Spain’s Ministry of Truth II: Borrell’s Reputational Rapid Reaction Unit
In a costly attempt to counteract the inevitable negative publicity generated by removing, imprisoning and prosecting an entire Catalan government on trumped-up charges of violent insurrection, Spain’s Prime Minister’s Office; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation [sic] – incorporating Global Spain (formerly Brand Spain); and the Diplomatic Information Office (OID) have all been mobilised. Since November, the international community has been enjoying Operation Save Spain’s Tarnished Reputation. Like bulls in a china shop, Spanish ministers, politicians, ambassadors, diplomats and journalists have been rushing around on their mission, insulting the intelligence of non-Spaniards everywhere and generally getting up everyone’s nose.
In order to accelerate damage limitation, Global Spain, the public relations secretariat within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs run by Irene Lozano, has formed a Reputational Rapid Response Unit: 215 diplomats, one in each of Spain’s embassies around the world, exercising constant “reputational vigilance, protection and projection”, a kind of “specialised radar” to detect any criticism of the Spanish authorities from any quarter.
Does any other country have such a network? Does any other country have the need for such a network? Wouldn’t a mature democracy be more secure about its democratic credentials? And one further question, your Honour: how much taxpayers’ money has gone into this white elephant?
The main problem with Global Spain is that many of their rapid reactions lack any forethought and blow up in their faces. The clumsy videos, the slogans, the ill-conceived hashtags, the appalling gaffes and the unconvincing narrative have meant that Global Spain is doomed to suffer the longest-running example of the Streisand Effect ever. #ThisIsTheRealSpain. From top to bottom the campaign is a joke.
Global Spain’s short history and some of its embarrassing Reputational Rapid Reactions are gone into here:
Wouldn’t it be more effective and significantly cheaper to say nothing, when every time the Minister for Global Spain opens her mouth, she puts her foot in it? Since Global Spain’s inception, the gaffes have come thick and fast. During her interview on BBC Radio 5, she said that it “wasn’t something that happens every day in any country that you have political leaders who have committed criminal offences that are going on trial”.
The fact that the presumption of innocence – ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat – is enshrined in Spanish constitutional and international law matters little to Spanish propagandists.
Global Spain’s redoubling of efforts to coincide with the trial of the 2017 Catalan government on charges carrying up to 25 years’ imprisonment has clearly broadcast to the world the Spanish authorities’ presumption of guilt in this case. The Minister for Global Spain went on to claim that “the Spanish system has a lot of guarantees for the convicted”, completely ignoring the fact that the trial had not yet started. The incriminating phrase, “for the convicted”, is curiously absent from the otherwise complete translation into Spanish at the bottom of the video.
These “slips of the tongue” were considered so serious that they were complained about in preliminary questions on the first day of the trial. It was Rosa María Seoane, the Solicitor General acting on behalf of the Spanish government in the prosecution, to defend the minister. She did so unconvincingly, alleging that the “mistakes” were due to statements “made in a non-maternal language in which the person using it may have spontaneity but does not use it properly”. It was further evidence of the political nature of the trial, if any more were needed.
You would have thought that Ms. Lozano might be a bit more vigilant in subsequent dealings with the foreign media, but you would be wrong. When interviewed by Dominic Waghorn on Sky News, she compared holding the Catalan referendum to rape. “Sex is not forbidden, like voting is not forbidden but you can’t do it forcefully. You have to have the permission to do it, otherwise it’s rape. It’s the same with democracy”, she said. The interviewer was clearly disconcerted by her barbaric analogy and replied, “I’m sorry, you’re comparing holding a referendum against the wishes of central government to rape? And are you honestly saying that should earn a sentence of 25 years?”
Yes. She is saying that a Catalan independentist is guilty by definition. And, if “no means no” and the Spanish authorities said no to the referendum, then the referendum was rape. When the oneness of Spain is at stake, anything goes, no matter how illegal the act or how bad the analogy.
And who’s in charge of this clumsy Propagandaministerium? Why the Catalan-born Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, of course. Since taking the reins of Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June last year, he has had the uphill task of making Spain seem great. It is hard to put a positive spin on the violent repression of the Catalan referendum, the subsequent imprisonment and exile of the Catalan government, and the current trial of twelve of its members in Madrid’s Supreme Court. Repeatedly accusing them of leading a coup d’état and promoting a violent uprising without evidence is a hard ask in the digital age.
On the one hand, you have Spanish government organs trying to hide the truth or spin reality, and on the other an army of volunteers, horrified at how events in their country are being misreported, trying to get the word out. It is David and Goliath, and according to Mr Borrell himself, David is winning.
According to Borrell, the damage to Spain’s international image has nothing to do with the shockingly authoritarian turn the country has taken, the extraordinary events of the past sixteen months or its repressive attitude to the Catalans, but rather “four or five years of pro-independence propaganda”. Borrell has laughably painted the Spanish State as a victim of “lies” and “fake news”, and as being unable to counter the version of the Catalan amateurs telling the story the mainstream national and international press have been so reluctant to tell. The enormous human and financial resources at his disposal – the Ministries, the diplomatic service and the secretariats – make Borrell’s victim blaming look very ugly indeed. Fake news to combat fake fake news.
