What they think of us


A friend of mine calls it the “New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Sh*t Syndrome”.

As long as I can remember, certainly as long as I have been living in Spain, the country has been obsessed with what others think about it.

When I first moved here I was struck by the interest Spaniards and their media showed in what other countries’ newspapers were saying about them. This was starkly evident in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Madrid of March 2004, when the rest of the world seemed to get what many Spaniards didn’t: an Islamic group, not Eta, was responsible.

This trend continued in a rather bizarre vein when one Socialist congressman used a Financial Times editorial as a weapon with which to berate José María Aznar during the parliamentary inquiry into the latter’s handling of the attacks.

But it was a phenomenon that spread beyond politics. The economy, sport and culture were all areas where the foreign media’s view of Spain was forensically examined – for insight, praise or ridicule. To an extent, I found this admirable. After all, it seemed to show a certain humility and international-mindedness. How cosmopolitan, I thought.

But in recent years, with the economic crisis, the Catalan independence push and, more recently, the on-going national political stand-off, Spain’s apparently healthy interest in what the world thinks of it has been amped up to the dimensions of a borderline pathology.

In 2012, The New York Times ran a feature about how many of the country’s poor were pushed to extreme measures, like foraging through rubbish bins, due to the economic crisis. A photo essay accompanied the report, highlighting the drama. Two days later, El País newspaper ran a 500-word article about that article, quoting it at length and reproducing the US paper’s front page on which it had appeared.

El País weren’t the only ones. That same story was pored over by Spanish papers and radio tertulianos for days, with a mixture of fascination and shame: This is what they think of us!

And the same thing happens again and again. Whenever the more high-profile media, particularly the FT, the NYT or The Economist, (and to a lesser extent Le Monde and other continental titles) run an article or editorial highlighting Spain’s difficulties or achievements, it is chewed over for days. More recently, the satirical TV show El Intermedio invited a panel of foreign journalists to talk about their opinion of the country’s news issues. They gave perfectly interesting answers to some rather wooden questions and I wasn’t convinced this made for good television – but I appear to be wrong, given how often it happens.

The suggestion in these cases seems to be that outsiders understand Spain better than Spain’s own media. The suggestion is also that these foreign media’s opinion is more important than that of the national media.

In a way that is true, if only in the sense that a damning editorial about the Spanish economy in a major “Anglo-Saxon” newspaper might push the country’s risk premium a bit higher, therefore adding to its national debt.

(Fortunately, there are those who have managed to prick this bubble. One headline on the humorous website El Mundo Today read: “The New York Times publishes photos of Spaniards without iPhones to show how unstable the country is”.)

But is our analysis really more insightful or significant than that of local journalists, analysts and those people with brash opinions who always seem to be on TV and radio roundtables? I doubt it. After all, I and many other foreign journalists spend much of our time consulting them (the serious ones, anyway) about what they think of the country. What we offer is less detail and more context than the Spanish media, in order to avoid overwhelming our readers/listeners/viewers.

This reverence for what outsiders think betrays much about the Spanish psyche: the euro-zone’s fourth-largest economy still craves international approval and harbours large reserves of self-doubt.

“What’s going on in Spain to make Spaniards hate our own country so much?” ABC newspaper asked last year. Inevitably, it then went on to heap most of the blame on the left and on Catalan and Basque nationalism. No doubt it was asking the same question yesterday, as some celebrated Spain’s 12 de octubre national day while others denounced it as a Francoist remnant of a colonial past.

I won’t try and explain all the causes of the self-doubt here. But last week I saw a more resentful side to this sensitivity while in Dublin, taking part in a symposium on contemporary Spain at the Instituto Cervantes. After I had given a talk about the last half-decade of political upheaval, an elderly Spanish woman in the front row berated me. Highlighting the fact that my fellow speaker and I were British, she pointed out that we had our own crisis caused by Brexit, so why were we talking about her country’s crisis?

How dare a foreigner criticise her country? It was the kind of stance taken by Spain’s politicians when they want to cast their adversaries in a bad light: y tú más – you’re even worse than me.

It’s hard to imagine the The New York Times or Le Monde citing an El País article about the United States or France. That, many would argue, is due to the arrogance of those countries and their media and perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm if the members of the G8, say, took more interest in what was being said by the media beyond their own borders.

But there are many ways to measure a nation’s size, influence and significance – GDP, trade figures, population and even the spending power of their football teams are among them. There’s no such thing as an international “self-confidence index”, of course, but when Spain stops worrying so much about what others are saying about it, when it shakes off the “New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Sh*t Syndrome”, it will have made a major leap in that fictitious, but very important, ranking.

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