Never Mind: Big Media and the Catalonia Vote

Americans of a certain age will almost all remember Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella character from NBC’s Saturday Night Live. She was the little old lady who regularly appeared on the Weekend Update mock news program to give her opinion on the pressing events of the day.

Week after week she would launch into involved explanations of a current social happenings based on a completely flawed understanding of the issue – usually resulting from a mishearing of one of its key terms – only to be stopped by the "host" of the program, Chevy Chase, half way through her rant.

When Chase would point out the reality of the subject she was supposed to be addressing, she would meekly reply "Never mind" and end the segment. What she never, ever did, however, was to apologize for absurd things she had just spent the last few minutes saying.

What was played to audiences as a biting satirical joke about the ignorant presumptuous of certain old people in the 1970s, is now standard operating procedure in the US corporate press, and its ever-increasing corps of slavish imitators in Europe.

When a crisis comes up somewhere in the world, we are treated to instant analyses on the matter from "experts", generally media colleagues of the person reading the news, whose knowledge of the subject amounts mostly to repetitions of the memes generated by the people in the center-right, so-called quality press (all so-called quality presses are today in Europe and Latin America are now center-right if not flat out right in orientation) of the country they have just flown into.

If these frequently monolingual US news-gathering Martians are lucky, they will the will run into a bilingual reporter from the area – either a local or a long-term foreign correspondent – who will inform them of their all they need to know" to fill up the 2-minute report for the rubes back home.

On news programs that have a higher opinion of themselves, such as the PBS Snooze, I mean, News Hour, we get a slightly different variation of the same theme. While the people there are surely no strangers to employing their fellow journalists, or RCRs (Received Cliché Re-circulators), they like to spice things up on foreign affairs with "strategic thinking" experts on the foreign crisis in question, that is, someone from a corporate funded Washington-area think tank who views the world through the narrow prism of the so-called "intelligence" and "defense" communities of the US government.

Here again, the ability to talk and listen to the people in the country in question on their own terms and in their own language and in the context of their own history and its long-standing conflicts is strictly optional.

Much more important for this putatively more enlightened gang is the ability call up an English-speaking "expert" colleague in the country in question who works within an Atlanticist-funded organization or an Atlanticist-dominated press outlet (which today means virtually all major European papers) and learn, in five minutes, what needs to be said.

In the particular case of Spain the pursuit of these two avenues of knowledge will lead the intrepid American newsgatherer into the maws of people like the NYT’s Rafael Minder, author of a book on Catalan nationalism who admitted in an interview to not regularly reading any Catalan nationalist newspapers, or El País’ David Alandete, who recently went to the British Parliament to explain with a straight face that the Russians are actually a driving force behind the Catalan independence movement and that reports the 900+ people injured by Spanish police during their assaults on voters during the October 1st independence referendum voting were a case of pure fabrication.

That general economic and political news about Spain in the US and indeed much of Europe is filtered through this ideological construct is bad enough. But when the particular Spanish issue in question is the independence movement in Catalonia, things lurch into the realm of what the great early 20th century Spanish Galician playwright Valle-Inclan termed the "esperpento", a reality marked by the grotesque and/or the sloppily outlandish.


Because as incredible as it may seem, the average Madrid-based commentator’s grasp of the particular history of Catalonia is roughly the same as the average American pundit’s grasp of the particular histories of the Middle Eastern countries we regularly bomb and destroy, and for very similar reasons; the retention of their existing world view, forged through years of highly institutionalized culture-planning, depends on their maintaining a distanced ignorance and disdain about these places.

Perhaps an example will show what I am talking about. A few years back, Americans were treated to the edifying spectacle of the American Secretary of State and future presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton laughing demonically on camera in reaction to the news that a sovereign Head of State, Muammar Kaddafy, had been tortured by means of multiple bayonet thrusts to the anus before being shot in the head in the wake of an unprovoked invasion of his country promoted and planned by the selfsame chief of US "diplomacy".

Imagine for a moment if a high official from another country were filmed doing the same thing upon hearing of a similarly executed death of a US official, or a high official of a US client state. There would be no end to the outrage and no end to the looping of the sound bite on US and European TV. But outside of a few small outlets on the left and the right, the incident hardly drew any sustained media attention in the US.

The reason for the disparity in reaction is simple. The lives of Americans and the citizens of their loyal client states are considered real. However, those of people in countries that refuse to cooperate with our geopolitical dictates are considered as Ana Ramos Zayas – writing in relation to the social status of Puerto Ricans in Chicago – to be inherently "delinquent" in nature and thus rightly subject to all the punishment that the self-proclaimed master collective decides to mete out to them.

