If the executive, legislative, and judicial are the three branches of government in liberal democracies, it is said that there also exists an unofficial fourth branch, one that controls the flow of information between citizens and their representatives in government. That branch is journalism. Often called the fourth estate for its ability to frame and shape how information is received by the citizenry, journalism has been at the center of how people in Spain have interacted with the country’s democratic institutions since at least February 23, 1981, when, in response to an attempted coup, El País printed a special issue with the headline, “Coup, El País Stands With the Constitution.” Today’s fourth estate is much more diverse than during Spain’s transition to democracy. It includes not only newspapers and TV stations, but a flourishing online news sector. As the Reuters Institute reported in 2018, “Spain has one of the most diverse home-grown, digital-born sectors in Europe.” Add to this the fact that people in Spain are unusually ecumenical in their media diet: Spain boasts one of the highest percentages in the world of people who listen to podcasts as well as of people who watch television on a daily basis.
All this means that there still exist powerful gatekeepers of information. Although the country boasts more than 80 newspapers and a broad range of television channels and radio stations, the media that command the widest audiences are still controlled by a few large, transnational corporate conglomerates: among others, PRISA, which owns El País and Cadena SER; Vocento, which owns ABC; Unidad Editorial, which owns El Mundo and Marca; and Planeta, which is the country’s largest publishing house and owner of La Razón. Instead of acting in the interests of their readers, many of these gatekeepers have all but officially align themselves with particular political parties. In exchange for financial interests and political influence, media boardrooms have given up editorial independence and, thus, shaped the policy goals and ideological orientation of parties across the political spectrum for the past several decades. In 2015, the open-door policy between politics and journalism reached the point that Spanish media had the lowest credibility in Europe.
But the diverse media environment in Spain also means that the power of those gatekeepers is being eroded. Independent and journalistically-minded sites such as eldiario.es and El Confidencial have become some of the most trusted and widely-read news sites in Spain. They have also, importantly, found stable financial footing. Other sites, including La Marea, CTXT, InfoLibre, and El Salto, have cultivated significant readerships for journalism critical of the status quo, including essayistic, opinion-driven, and investigative journalism. These digital-native sites have, importantly, given voice to perspectives that have been silenced in media controlled by large conglomerates. Notably, while many of the articles on these sites are by journalists, they have also carved out a space for non-journalistic voices from academics, activists, writers, and other figures from civil society.
Still, there remain many obstacles for journalism in Spain to exercise its responsibility as the fourth estate. The biggest are economic independence, financial sustainability, and editorial independence. Without economic independence from large conglomerates with close ties to particular political parties, the independence of a media organization’s editorial side will be difficult to achieve. And without financial sustainability, any new attempt to re-think economic and editorial independence will be short-lived. But there are a number of other obstacles, intimately related with the three listed above, that receive far less attention but are still important to consider. The question of gender: as of 2018, there are only two editors-in-chief of a national, general interest newspapers who are not a Caucasian, heterosexual men. The question of the livable wage: writers, especially for online news sites, still have very precarious jobs, most of these jobs are not staff jobs and the few that do exist have low wages. The question of public media: the growing lack of trust in the Spanish media mostly aligns with a growing lack of trust in public service broadcasting, especially TVE. If there is any entity whose commitment to the public good should not be in question, it is that of a public broadcaster. The reasons for this mostly have to do with the Catalan crisis, from 2017, which further called into question bias in media. But all nationalisms, including Spanish nationalism, should be called into question—not just those of the Basque Country, Catalonia, and elsewhere. Spanish nationalism has been left almost entirely unchecked by the conglomerate-owned media. Finally, the question of reportorial independence: just as there should be a wall between the business and editorial sides of a media outlet, so too should there be a wall between the editorial and reporting sides. A media organization, like a society, should be comfortable with divergent opinions. And these different opinions should not be confined to the op-ed pages.