Cronyism, censorship, and scandal rack Spanish... public TV?

The austerity-driven shutdown of an indebted public broadcaster in Valencia has turned ugly amid accusations of cronyism, coverups, and censorship.

Heino Kalis/Reuters/File
Employees of public broadcaster Radio Television Valenciana (RTVV) protest after the regional government announced the closure of TV and radio stations in Valencia, Spain, on Nov. 6. The regional Valencia government announced that RTVV has a debt of over 1 billion euros.

Public television isn't usually the sort of institution that engenders scandals that shake the halls of power. 

But that may be just what's happening in Spain's Valencian Community, an autonomous region along the Mediterranean, where a threat to shut down the regional public broadcaster has fueled accusations of government censorship. But critics say the recriminations may be just desserts for both the networks' journalists and the politicians that put them in power – and a sign that taxpayer-funded media outlets should be on the chopping block.

Seizing on a power vacuum at the network, journalists have gone on air to denounce their own executives and their political masters for past censorship. Among the most serious accusations: that the network covered up the deadliest subway accident in Spanish history, which killed 43 people in 2006.

Tens of thousands have protested in Valencia against plans to shutter Radio Televisión Valenciana, a network of television channels and radio stations known as Nou. The accusations of a coverup has reignited conspiracy theories over the subway accident and fueled national debates over whether to shut down other regional media.

But ultimately, both the Popular Party, which rules the Valencian government, and Nou's journalists are to blame for the broadcaster's “ruin,” says Félix Ortega, sociology professor in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and an expert in public opinion. Journalists’ accusations are “opportunistic” and came too late, and only when faced with layoffs.

“In times of crisis, with such a small audience, and with the little credibility journalists have, it’s very possible citizens will look approvingly upon” the outcome, Dr. Ortega says.

Political consequences

Valencia is a PP bastion; the party has ruled the region for 18 years. But voter support in Valencia and nationally for the party has been plummeting, even before the Nou scandal came to light.

Nou's shutdown – and the resulting recriminations – were triggered by a Nov. 5 court order that nullified massive layoffs ordered last year, which would have terminated more than 1,000 Nou employees, some two thirds of its nearly 1,700-strong workforce.

The PP-dominated Valencian government announced hours after the court decision that the broadcaster would have to be shut down as a result, since austerity-driven spending cuts made it impossible to pay for the salaries of the reinstated staff.

Officials said that Nou, which has been in the firing line over its poor ratings, could be closed by the end of this year. 

In protest, the network’s directors resigned en masse, leaving decision-making in the hands of outraged newsrooms, who then began attacking PP leaders for years of mismanagement. The most passionate outpouring came when Nou news anchors and journalists admitted during a live newscast what most already took for granted: The network had been forced by regional authorities to keep quiet about the 2006 subway accident. 

An official investigation into the subway accident concluded that the driver, who died in the accident, was solely responsible for speeding in a curve. But for years, victims and their relatives have claimed a massive coverup, mainly involving witness tampering and withholding of evidence.

Other allegations - overlooked by Nou's newscasts - focused on the regional government's failure to use standard emergency breaking systems. Nou failed to report on multiple parts of the investigations, the newsroom admitted.

The allegations aired by Nou may ultimately serve to undermine the PP's hold on Valencia, a region vital to Spain both economically and politically. Although elections are not until early 2015, polls already show it is trailing a coalition from the left.

Broken system

But the Nou debate plays differently at the national level, where doing away with costly regional broadcasters has a lot of support, especially among PP voters.

“This is two sides of the same coin. What happened in Valencia is another demonstration of the missteps of the PP over the years, but at the same time this is good because, for the PP, something they didn’t like [regional public broadcasters] is starting to crumble,” says Fermín Bouza, sociology professor and voter-trend specialist in the Universidad Cumplutense de Madrid.

Regional public television in Spain, which coexists with national public television, is unprofitable and not competitive with the national public and private broadcasters. In 2013, regional governments in Spain budgeted more than 1 billion euros to their television outlets.

Analysts say the networks are often manipulated by regional governments for political gain – Catalonia, Madrid, Galicia, Andalusia, and broadcasters in other regions have all suffered multiple cuts and layoffs. Critics say their budget blowouts are signs of mismanagement and abuse of power.

Valencia’s case is by far the worst. Nou’s debt exceeds 1 billion euros, according to the Valencia government, and has been in the red since it started in 1989 with a mission to promote Valencia's culture and language. In recent months, its ratings have averaged just 3 percent and the network is "unsustainable,” it said. Nou has more employees than the three biggest private national broadcasters combined.

Nou's pending shutdown is an omen for other struggling broadcasters, says Ortega. “Shutting down regional television will be accepted by the population, except for Catalonia and the Basque Country due to their own nationalist feelings.”

“We have a system that doesn’t work because the majority of institutions, like Nou, are designed to be filled by people who answer to political parties,” Ortega adds. “The consequences we will assess in the next elections.”

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