Spain: Workers occupy TV station in battle to keep public broadcaster on air

November 8, 2013
March in support of RTVV workers.

If you were asked to pick a TV network in Spain least likely to be occupied and managed by its workers, you would probably choose Radio and Television Valencia’s (RTVV) Channel Nine.

Worker control over this mouthpiece for the corrupt People’s Party (PP) government of Valencia would seem about as likely as worker control of Australia's Nine Network. Yet, at the time of writing, in response to a bid to close down the station, RTVV Channel Nine is being run by its employees.

The station is broadcasting uncensored news and free-ranging political debates. Its average ratings have tripled, and a debate over its own future was the best-rating program of the night in Valencia on November 6.

Planned closure

Valencian premier Alberto Fabra is pulling out all stops to bring the RTVV back under government control. If it eventuates, RTVV's closure would be the first closure of a public broadcaster in Spain.

Fabra is desperate to reassert government control. He is intensifying police and private security presence around and within the RTVV headquarters.

It is a strange sensation watching Channel Nine these days. The flashy studio sets haven’t changed and the station’s presenters are as perfectly groomed and fashionably dressed as ever. They certainly haven’t lost that falsely emphatic intonation that seems to be the universal trademark of professional newsreaders.

However, their mannerisms now accompany live crosses to the big demonstrations in support of the station’s workers, introductions to interviews with previously unmentionable political and social movement activists, and an unending stream of vox pops with local sport and entertainment celebrities deploring the possible loss of RTVV.

To get some idea of the shift, think of Peter Overton reading the latest Socialist Alliance media release on the Nine evening news followed by Tracy Grimshaw sympathetically interviewing a refugee on A Current Affair.

The Channel Nine workers' occupation began on November 5, after premier Fabra announced the closure of all RTVV’s operations, TV and radio.

This decision came in response to a ruling by the Valencian High Court of Justice requiring the government to reinstate more than 800 workers previously sacked as part of the enterprise’s restructuring.

Fabra claimed that his cash-strapped administration could not afford to re-employ that amount of staff and that closure was the only option. Otherwise, funds for Valencia’s schools, hospitals and social services would have to be cut.

For the RTVV’s workers, who were still celebrating the court’s decision to reinstate their workmates, the government’s beheading of the station came as a huge shock. Their response was anger, not the least because many had been loyal servants of the operation.

As a result, that night’s evening news became a televised press conference at which Channel Nine’s lead presenter, flanked by scores of fellow workers, delivered the position of the RTVV workers to viewers. As she spoke, spontaneous demonstrations of support were already taking place in the Valencian region’s three main cities — Castello, Alacant and the capital Valencia itself.

The next day, Fabra’s media conference about “the hardest decision of my political life” focused on the “hard choice” between schools and the public broadcaster.

His line of argument ignored a several of facts, immediately pointed out by the workers: for the first time in its 24-year history Channel Nine was making a small surplus; the workers were prepared to negotiate salary cuts and early retirement packages; and if the government could find billions for bank rescues, why couldn’t millions be found for RTVV?

Squalid history

RTVV has such a sordid history that it’s no surprise that some progressive people in Valencia are finding it hard to sympathise with the occupying workers.

Here is a harsh, but not unusual, comment on the Eldiario website: “The more than 600 employees who remain in that TV are, almost all, the pets with their PP membership card in their mouths, the most disgusting of all, those who escaped the restructuring because they’re capable of swallowing any shit from the party they vote for.

“Now they are rebelling like rats because the crumbs from the enormous cake of PP corruption are being taken away from them.”

That sort of reaction is inevitable given RTVV’s role in corrupt the PP government in Valencia since the party won the 1995 regional elections.

The PP’s Valencian “development model” began with banks and credit unions run by PP-friendly boards shovelling easy credit to real estate developers. As a result, Valencia led the way in the 2001-2008 Spanish housing bubble.