According to the rules of this game, the only way the "delinquent citizen" can ever be delivered from his or her state of inherent depravity is by renouncing their view of the world and gaudily demonstrating their devotion to the core narratives of the ruling collective by, in the cases Ramos Zayas describes, joining the US marines or the very police force that has abused them daily over the course of their young lives.

While the Spanish state has done nothing close to the preferred US option of calling in the bombs to take care of the legally-elected Catalanist leadership, it has tried pretty much every other trick in the regime-change playbook, including imprisoning of its completely nonviolent civic and political leadership, suspending the Autonomous Community’s sitting parliament, and quite openly fomenting economic panic.

And just as US leaders like to talk casually and repeatedly in the media about "taking out" foreign leaders, the Spanish government repeatedly issued threats of violence against the Catalanists in the lead up to their Declaration of Independence on October 27th. And since their coup against that legally-elected government, effected during the first week of November, central government officials have crowed unabashedly about the positive effects of their campaign of violence and intimidation

An example of the first case mentioned came on October 7th when Pablo Casado, an official spokesman for the ruling Popular Party, obliquely threatened Catalan president Puigdemont with death by evoking how the last Catalan president to declare independence from Spain, Lluis Companys, was shot by a Francoist firing squad.

An example of the second case came on December 16th when Soraya Saenz de Santamaría, the Vice President of the current Spanish government (and widely acknowledged to be the brain of the cabinet) bragged, complete with repugnant Clintonian body language, about having "decapitated" and "liquidated" Catalan nationalism through the forceful takedown of the Catalan government.

Not to be outdone, the putatively leftist former Spanish Socialist cabinet member and candidate for Prime Minister, José Borrell, spoke on the same day about the need to "disinfect" Catalonia and its media of their independentists. This, notwithstanding the undeniable fact that within the Catalan media environment, those outlets supporting independence and denouncing Spanish state interventionism constitute a very small and relatively powerless part of the total information system. We thus can see that, much like their counterparts in the of the US, the central concern of Spain’s "progressives" is not promoting social justice or democracy, but rather insuring that the hard right not have any pretext for calling them "soft" on what that same authoritarian right defines as the nation’s core issues of "national security".

But arguably more consequential than these acts of shameless civic thuggery has been the Madrid-based press’ (and subsequently the international press’) deadpan normalization of them. Outside of the complaints of a few Catalan journalists, which are systemically dismissed as meritless in the capital (and from there, most of the rest of the Spanish state), comments of this type were, and regularly are, met with snoring disinterest.

But, of course, had a Catalan official said anything one-eighth as incendiary it would have dominated the news cycle for days, if not weeks, on end.

But that’s the way it works when one group and its mouthpieces have been socialized with a preordained sense of their own enviable "normalcy", and with it, their orientalizing "right" to brand those who deign to challenge the supremacist presumptions of their "normal" world view as delinquents, and thus deserving of any and all forms of opprobrium leveled at them.

If there has been a master trope of the Catalan crisis within the Madrid-based political and media class (and by reverberation the mainstream pundits of the Europe and the US) it has been the idea that, as Sáenz de Santamaría made clear in the above mentioned speech, a minority of separatists is trying to force its will upon the clear majority of Catalans who wish to remain within Spain.

Sounds awful doesn’t it?

It never seems to bother those that repeat this charge ad nauseam this that in the previous elections for the Catalan parliament held in September 2015 the independentists outpolled the proponents of unionism by 9 percentage points, 48.3 to 39%, totals, which under the d’Hondt Law governing the ratio between votes and parliamentary seats in all Spanish elections, gave them a slim absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament. (n.b. Most of the of the votes needed to round out 100% total of the electorate in this election went to CSQP which coquettishly refused to take a hard position one way or another on the matter of independence.)

Strangely, during the lead-up to the October 1st referendum no one in the press ever seemed to ask the people constantly making the claim about a minority forcing its will upon the majority two basic questions.

1) If the majority of Catalans are, as you repeatedly claim, unionists, why was this faction unable to come anywhere close to a majority in the 2015 plebiscitary elections?

2) If the majority of Catalans are, as you repeatedly claim, unionists, what could you possibly have to fear with letting the October 1st referendum go ahead unimpeded?

When these simple questions are posed, it becomes abundantly clear that no unionist majority in Catalonia presently exists outside the overheated minds of the Madrid-based political and media establishment and the millions around the world that mindlessly parrot their talking points.

