In the spring of 2015, El Mundo’s Asia correspondent David Jiménez was unveiled as the newspaper’s new editor. A year and 366 editions of the paper later, he was sacked.
Jiménez recounts his eventful tenure in a newly published book, El Director (“The Editor”). Having gone on sale this week it has already sparked a storm, not just among Jiménez’s former colleagues, but in the Spanish media world in general, with several journalists accusing him of taking revenge on his former employer or peddling gossip. In the Spanish media, one journalist told me, “firemen don’t stand on each other’s hoses.” There’s a feeling that, in being so explicit about his experience, he has broken a longstanding omertá.
One of the problems for Jiménez’s critics is that El Director is such a good read, with a lightness of touch and a tone that ranges from bemusement to barely concealed fury. From the start, he is a fish out of water. A journalist who had spent most of the previous two decades living abroad, having little direct contact with the workings of El Mundo or the world of the Spanish elite, is suddenly chosen for the Big Job. He follows in the footsteps of long-time editor and media legend Pedro J. Ramírez and his successor, Casimiro García-Abadillo, who held the post for just over a year.
The brief seems to be clear: to stop the paper’s disastrous decline in sales, make it a competitive online presence and restore its journalistic reputation. Jiménez envisages a major overhaul, led, understandably by an emphasis on developing the paper’s digital performance. But from the very start he faces resistance. Some of it is from luddite or jealous colleagues, but a more formidable foe is upstairs from him, where El Mundo’s executives pace the corridors and fret over whether the paper is doing enough to grease the wheels of power.
Despite employing many dedicated professionals, El Mundo, Jiménez tells us, is a hotbed of hypocrisy, cowardice and back-stabbing. All these attributes come together in the sinister figure of El Cardenal (one of many characters in the book whose real name is replaced by a nickname), an executive who constantly pressures Jiménez to bury news that will hurt the Partido Popular (PP) or the country’s corporate giants. “Power had stopped fearing the media and now it was the media who feared power,” he writes early on, setting the melancholic tone for a story which we know isn’t going to end well.
However, there are lighter moments. Former Madrid mayor Ana Botella confuses Jiménez with a prize-winning bullfighter at one point, and his account of desperately trying to get his children to shut up in the back of the car when prime minister Mariano Rajoy is calling him on the phone is priceless. And Spain’s élite don’t always come off badly. On a train journey back from Huesca, he receives an unexpected phone call from King Felipe and Queen Letizia, who both apologise after some compromising leaked texts had shown her calling one of El Mundo’s supplements “shit”.
And yet, the overall impression El Director gives is not just that of a media industry that is in economic decline, but one which has utterly lost its ethical bearings. While Jiménez sees more and more evidence of corporate pressures compromising the media’s performance, he also discovers that media organisations are blackmailing companies into buying advertising.
“The wall separating propaganda from information, the press release from news and advertising from journalism had collapsed,” he writes. “Buying a journalist was not possible in Spain, but, as the Afghan saying about corruption goes: you could talk about hiring one.”
Jiménez sees journalists-for-hire all around him. Many are on tertulias – radio and TV panel discussions – where participants are often chosen for their outlandish personalities and because they fill an ideological quota, even receiving instructions from political parties before appearing. (Jiménez has a particular axe to grind against the tertulias – on election night in 2015 he spots one of his star reporters holding forth on a television panel when she is supposed to be in the newsroom covering the result.)
Any insider account of El Mundo has to at least touch on how the paper handled the events and fallout of March 11, 2004, when a terrorist attack killed 191 people in Madrid, and Jiménez obliges. The paper’s coverage remains a huge blemish on its reputation: Ramírez, who as editor would frequently play paddle with then-prime minister José María Aznar, accepted the government’s erroneous line that ETA, rather than jihadists, had carried out the bombing. When it became apparent that ETA had played no role in the attack, El Mundo continued to insist on the Aznar theory, for years casting doubt on the official investigation, thus convincing many Spaniards that there had been a cover-up.
I had always wondered what the journalists under Ramírez had thought of all this and whether it was simply a bubble mentality. But Jiménez, who at the time was in another country, suggests that few agreed with the ETA theory. “It was difficult to find anyone in the newsroom who thought that what we were doing made any sense,” he writes, “but it was even more difficult to find someone who had the guts to tell the editor that.” Those who did dissent, he reveals, were “purged”. Meanwhile, “Those who bought into the editor’s fantasies with the most enthusiasm were promoted.”
Ramírez, who was El Mundo editor for most of Jiménez’s time at the paper, is portrayed as a flawed, egomaniacal autocrat. Utterly driven by the search for the big headline and exclusive, he is blessed with boldness and a rare journalistic instinct, yet appears to have few scruples, whether selling the March 11 lie, plagiarising a scoop from El País without attribution, or simply reducing journalists to tears with an angry tirade.
But while Jiménez’s book casts light on the Spanish media and one newspaper in particular, it also has plenty to say about the state of modern Spain in general, a country whose political and economic institutions have taken a pasting in recent years, as the cosiness between media, business and politics has reached a peak. He writes:
“[Rajoy] had as much intention of overhauling politics as El Cardenal had of overhauling journalism or [Telefónica CEO] César Alierta had of overhauling business. The three of them were part of the chain of national mediocrity which began at school, where critical thinking was viewed with mistrust and popularity was earned by pushing people around in the playground; it continued in the office, where promotions were reserved for those who were submissive and too much initiative is seen as a threat; it continued in the media newsrooms, where a privileged caste had become powerful by stepping on the enthusiasm of journalists with more talent than themselves; it turned gangrenous in public institutions, where thousands of jobs were doled out according to which side you were on, regardless of merit; and it continued up to the final rung of the ladder, where a prime minister who was plagued by corruption could aspire to re-election, confident of the fact that several million Spaniards would vote for him with the blind loyalty of the fans of a football team.”
Jiménez is frustrated at every turn by those who want to keep this rotten media-business-politics triumvirate in place. The experience was clearly a painful one for him and his account of it is drawing a fierce backlash from some quarters. “We journalists like to tell a good story,” he writes, “but not our own.” This is one story that needed to be told.
El Director, by David Jiménez, is published by Libros K.O.