When that popped, Valencia was with left with more empty housing per capita than any other region, and with its main bank and credit union bankrupt.

The other main feature of the PP's Valencia operation was the nexus between the fattened developers and the PP itself. The developers would “bid” for government contracts and be “awarded” them by sympathetic or corruptible officials on terms that guaranteed enormous profits.

The price was that they made nice donations to PP coffers.

Along with the Valencian housing bubble went a bonfire of PP government vanities. These included the City of Arts and Sciences (cost $1.2 billion, annual loss $52 million); the megalomaniac “City of Light” film studio ($300 million, and closed for a year); $150 million for Castello airport (which has never seen a plane), and $377 million for the Mystic Land theme park (later sold for $70 million).

To help glorify their region, PP governments also paid $300 million for a Formula One race; $350 million for shares in football clubs; unknown millions for the America’s Cup and $12 million for a Papal visit.

RTVV’s role was to shamelessly boost these “achievements”, cover the thrilling detail of the extravagant circuses, censure any criticism of its masters, and feed the viewers a diet of rubbish TV — in losing competition with private channels.

RTVV was also a job-trust for the PP faithful, including people who were on the payroll but never turned up to work. From 600 workers in 1995, it went to 1800 at the peak of the bubble.

Its deficit, which had been 34 million euros when the PP took over in 1995, is now a stunning 1.2 billion euros, two-and-a-half times the deficit of the 10 other regional public broadcasters combined.

Some longer term Channel Nine workers are now using the occupation to confess their shame at being part of this filth. They are also revealing RTVV’s dirty secrets to a fascinated public, as they try to win support.

Former reporter Iolanda Marmol wrote in the November 7 Periodico: “Channel 9 spent years giving in to the desires of the government, producing a progressive loss of confidence and credibility.

“We would receive orders to film [former premier] Eduardo Zaplana according to his best profile; 'cuts' were always 'adjustments'; demonstrations were to be filmed to look as small or large as possible, according to political line …

“Where were the limits? I would try to do live coverage because this is improvised and there was no script to be manipulated. Was that enough? No.”

In a first for Channel Nine, one of their reporters finally interviewed the spokesperson of the victims of the 2006 Valencia Metro disaster, in which 43 died and 10 were seriously injured. The Valencian government is suspected of covering up aspects of the crash and Channel Nine was under orders to never mention it.

‘The Catalan threat’

The RTVV’s disastrous financial situation does not entirely explain the PP’s determination to close the network. Another powerful motive for Fabra’s attack is the rise of independence sentiment in neighbouring Catalonia.

The gut PP response to this “threat to the unity and indivisibility” of the Spanish state is to reduce the institutional presence of the Catalan language wherever possible.

Channel Nine began life with a mission of being the only Valencia-wide broadcaster in Valencian (the local variant of Catalan). The goal was to be part of reviving the language after it had largely been driven underground during the years of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975).

As long as the revival of Valencian was regarded as acceptable to the Valencia establishment, there was no problem with RTVV broadcasting in the language. Indeed, it helped get the PP message through to layers of the population resistant to Castilian (Spanish).

That is no longer the case today. One of the biggest swear-words in the Spanish-centralist vocabulary is “pan-catalanist”, the idea that an independent Catalonia would inspire similar sentiments in Valencia and other Catalan-speaking regions (despite the miserably low vote always received by Catalanist parties in Valencian elections).

For those frightened by this prospect, thought of a truly independent Valencian-speaking public broadcaster operating in the region produces a cold sweat. Thus, if the PP kills off the RTVV, it will have done the Spanish centralist cause great service.

The Channel Nine occupation has already had a strong positive impact. The latest opinion polls (taken before the occupation) show the PP losing Valencia, one of its bulwarks. With his actions over Channel Nine, Fabra will have only lost further support.

November 9 demonstrations in solidarity with the RTVV workers will surely help delegitimise the PP in Valencia even more — perhaps to the point where mass protests demanding the early elections can finish Fabra.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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