests. For political professionals, controlling the message is essential and the basic tool of their work. On the other hand, the very definition of journalism involves bringing information to light, regardless of its political convenience or inopportuneness. This causes a constant dialectic confrontation, a perpetual tug of war between the two professions.
The situation is compounded in the case of public media, when the managers are politicians who directly oversee the journalists. This gives rise to the politician being tempted to use his position as public manager to simplify his task of controlling the message. This is why there are safeguards in countries with publicly-owned media, in order to prevent the manipulation of information. These safeguards are never absolute, and conflicts always arise as a result. But the temptation is always there: political managers are always trying to expand their control over journalists under their command, and journalists avail themselves of these legal safeguards to protect themselves. However, sometimes the legal safeguards are insufficient.
Last week, members of the Board of Directors of Spain’s RTVE Corp. took advantage of the country’s current political situation to grant itself the right to preview journalists’ stories, something they had never done before. In the absence of a company president since the resignation of Alberto Oliart, and just two months prior to a national election that predicts a change in administration, members of the board approved a measure that allows them access to the software tool InNews, which is used by RTVE journalists to prepare their news stories. The opportunity for shaping the news during its development process is obvious, which is why the board’s previous repeated requests on the measure had been rejected by both journalists and management. Last week, a perfectly legal vote on the measure finally gave the political representatives what they had always wanted. What they didn’t count on was facing resistance of any kind.
The Board's position is understandable (from their point of view) and legal. But it is immoral because it allows political control of public information. RTVE’s journalists protested the maneuver and the issue came to light on Thursday night, September 22, through a posting on Twitter. What happened next was one of those instant mobilizations made possible through the use of social media: hundreds of professional journalists from all kinds of media and leanings began criticizing the measure and spreading the word through thousands of tweets, questioning the morality of the party leadership of those involved. The ensuing Twitter storm got the story out in the press and put into question the respect of political parties for the editorial independence of public media. The pressure increased on the morning of Friday the 23rd, when the story was picked up and broadcast on the airwaves.
Spokesmen for the leading candidates up for election were interviewed on Twitter, and were quick to voice their disagreement with the Board’s actions, thus discrediting their own representatives. The directors announced an emergency board meeting to withdraw the measure, and the hastily convened meeting took place the same day. The same directors who only the day before had approved the measure with their votes, or allowed it to be approved by abstaining from voting, now voted to nullify the same.
Only one of the directors, the union representative for Comisiones Obreras, who had previously abstained from voting, resigned his post. The rest of the members of the RTVE board continue in their posts, despite being publicly discredited by the parties that appointed them and having to undo an action already taken. But what no one will be able to call into question after this incident is the political power of social media.