OPINION: If Spain’s media can’t show more self-control lawmakers must act

OPINION: If Spain's media can't show more self-control lawmakers must act
Photographers and TV crews take images of the rescue works to reach two-year-old Julen Rosello. Photo: Guardia Civil
The unfolding tragedy of the little boy who fell down a well, gripped all of Spain for a fortnight and was another free-for-all for the Spanish press. Matthew Bennett says it's time for the media to change or the government needs to act.

In the end, he was down there. Media reports of the preliminary autopsy details suggest he died as a result of the fall, on the same day, and that he fell into the hole in a manner consistent with his father's first report to police, feet first with his arms above his head, to a depth of 71 metres, and that he was then somehow buried by the plug of earth that so frustrated rescuers in their attempts to reach him.

READ MORE: Spanish miners find body of Julen Rosello trapped in borehole

For 13 days, all eyes were turned towards rescue efforts on a hillside outside Totalán in Andalusia. Photo: AFP

I will spare you more of the details here, suffice to say that no parent would wish their child to suffer and die in that way. Officially, the investigation is now open into the circumstances of his disappearance and death and the existence of the illegal well. So far, neither the courts in Andalusia nor the Civil Guard have confirmed the media reports regarding the autopsy.

For nearly two weeks, all of Spain, and many people around the world, waited, worried and wanted to know the outcome, the anguish almost unbearable as the days went by. A small boy all alone down a very deep hole. Where is Julen? What happened to him? Is he alive? Is he really there? Who is responsible? Can we get to him in time? Any one of those six questions would be enough to structure a movie script or a novel, so all of them together made the story irresistible and unavoidable, for both media and viewers.

That is natural because story is the vicarious experience of conflict and tension centred on something we care deeply about and which, because of the situation, is in danger, especially if those circumstances and that threatened treasure reflect something real in our own lives,

if we can imagine our own children suffering some similar terrible misfortune. The miners, Civil Guards and engineers working on the rescue operation were the protagonists, our heroes, the hard rock the antagonist or obstacle to struggle against. Will they find him for us? Will they make it to him in time? Can they beat nature to save him?

Which is to say that, deep down, Spaniards cared very much about Julen, and that solidarity is admirable.

John Hooper describes in the 2006 edition of The New Spaniards how he had witnessed such a spirit emerge during the first decades of modern democracy, slowly edging out a historical sense of individualismo, or a certain egocentricity, that had previously been portrayed by Ortega y Gasset.

Certainly in the 20 years I have been in Spain, that national collective sentiment has repeatedly surfaced, whether it was for ETA terror attack victims or, more recently, for Ignacio Echeverría, the Spaniard who fought off Islamist terrorists with his skateboard in London.

What has changed over the past few years is the media environment in which these stories unfold. In 2018, the immediacy of Twitter and live, rolling TV coverage combines with the social features of Facebook or WhatsApp buzzing constantly on the nation's mobile phones.

Not only is an unfolding tragedy such as Julen's a vicarious real-world story experience, it is happening now, instantly, again and again, all over the country, for as long as it lasts. There is no way to avoid it, unless you switch off the TV or force yourself not to check your phone.

Walk into a bar for a coffee and it's on TV. Look at WhatsApp instead of Twitter and a friend has sent you the latest rumour. Many people reported not being able to sleep properly, or it being the last thing they checked before falling asleep at night, or the first thing they looked for in the morning when they woke up.

Anguished parents, Jose and Vicky, during a vigil held for their son. Photo: AFP

Where Spain differs from other countries is perhaps in the degree to which such constant media coverage seems to know almost no ethical bounds, whether the medium is broadcast, online, social or mobile.

Constant speculation about the circumstances of his disappearance? Yes. Constant expert speculation about how it was impossible for him to fit in the hole? Check. Unsourced, badly reported stories about his death, a week before his body was recovered? El Español went there.

A live-shot window of the diggers doing not very much superimposed on top of normal programming? Antena 3.

Repeated interviews with a man whose own daughter was murdered 10 years ago and who introduced himself as the family's spokesman to then use Julen—still un-rescued at that point—to score political points at the Popular Party convention in Seville? Juan José Cortés.

Harmful stories full of slanderous rumours about who was really there on the first Sunday, how Julen fell down the whole and how that might be related to alleged criminal activity in the family? That has happened too.

Julen is not the first case over the past few years where this has happened but rather the latest of several always heart-wrenching stories, including, last year, the case of eight-year old Gabriel Cruz, the little boy who moved the nation after he was reported missing (his father's former girlfriend is to be tried for his murder).

Or the Wolf-Pack gang rape case in Pamplona, in which, after several online forums outed the victim, the court itself bungled the whole affair and confirmed who she was by sending journalists court documents containing a code that allowed direct access to the originals, which several media outlets then uploaded directly to the Internet. 

So if there is a national lesson to be learned from this new tragedy, perhaps it is that and, if the media are not willing to exercise more self-control, perhaps politicians should come up with a way to do so. Victims and their families deserve that dignity and respect.

Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.