Monday 29 April 2019

Did you expect this?

Our most loyal readers will possibly know that I've a small fascination for Spanish politics. (I have my reasons). And looking at the results of the Spanish election coming overnight on Twitter I decided to form my own opinion of the results before looking at anyone else's (especially the BBC's). 

Comparing the results with the last general election, I was struck by the collapse in the vote of the main conservative party, the People's Party, and how the fragmentation confirmed by the 2016 election (when the move from two parties to four parties was emphatically demonstrated) continues with Spain now becoming a five-party country due to the rapid rise of the right-wing VOX. Yet this ongoing fragmentation continues to not result in a collapse in the system.

This election was mainly about churn within the Left/Right blocs rather than between the Left and Right blocs - and Spain, perhaps anachronistically, remains starkly black-and-white in its Left/Right split. The blocs themselves didn't poll much differently from last time.

The Left pretty much balanced itself out. The centre-left Socialists of PM Pedro Sánchez had a very good night, rising by some 6% and becoming the largest party. Their victory looks even bigger - leading their nearest rival by 12% - because of the collapse in the People's Party share of the vote. The far-left Podemos, however, dropped back significantly, falling by around 7% to become Spain's fourth party, so I'm guessing this was mainly movement from faction-riven Podemos to the revived, governing Socialists.

Something similar happened on the Right where there was large-scale movement away from the conservative People's Party, whose vote collapsed by roughly 16%. A large amount of that movement appears to have gone to the right-wing VOX party, which leaped from almost nowhere last time round to around 10% this time, establishing itself as Spain's fifth party. There may also have been some movement from the PP towards the clean-cut centre-right, Spanish unionist party Ciudadanos, which consolidated its place as Spain's third party by leapfrogging over the sagging pony tails of Podemos. 

The polls, in advance of the election, were always within margins of error over the now-established Cuidadanos/Podemos 'newcomer' tussle, but most pointed to the final rankings of the five big parties.

All predicted a clear Socialist victory, variously firing off predictions above and below the 28% the Socialists won.  Most if not all of the massive fall-off in the People's Party's vote was predicated. but VOX, despite its huge leap forward, under-performed by some 2-3% on most pre-election polls and, thus, their breakthrough appears rather less impressive than it might have otherwise done. 


Well, so I reported to myself on getting up this morning.

And, rather than checking out the BBC, I checked Twitter and immediately landed on a fascinating thread by one of the left-leaning people I follow, Sunder Katwala of British Future. He posted tweet after tweet criticising the BBC's reporting on last night's main BBC One bulletin:
BBC main TV news
- opens on Vox winning seats
- then correspondent says we can't say far right is the story, as they came 5th.
- then a report mainly about Vox, Franco & bull-fighting
- brief passing mention of the result being left winning "leaving many alienated & resentful"
I don't think if you asked a viewer, who won the Spanish election/what was the result, many would have picked that up or recalled it (though there were a couple of passing mentions at the start and the end).
It would have been fine as a second follow-up report. But it was a bizarre way to report the outcome of a General Election in a major European country.
Two references in that curious BBC report that many voters would be angry that the left had won 'as that is what many of them voted against'. (And others for!)
* The Prime minister barely mentioned.
* Passing reference to dramatic collapse of centre-right.
This, from the BBC website, seems a sensible structure for a complex election result, in which Vox right-wing breakthrough is a significant (secondary) element. But the main TV bulletin seemed to expect viewers to find this out somewhere else. 
It would be rather similar to a Spanish news bulletin on the 2015 General Election being all about Nigel Farage getting 13% of the vote, and saying voters will be v.surprised that they have somehow got David Cameron again.
I thought confusing (esp to say "this isn't main story")
- I don't esp attribute it to a political view at BBC
- more use of stock imagery (Franco, bull-fighting, is fascism back)
+ vicious cycle: don't report who PMs/main leaders are, so don't expect viewers to recognise them. 
"what just happened" next day take, the BBC's Katya Adler:
- focus on far right one factor in high turnout of opponents too
- again, voters would resent broad left coalition depending on Basque/Catalan  (more re Catalonia than left itself: conflated in TV report)
Problem for the TV news seems to be spending weekend making a report (for 10pm Sunday) that was off-the-mark by 9pm. Perhaps should have canned it/used much less of pre-recorded package & instead used time to report live news from Madrid on actual results & initial reactions
I'm not convinced by many tweeters attributing this poor reporting to a BBC pro-populism bias. There is a liberal media instinct as well as right media instinct to focus narrowly on 'return of fascism/resurgent far right' as often only political story in Europe to get attention. 
The UK's remaining and still-thriving Left/Right blocs on Twitter have, intriguingly, both been agreeing with Sunder's Twitter thread today.


So, in the eternal, undying spirit of Is the BBC biased? I checked out Katya's report last night. Here's a transcript:

