City of spies: how fake news fooled the FT – Part I


This article is a response to City of spies: how the battle for Catalonia divided Barcelona, by Michael Stothard, which appeared in the Financial Times on Friday 15 June, 2018 and translated into Spanish in Expansión a day later as Barcelona: espionaje y policía secreta en la batalla por Cataluña.

I – THE AUTHOR

City of Spies touches on some of the most important events in Spain’s recent history and features public figures of wealth and power. Each one is worthy of a book in itself. It is cautionary tale of what can happen when events are trivialised or misreported for the sake of a literary conceit, and on behalf of major political players, something shocking when published by a newspaper of the Financial Times’ class. There is omission of context and relevant events that do not suit the one-sided narrative. It is an inaccurate dramatisation; a partial and distorted picture; a failure of style over substance; it is part spy novel and part political pamphlet. You could call it propaganda, or even fake news, and it comes from a respected journalist on a major international title. His characters are caricatures that do none of the parties involved any justice, independentist and unionist alike.

The set-up

I imagine a smart young journalist with a plum job on an international paper sitting at a table on a Barcelona café terrace with ex-flatmates from Paris, amused by their plans for the day. He can barely contain his excitement, privileged as he is to have been offered this “exclusive”: an insight into Barcelona’s dark side, its underbelly of “warring political factions”. He won’t have time for the beach, the tapas or the cannabis club. Although, he doesn’t know much about the people or the city involved, this is a damn good story that somebody wants writing. The promised access to “classified information” is irresistible and he’s going to wing it.

For the intrepid recent arrival, this could be the bomb, far more interesting than the neoliberal propaganda he normally pumps out for his masters at the FT and the wider business world. From his writings, I imagine a roving journalistic disciple of Friedrich Hayek. During the Paris years, he’s a modern Orwell, but without the social conscience, not so much Down and Out in Paris and London, but slumming it a bit for the “insight”.  Just my imagination, you understand.

Suddenly, he finds himself in Barcelona, ten months on from the terror attacks and nine from the referendum. Strangely, neither traumatic event warrants a mention in his Spy Story, despite the starring roles as heroes and villains for the Catalan and Spanish police in both catastrophes. Surely, the fact that the ringleader of the terror cell that killed fourteen and injured at least 136 people in Catalonia last August was an informant for the Spanish secret service, the National Intelligence Centre – Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI), is worth at least a mention in a piece that revolves around the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Civil Guard and the National Police?

More important than the full picture is the sense of danger and mystery induced by clandestine interviews with five unionist police officers who he claims cannot be named for fear of reprisal, apparently in fear of their lives. More used to the company of a “diplomat girlfriend and … bankers, consultants, lawyers,” this must be very exciting for a journalist, much sexier than the “dust and quasi-revolutionary chaos” of Bastille that had given him “an insight into what was mal-functioning – but also wonderful – about 21st century France.” Those French years meant there was only one choice for a self-proclaimed Macron fanboy, now working in Spain on a financial paper. He was always going to be another Ciudadano rather than a regular citizen, comfortable with similarly “internationally-minded” and often “wildly pro-Macron” globalist friends, with the young, urban, upwardly mobile entrepreneurs or the hipsters reminiscent of Brooklyn, Berlin and Saint Germain des Près. If only they could see him now, taking another trip downmarket, this time into the Catalan stretch of “the sewers of the Spanish state”. He’s loving all the cloak and dagger stuff. The paper could give it a Third Man feel, although it might seem like fanciful fluff.

It’s unclear how wilfully he has swallowed this juicy piece of hack bait from the Catalan right. He was only packed off to Spain in August 2017 and so hasn’t even been here a year. Why did he get the “exclusive” and not one of the many well-established, long-standing foreign correspondents based in Spain? Are ten months really enough to gain any understanding of modern Spain in turmoil, or the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, let alone have a clear idea of Catalonia’s current reality, its numerous factions, its bourgeoisie, its right and far-right, its pro-independence movement, and so on. Barcelona isn’t New York, Stockholm, London or Paris, and it most certainly isn’t Madrid. Perhaps his fellow professionals were wary of the job. Perhaps he was chosen on purpose.

Then, all of a sudden, he breaks wind. The stench is overwhelming, but it can only be smelt in the vicinity. His friends at the table are unsure if he did it deliberately or not. Those further afield won’t even have noticed.

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