It is curious, though, that Borrell fails to give any solid examples of this supposed independentist “fake news” apart from vague references to images that no one has seen. In a press conference in Brussels at the end of January, claiming to be concerned about “disinformation” in the upcoming European election campaigns and in reference to Spanish police violence on 1 October 2017, during the referendum, Borrell said that “many images that were actually disseminated were fakes, images of events that took place in Pinochet’s Chile”. It is the same tactic used by Trump to distract from Bannon’s work during the American election campaign of 2016 and by the Spanish government during the Catalan referendum and enforced regional election in 2017, when the Spanish politico-media complex spoke endlessly of “Russian interference” and “fake news” while simultaneously producing vast quantities of it, ironically using the same techniques perfected by the Russians: the so-called “firehose of falsehood” designed to obfuscate and confuse.
The Spanish delegation of David Alandete, then managing director of El País, Borja Lasheras of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Mira Milosevich of the Real Instituto Elcano appeared before a UK Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry into Russian interference in foreign elections two days before that election, and were forced, embarrassingly, to admit that they did not actually have any evidence that Russian news sources had influenced the Catalan referendum result. What actually happened during this period was that Russian media outlets failed to follow the narrative established by the Spanish authorities.
In the run-up to the trial, Borrell’s Ministry prepared a dossier for Spain’s ambassadors to share with the world’s media and convince them that the Catalan 12 are guilty as charged and, at the same time, that Spain is an exemplary democracy. Coinciding with the Supreme Court’s veto of international observers and expert legal and human rights witnesses, the dossier included a legal guide prepared by the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), an article by the criminal law professor and member of Spanish newspaper, El Mundo’s editorial committee, Enrique Gimbernat, defending the charges of rebellion and sedition, and a document justifying the aforementioned veto. What the dossier failed to mention was that the private prosecution against the Catalan leaders has been brought by the far-right political party, Vox. This is all the more worrying now that a general election has been called and the right-wing extremists can use the Supreme Court chamber as their soapbox.
On the eve of the trial, the Spanish embassies contacted local media to follow up on the dossier with invitation-only briefings. “This Monday 11th, at 11:30am, we’ve called the press for a statement from the embassy on the start of the trial against those responsible for the events which occurred in Catalonia in October 2017”, went the message received by some Mexican journalists.
The trial has also seen Borrell’s boss, Pedro Sánchez, visit Strasbourg to defend Spain’s judiciary against criticism, not an easy task considering the far-fetched interpretation of events provided by investigating judges Maza and Llarena, who took “the reality of what occurred in Catalonia to extremes difficult to believe” (eldiario.es). Sarcastically, president Puigdemont’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, wondered whether Sánchez’s visit was to sign Protocol 16, which would allow high courts to ask the European Court of Human Rights for advice “on principles relating to the interpretation or application of the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention or its protocols”.
The position of Spanish officials, and Borrell in particular, has been fixed over the past two years. Spain will not accept any criticism of its institutions from any quarter, however justified or valid those criticisms may be. In response, Spain has repeatedly run campaigns to convince everyone, home and abroad, that it is a mature modern democracy, almost perfect in its functioning. It has done so with the support of the European Union, most European governments and most of the important international media organisations. Obviously, the most political and legally aberrant trial of recent European history presents a new challenge for Spain, not because of the criticism understandably levelled at it from Catalonia, but because of its clearly authoritarian response to political dissidence in the country in recent years, which is not limited to the Catalan case by any means.
Borrell’s sensitivity to such criticism was made clear when he spoke in Barcelona a week ago after the Spanish government had failed to pass its budget, shelved talks with Catalan political parties, and used the situation as an excuse to call elections. Opposition to the talks from within Borrell’s own party, as well as right and far-right formations, allowed the government, and a good part of the national and international media, to again blame the Catalans for the ills of the Spanish system. Borrell stated that a return to dialogue with the Catalan government was dependent on the Catalans putting an end to the supposed “propaganda” war against Spain to “denigrate the Spanish political and judicial institutions”. The idea that negotiations can only take place if valid criticism of Spanish institutions is shut down is a dangerous path to go down. Thankfully for Borrell, most national and international powers and media remain on board, putting the oneness of Spain before any other consideration.
Countering the damage done to Spain’s international image by the actions of its institutions is not an easy task, but falls to Borrell to coordinate as Spain’s Propagandist-in-Chief. Despite the army of paid volunteers he has at his disposal, when reality is so public and evident, the narrative so flimsy, and the quality of the personnel so poor, Borrell is still struggling to get on top of the situation. The more they insist, the more suspicious it looks. If only a Spanish official would come out and admit it. The oneness of Spain comes before anything. Anything done in its name is acceptable, including breaking the law. It is a cold war, and it has been going on for a very long time. It is the Spanish blindspot. Spain is not a bad place and most of its institutions, although in need of reform, function well most of the time. It is just that, when it comes to Catalonia, Spain has a problem.
The trial has already shown that the “Catalan distinction” has been criminalised in Spain, where even membership of a Catalan cultural organisation such as Òmnium Cultural is analogous with membership of a criminal organisation. The crime: defending or promoting a culture other than Spanish culture in Spain. The level of tolerance of diversity in Spain is low.
As John Carlin said in his excellent article, Ghosts of civil war haunt Spain in its Catalonia madness:
Otherwise perfectly sensible, sane, decent people in Spain, lots of them, go berserk at the mention of the “C” word. The Spanish political system has gone berserk too, reviving authoritarian tendencies of the not-so-distant past, setting the stage for a battle between ancient and modern, authoritarian and open-minded, for the soul of Spain’s young and not yet fully formed democracy.John Carlin, Ghosts of civil war haunt Spain in its Catalonia madness
In Spain, the “C” word is Catalonia, and it drives them mad.