Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Cadena Ser to the Galleys

A court in Madrid has sentenced the controllers of the radio station Cadena Ser, Daniel Anido and Rodolfo Irago, to 21 months in prison for revealing secrets, specifically the membership of the Popular Party of a number of private individuals. Before commenting on the judgement itself it's important to know who the players in this little drama are.

The Cadena Ser is part of the Grupo Prisa, a vast media empire whose main purpose is to make money, of course, but it does this (or more recently, it doesn't) by sucking up to the socialist leaders and and presenting everything from the current point of view of the left, tending more towards the hard left than the centre left. El País is the major newspaper of the group, though they have others, and it's not at all bad as the written press goes, provided you know where it stands politically. The main radio station is the Cadena Ser, and it's a ghastly thing, resolutely anti-PP, anti-America, anti-Israel, anti-Church, anti-family, anti-freedom in anything it doesn't approve of. It is so ridiculously and homogeneously right-on and 'progressive', even in the sports programmes, that you could forget there is a very large number, possibly a majority, of perfectly normal people who don't share those values and opinions. In fact I haven't listened to it for years, but it clearly hasn't changed. That is, after all, it's function.

So we have a vast, very powerful, monolithic, socialist media consortium, owned and controlled by Ignacio Polanco (the son of the founder) and Juan Luís Cebrián (ie, not a board of directors or a large group of shareholders, but by two men) which uses its power to spread its message and its message to maintain its power, and tries to silence or criminalize any media which it can stigmatize as 'right wing' (this is left wing capitalism at its most unpleasant, dangerous and hypocritical.). Two men with direct responsibilty for the content of one of its main media have been jailed for invading the privacy of a number of people (for political, not journalistic ends). It is very tempting to raise a glass to that judge on the grounds that running such media should be an offence in itself, as I'm sure they would if it were directors of ABC who were jailed. But in order to evaluate what it means for the rest of us there are other things to be considered.

As I've said before somewhere, I don't like the idea that freedom of the press is different from and supeior to the freedom of expression that the rest of us should enjoy, or that journalists should be allowed to do what the rest of us can't. Any argument about this case should be based on freedom of expression, not on journalistic privilege. (Journalists are employees paid by private companies to create a product that will make money, they are not the saviours of the world. The first amendment to the US Constitution mentions freedom of the press explicitly, but it does so in order to include the written word in the provision for freedom of expression, not to protect journalists. I would like to hear from a legal expert on this, but historically it makes no sense the way it is now interpreted.)

The judge said that the main thrust of the article, about alleged corruption in the local Popular Party involving 'irregular' membership, was a matter of legitimate public interest, but that naming people as members of the party, and revealing other personal information about them, was an illegal invasion of their privacy. This is not a question of protecting the powerful, as they were not public figures, just 'ordinary' party members, but rather of protecting people from having personal information indiscriminately revealed for political, commercial, or any other motive.

The sentence does strike me as a bit harsh, though in any case it will be appealed and I very much doubt they will go to prison in the end. But holding people to account for their actions is an excellent thing. Freedom of speech, unlike freedom of thought, cannot be absolute, and identifying and defending the limits is both extremely difficult and vitally important if we genuinely wish to be free. We can't expect governments to do it, they don't care about our freedom. The judge here may or may not have correctly identified one of those limits, but he has attempted to apply the right criteria in the application of the law, and we can be certain to here more of this story, which will keep the ideas present in people's minds.

Part of the sentence, by the way, prevents them from working as journalists for a period of time. I can't find a link to the sentence itself, so I don't know how that is defined, but when I do I imagine it will be worth discussing in its own right.

Apologies for not offering unconditional praise or condemnation, and for not setting the whole thing out in three simple sentences. It isn't simple, but it is important.

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