And this is why the government resorted to force. And as the age-old authoritarian saying goes, "If at first your attempts to lie, exaggerate, censor and intimidate don’t work, try, try again."

And this was precisely Spanish government’s plan when it applied article 155 of the Spanish constitution following the Catalan Parliament’s declaration of independence last October 27th.

Realizing, however, that their own spinmeisters, and perhaps more importantly, the EU spinmeisters in Brussels, would never consent to the Rajoy government’s long-cherished goal of canceling Catalonia’s stature of Autonomy once and for all, they opted for the next best thing: elections rigged to achieve the de facto neutering, or as Saenz de Santamaría later shamelessly said, the "liquidation" of the Catalanist movement for the foreseeable future.

How did they plan to do it?

1) By imprisoning and chasing into exile the legally elected leaders of the independentist parties.

2) By orchestrating nonstop smear and harassment campaigns against the remaining independentist candidates.

Key to these efforts was the central government’s control of the Electoral Commission regulating the campaign leading to the December 21st vote. Knowing that this body would be more than open to condemning anything that legitimated the independentists view of the world, the unionist partisans forwarded to it an endless stream of accusations about the "bias" of media outlets they deemed as being insufficiently supportive their – of course – self-evidently "neutral" posture on the matter.

This meant, in effect, that unionists and the unionist media, which as mentioned above is overwhelmingly hegemonic in Catalonia, could insult and disdain the independentists in any and all ways without fear of reproach, while the few media outlets, such as the Catalan Autonomous broadcaster TV3, that had been declared "delinquent" in relation to its devotion to the sacred idea of the unity of Spain, were subject to all manner of rhetorical micro-management.

For example, announcers at TV3 were prohibited from referring to the legally-elected president of Catalonia as "President" or the group of cabinet ministers that followed him into exile in Belgium as "the government in exile" or to make any reference to the Catalan government ministers jailed near Madrid as "jailed ministers". They also prohibited the channel from broadcasting the December 7th rally held by some 45,000 Catalans in Brussels in support of their exiled President.

The Electoral Commission reached its height of Orwellian absurdity when it tried to effectively outlaw the use of the color yellow in public spaces. For example, it ordered the Barcelona city government to stop illuminating a centrally located water fountain with lights of that color.

The reasoning went like this.

The independentists had begun a drive to have their fellow citizens wear yellow ribbons in hopeful tribute (as in "tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree") to the civil society leaders and Catalan government ministers imprisoned by the central government. By allowing prominent displays of yellow in public places, the city was, according to the logic of the commission, effectively poisoning the otherwise bias-free pre-election atmosphere.

The approach of the government could perhaps best be compared to the actions of a privileged group of soccer parents who, upon witnessing the defeat of their ever-deserving children in a game against an unheralded upstart team of self-evidently lesser players, use their social clout with the league’s president to first erase the results from the standings and then organize a rematch in which all of the best players from the upstart team are banned from participating. And then to make doubly sure no untoward result occurs, they carefully organize a section of hooligans on the sidelines to vigorously harass and threaten the referee any time he happens whistle a penalty in favor of the upstarts.

All of which brings us back to last Thursday’s elections and big media’s reaction to them.

Despite all the central government’s attempts to rig them in favor of the unionist parties, the independentists in fact added to the number of seats they control in the Catalan parliament, thus holding on to the absolute majority they had before the central state’s armed coup against them. Yes, the unionists also added to the total of their seats. But when we exclude the "after-all-these-years-we-can’t-decide-what-we-really-believe-on-independence Comuns – political nephews of the aforementioned CSQP and linked to the European and American left’s beloved Podemos in Madrid – and their 7.5 % of the vote, the combined independentist forces achieved a rather clear 48% to 43% advantage over the combined unionist forces who were, as we have seen, operating in a game that was wholly rigged in their favor.

One would think that, if nothing else, the US and European press would be captivated by the David vs. Goliath nature of the victory. But, of course, paying attention to a victory of this type would mean calling attention to just how far off the mark all of that "common knowledge" they had spread about a minority recklessly inflicting its will on a majority had truly been.

So after a few hours of media excitement in Europe on Thursday night, and virtually no headline coverage in the US, the story – which arguably constitutes the most important victory for progressively-oriented grass roots democracy in Europe in over a decade – quickly faded out of view.

As Emily Litella would say, "Never mind".

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

Author: Thomas Harrington

Thomas Harrington teaches Iberian studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.