In the absence of an Independent Regulatory Authority for the media, the Courts and labour mobilisation are fighting Spanish regional public service media mismanagement. This week, workers in Madrid’s broadcaster have issued an animated short film blaming politicised executive managers for the Corporation’s financial failure, while Valencia’s higher provincial court has backed the prosecution of former director-general for sex abuse against several female employees.

These two later episodes add to the severe crisis of a distinctive public broadcast model in post-Francoist democratic Spain. In the midst of the economic downturn, redundancy plans designed by privately-held global and national professional services’ companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Garrigues are threatening its continuity. A heavily unregulated independent production sector is positioning to take advantage of this.

This week Open Society Foundations‘ “Media program” has published its Mapping Digital Media report on Spain, which I have co-authored. I publish this article explaining the complex and grotesque Valencian case. It is a slightly edited version of the one written on 31 August, 2012 as part of my draft proposal for Section 2 of the report -that in the final edited version was summarised for the sake of synthesis.

Almost since they were born in the 1980s and 1990s, regional public service broadcasters have been accused of flagrant political partisanship favouring the Autonomous Communities’ governments. They have been criticised for wasting public funds as well. The Spanish commercial broadcasters are pushing to transform them in only one regional operator while regional PSBs defend the real implementation of the original model but with increased efficiency. Finally, the right-wing PP government has decided to modify the existing general media law (2010) in order to allow for their privatisation: this is possible since July 2012.

In parallel to central government action at country-wide level, the Autonomous Communities’ executives have undertaken audiovisual law reforms. This is the case of the Catalan and the Valencian regions, both under conservative governments. With the argument of the need to slash public debt and expenditure, the changes mirror the logic of the PP central government’s for RTVE: the number of Board members has been reduced and their appointment procedure, simplified. Massive redundancy plans are being studied or already under way in both cases and social platforms, lead by unions, are being set up to call for citizen support to both the Valencian and Catalan broadcasting corporations. Workers in other public regional broadcasters from Madrid and Galicia have also issued manifestos and set up platforms in defence of public service media. Their main common argument is that public services are not inefficient per se but those who manage and audit their resources.

The pioneering role of the Valencian broadcaster’s crisis management

The negotiation of the final redundancy plan for Radiotelevisió Valenciana (RTVV), which has caught the attention of the foreign press, is especially flagrant because of its magnitude  –it affects 3 out of 4 employees and bases the future public service broadcaster on production mostly outsourced to commercial companies; the timing (July-August 2012); the management’s authoritarian behaviour; and the latter’s background of repeated political instrumentalization and lavish spending.

RTVV’s has accumulated a heavy debt of almost 1300 million euros since its outset in 1989 –close to one million for each one of its 1695 direct employees until July 2012. The official figures, confirmed year-on-year by the office of the regional public auditor (Síndic de Comptes), highlight that debt rose 4000 percent since 1995. That year, the PP took office for the first time, where it has stayed since. The Síndic’s reports highlight the contradiction between the continuous increase of personnel cost and the parallel continous fall in in-house production. The Síndic also criticizes the inflated costs when contracting out programmes –mostly fiction and entertainment, but also documentaries-, along with the renewal of contracts for programmes with very little audience and the cancellation of debts to certain production companies in exchange for contents whose value was far below the debt incurred (eg. because they had been broadcast elsewhere years before). The increase in the purchase of sport broadcast rights has also been singled out by the public auditor.

Beyond this deficient financial record, two RTVV’s executive managers are accused of serious offences: sex abuse of female workers, along with the opaque outsourcing of media coverage to commercial production companies that are under judicial investigation in connection with a broader, high-profile political corruption scandal at Spanish level –the Gürtel case.

The most representative unions have denounced right from the start these actions, along with the blatant manipulation of news in favour of the regional ruling party. Actually, RTVV was the first Spanish PSB having a professional News Council, which was initially given regular audience in the regional Parliament. But most part of the staff has not supported or has remained indifferent to these denouncements, as well as most Valencian citizens. An article by Valencian journalist Julià Álvaro acutely highlights it.

The financial crisis and the pressure by central government to cut public debt led the management to prepare a redundancy plan. Since December 2010, two privately-held professional services firms have won as many public tenders to design and implement the plan. For these two diffferent tasks, the public broadcaster payed 180.000 euros and 125.000 euros to Pricewaterhouse (PwC) and Garrigues, respectively. The companies have been accused of lack of professional independence for working under the directives of RTVV management. In July 2012, the regional paper, Levante, published that RTVV executives called Garrigues to tell them to rise the number of people affected by the proposed redundancies after the announcement of another budget cut by the Valencian government. When Garrigues refused to do it, the broadcaster’s executives decided to tell PwC to do so –this even if the latter had not been the winner of the second tender. Furthermore, according to what the main unions have revealed to the press, during the negotiation Garrigues admitted that they had worked on previous data from PwC, and, as a result, they denied all responsibility on the calculation of redundancies. In turn, PwC has publicly admitted that the report authors worked with data provided by the RTVV Direction and, as such, did not verify them. The PwC report has not been published by the press.

A rushed and dramatic summer negotiation

The day the plan was made public -on 16 July, to unions and the wider public at the same time -, union representatives took desperate control of the studio where the 2PM daily news programme was about to start.

After that, three journalism professors at the University of Valencia were commissioned by one of the unions to write an urgent assessment of the PwC report. This work, focused on news production, dismissed the redundancy plan on basic normative and professional grounds, as well as on empirical data: for instance, journalistic quality assessment cannot omit, as PwC did, management practices; or the fact that the public service function of both RTVV and journalism in generaland the actual journalistic routines simply make unsustainable the type of solutions borrowed from manufacturers of tangible products, like the combination of a rise of “productivity” per worker and a cut in production “costs”. According to the scholars, among the examples proposed by PwC werethe arbitrary enlargement of news stories’ duration or the dependence of radio services from televisionproductions.

Finally, there is the accusation of clientelist and commercial interests guiding the process. The plan’s list of eight requirements to be fulfilled by staff members to keep their jobs includes the fact of being on “forced leave of absence”, when a staff member has been appointed to another, incompatible post.This is the situation of the woman currently working as Press officer of the regional government president. By contrast, the fact of having passed competitive public examinations, a must in public companies so far, ranks eighth. Finally, there is the possibility of extending outsourcing to most part of programme production. Here, the union Intersindical Valenciana has unveiled a possible conflict of interest –the representative of Garrigues has been found to be a legal consultant to an audiovisual production and distribution company, where his brother is a TV producer.

On 22 August, the negotiation process was closed. The unemployed will receive indemnity following the terms of the new labour reform  (2012) –which considerably reduces the redundancy costs payed by the employer. RTVV’s low social reputation and the critical economic situation make it more difficult for its unions and the social platform they promote to gain citizenship support and seem to condemn RTVV to its disappearance as the state-owned public service broadcaster it was so far.

As of December 2012, RTVV unions are fighting the redundancy plan in court. And Telemadrid employees start fighting their own one. Meanwhile, Pricewaterhouse is reviewing the Catalan broadcaster CCMA strategy.