El País in Rare Break With Socialist President
PARIS — When loyal readers opened Spain’s leading daily newspaper, El País, last Sunday, some may have spilled their morning café con leche.
The 30-year-old, center-left newspaper — long a reliable supporter of the governing Socialist Party — published a huge, withering caricature portraying Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero at the helm of a sinking map of Spain, encircled by sharks marked unemployment and deficit.
El País says the Captain Zapatero cartoon — and searing critique of the Zapatero government’s economic policies — is simply part of its coverage of “la crisis.”
But others, inside and outside the government, suspect that the newly muscular coverage is a result of a backstage clash between the newspaper’s parent company, Grupo Prisa, and a rival, Mediapro, over digital television rights granted to Mediapro by the Zapatero government.
“Grupo Prisa felt like they were scorned and the other group benefited more,” said Victor Domingo, president of the Asociación de Internautas, an Internet rights group critical of the government dealings on digital television. “Now it’s a battle, and all of the group is more aggressive with the government.”
This contest of media “galácticos” pits rivals based in Spain’s two power centers — Mediapro is in Barcelona, Grupo Prisa in Madrid — against each other. Both have ties to the Socialist party and global aspirations.
Grupo Prisa is one of the largest media groups in the Spanish-speaking world. It owns El País, which has an average daily circulation of a little more than 402,000, and several television and radio stations. Battered by the downturn in advertising that has affected nearly every media company, Grupo Prisa recently negotiated an extension on a bridge loan of €2 billion, or $2.9 billion, and sold a 4.5 percent stake for $56 million to Talos Partners, a New York private equity firm.
Mediapro produces and distributes films and has financed three Woody Allen movies, among them the recent hit “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” It is also the controlling shareholder in La Sexta, a television channel, and paid more than €1 billion for the coveted broadcast rights to the soccer clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona. It owns the rights to other soccer clubs as well.
In mid-August, Mediapro was the chief beneficiary of a special “royal decree” approved on a fast-track vote by the Spanish cabinet that opened the way for digital over-the-air television available on a subscription basis.
Almost immediately, Mediapro seized the opportunity to introduce a pay digital channel, Gol Televisión, which sells subscriptions for programming dedicated to soccer.
That step, timed for the start in late August of the season for La Liga, the Spanish soccer league, was a direct foray into the territory of Grupo Prisa, which owns the satellite platform Digital Plus through its subsidiary, Sogecable. It has its own soccer channel as part of its premium-pay package, although it pays Mediapro €700 million for the rights to air matches.
Juan Luis Cebrián, Grupo Prisa’s chief and a former editor of El País, bristled at the government’s decision, loudly comparing it to the handiwork of a banana republic and accusing the Zapatero administration of “attempting to subdue the media” through a “war against those who are independent.”
He still does not mince words about how he views the government’s decision.
“This decree is for matters of extreme emergency,” Mr. Cebrián said during an interview from the Grupo Prisa headquarters in Madrid, adding, “I don’t believe that this law should be used to govern to favor friends.”
Mr. Cebrián said he supported the arrival of digital television, but he contended that “what is really grave is the favoritism in the industry.”