Newsreader Huw: Spain's been voting in a general election that's been one of the most divisive in decades. The election's been marked by the rise of a far-right party called VOX which opposes multiculturalism and unrestricted immigration. Exit polls tonight suggest the ruling Socialist Party has won the vote, but without an overall majority, so they'd have to form a coalition government. Our Europe editor, Katya Adler, is in Madrid. And let's start by talking about the performance of this far right party. 
Katya Adler: Well, yes, with almost all the votes counted now, Huw, it looks like the populist, nationalist Vox party has performed strongly, winning a bunch of seats in the Spanish parliament for the very first time, but what we cannot talk about tonight, Huw, is a massive swing to the far right in Spain. VOX looks to become Spain's fifth largest party with the centre-left the largest, and the centre-left or left-wing coalition they are now likely to form will likely leave many Spaniards feeling angry, because they specifically voted against that today.  
(Report begins). Spaniards today were on a mission, crowding into polling stations. For them, this is no run-of-the-mill general election. With politics here polarised, today's vote, some here told us, was a fight for Spain's soul.
Vox pop 1:  I'm nervous, because I want the people I support to win, but at the same time I'm kind of excited. 
Vox pop 2TRANSLATION: There is so much at stake in Spain today, the unity of Spain, the integrity of Spain, the identity of Spain. 
Spain has suffered something of an identity crisis, triggered by the push for Catalan independence. Sales in Spanish flags have shot up here over the last couple of years. Now, for the first time since the death of Spain's 20th Century military dictator, Francisco Franco, a far-right party has won seats - a sizeable chunk of them, it seems - in the Spanish Parliament. VOX promises to make Spain great again - that phrase sound familiar? It beats the nationalist drum, promising to preserve Spanish culture, including more controversial traditions like bull-fighting. 
VOX spokesman: We need to be proud about our country, in a way that we haven't been for a long, long time, defending the unity of Spain, the history of Spain, your values, your systems, your flag.
Katya: And the link with Franco that's being made? 
VOX spokesman: What link with Franco? Franco's been dead for 45 years, we weren't even born when Franco died, there's no link.
Like populist nationalists in France and Italy, VOX is tough on immigration, on Islam and on crime, but VOX is extremely Spain-centric - it is pro-bull-fighting, pro-EU, anti-Catalan independence. But in this country, split left and right since the Spanish Civil War, VOX, unlike other populist movements across Europe, has failed to attract disaffected workers who traditionally vote for the left. In fact, exit polls suggest VOX succeeded in splintering the Spanish right and rejuvenating the centre-left - something Spain's socialist Prime Minister was hoping for when he cast his ballot this morning. I caught up with Madrid's mayor just after she voted. She fought against Spain's fascist dictator in her youth. 
Mayor of Madrid: TRANSLATION: Nowadays, politics in Spain is angry, people are disillusioned. But I voted here in Madrid in Spain's first democratic elections after dictatorship. We managed to end Basque terrorism - we'll find a solution to divided politics. 
Maybe, but deep political divisions seem to have become the new normal in Europe - look at France, Italy, UK. If, as predicted, left-wing parties now form Spain's new government, that will leave many in this country feeling alienated and resentful. Katya Adler, BBC News, Madrid. 

Now, I see some interesting insights there - such as that, as far as the peculiar politics of post-Franco Spain go, 2019's Spain is in a different position to most other European countries in its politics - but I still think Sunder Katwala's criticism of Katya Adler is correct on pretty much all of his points.

She clearly had her BBC narrative all prepared - that right-wing VOX's "far-right resurgence" was the story - and nothing, absolutely nothing, would get in the way of that scary story of revived fascism in Spain.

Even the actual election results.

The BBC narrative was the BBC narrative. So damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

And Katya then went for the Franco/bull fighting references to sum up VOX with all the vengeance of a heavily fashion-conscious BBC cliché-monger.

And Sunder's surely right that her BBC News report would have left most viewers bamboozled as to what had actually happened.

As Sunder, fair-mindedly, suggested, this surely provides evidence of "liberal media" bias on the BBC's part to focus narrowly on "'the return of fascism/resurgent far often the only political story in Europe to get attention".


  1. Having studied Spanish for a year at school and got an E, I think I am full qualified to comment:

    1. All this proves for me is, once again, that every country in Europe is very particular and different in ways that the EU and BBC like to ignore. I have long believed for instance that there is in France an upper limit on Marie le Pen's potential, around 30%, because however much she may try she can't entirely scrub away the whiff of Vichyism about her party, and, in France, that is fatal - still.

    In Spain it's clear that the trauma of civil war and the repression of Francoism is still a huge issue in the present day. It seems to me like Spanish families continue to hand down from one generation to the next their perspective on the past. Oddly the Fascist period and Mussolini's role doesn't seem to raise the passions of Italians in the same way, possibly in part because there was never a full blown civil war in Italy prior to the allied invasion - and of course it was the allies who invaded not the Germans.

    It's interesting to examine the politics in each country. I think ours is much more class bound than most other European countries, with the exception of Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Brexit Party will struggle to win over the Labour vote because of how Nigel Farage appears on our finely-tuned class radar. The Labour vote has proved remarkably solid with probably an adamantine 25% who will never vote anything else under the two party system. You might think having a pro-IRA, pro-Hamas, pro-more mass immigration extreme Marxist as leader might erode thier base!

    2. I see you refer to the "People's Party" rather than the "Popular Party". When I put Partido Popular in google translate I get Popular Party which is how the BBC refers to it but it's referred to as the People's Party on Wikipedia. Can you shed any light on that Craig?

    1. Re Italy I should perhaps have said that it was the allies who invaded Italy FIRST, that might be a better way of putting it. I was really contrasting that with most of the rest of mainland Europe, excepting Iberia, where the Germans invaded country after country.

    2. Google Translate may not be the best source. What can I say about the BBC if that's what they're calling it?
      My dictionary says Popular = del pueblo; of the people, and gives an example: el tribunal popular the people's court

      Partido Popular = People's Party.

      Popular = popular, as in popular culture, is given as a second meaning.

    3. That's a good question. Different media outlets seem to stick with either one of the other though. Wonder if 'Popular Party' is in one of the BBC's 'style guides'?

    4. I think it may go back a long way to the BBC not liking to describe any "conservative" party as the "People's Party" so maybe they thought calling them the "Popular Party" made them sound a bit ridiculous. My vague recollection is the BBC were a bit p'd off when the the PP won after the Franco regime was seen off.


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