The Foreign Secretary and the Conflict Zone interview

Analysis: Tim Sebastian was arrogant, biased and misinformed, but the Spanish Foreign Secretary lost his temper and now that's the story.
By Matthew Bennett
Mar 29, 2019, 6:20 pm

Mr. Borrell's media advisors should be sacked for letting him do that interview. His English isn't good enough and he didn't know the material well enough to go up against Tim Sebastian in that setting on DW's Conflict Zone programme.

That is surprising, because in Spain the Foreign Secretary is somewhat renowned for his dialectical ability in TV debates on the subject of Catalan separatism, and indeed generated expectations in that regard on being appointed to the post in the new socialist government last year. Spaniards were tired of, and angry with, the central government for not standing up more robustly to Catalan separatist lies, propaganda and misinformation and many thought Mr. Borrell would be the man to fix that, precisely because of that rhetorical ability he had already demonstrated, notably during a constitutionalist rally in Barcelona on October 8, 2017, at the height of the crisis that year.

As the metaphor goes in Spain, though, you have to know how to fight a bull once you're in the ring. It's no good complaining once the beast is released from the gate.

And Mr. Sebastian was beastly, charging again and again at Mr. Borrell with tendentious questions and tones that would have been at home on TV3—ordered by the Electoral Commission in Barcelona yesterday to stop describing independence leaders as "political prisoners" or "exiles"—or in a separatist manifesto. The interviewer could easily have been replaced by Carles Puigdemont himself. Perhaps he sees himself as Jeremy Paxman, a media bruiser whose job is to bash politicians to the floor, whining and quivering, by the end of the performance, but serious journalism should do that based on facts and reality, not on talking points from the other side. He did no service to his viewers by decontextualising his questions in such a misrepresentative manner.

Even before the questions began, Sebastian framed what was to come as an attack against Spain, for being Spain. He described "some stark division in Spanish society, not least over the justice system" and asked viewers how Mr. Borrell will "answer the charge that the trials are fundamentally unfair". No explanation—in-depth or superficial—was forthcoming about why he thought the Spanish justice system was so unjust. Many Spaniards are proud of their legal system, and perhaps more so after nearly two months of the trial at the Supreme Court.

The first question was about the former Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell: a nice old "grandmother in her mid-sixties, in a prison, convicted of nothing", said the presenter, "15 hours a day in her cell in solitary confinement". The next question—which would have been the logical route if we wish to increase viewers' understanding of the situation—should have been something like "what has she done?" or "what is she accused of?", but it was not to be. Mr. Sebastian jumped straight to "is this really the image of Spain that you want to show the world?"

Mr. Borrell did his best to fight off the first charge, but got tangled up with his English: "this is a judiciary decision, to keep people under control in order to avoid them to escape from the justice, like others…". Mr. Sebastian rushed straight back at the Foreign Secretary, describing the "action of a vindictive state setting out to punish defendants who should be enjoying presumptive innocence". Mr. Borrell needed the word "remand" or "pre-trial custody", a concept present in the criminal justice system of every leading modern democracy on the planet, but the phrase remained out of reach and he started to become flustered.

Sebastian charged again, and again, and again, "unfair treatment", "serious questions and doubts" about the Spanish judicial system, "substantial outcry both here and abroad", "a chilling accusation", "a blow to your case", "damaging criticism". Thump, thump, thump, driving Mr. Borrell back to the edge of the bullring, against the wooden boards. Then came the question about constitutional reform that pushed the Foreign Secretary past his limit, a data point from the Sociological Research Centre (CIS) in September last year: 70% of Spaniards want constitutional reform. They did indeed say that, but certainly not in the context that Mr. Sebastian was implying during the interview.

That CIS survey asked a bunch of questions about constitutional reform because last year was the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, a big birthday for a major modern national accomplishment. The next part of the same question in the September survey—which Sebastian completely leaves out in the interview—describes which constitutional reforms Spaniards want to see, and the idea implied by the interviewer on camera—"those provisions which outlaw independence for Spanish regions"—is not even on the list. The top three replies are "better coordination for education and healthcare" (32.4%), "increased transparency and control of political activity" (28.9%), and "improving protection for social rights" (22.7%). A generic—not specific to Catalonia—"regulate the powers of Spanish regions" comes joint fourth, on 19.3%, with "guaranteeing greater equality for women".

Mr. Borrell didn't know, or wasn't able to recall, the details—which to be fair were pretty obscure—and fell into the trap. The same as his response to the question of why Carme Forcadell is in jail, on remand, awaiting and now during the trial. The real reasons have been explained again and again by the investigating judge. It is certainly not just about a friendly granny being locked up by the ghost of Franco, personified in the Foreign Secretary or, as a Plaid Cymru MP suggested in Westminster, "for allowing a debate on independence" in the regional parliament. The case against her has been very clear, if you take the time to read and understand the court documents.

If Mr. Sebastian wishes to start his interview with biased premises and separatist propaganda instead of deeper understanding for his viewers, that is his right to do so, but Mr. Borrell should have begun his defence at that higher rhetorical level immediately and counter-attacked Sebastian's arrogant, shoddy journalism with some arrogance of his own, even before trying to answer any of the specific questions. Has the presenter chosen to begin with propaganda and disinformation? Okay, great, let's talk about that for a good long while first, before answering any of the actual questions.

Given the interviewer's lack of knowledge, wanton or otherwise, the Foreign Secretary could also have given longer, drawn out, more educational replies, that illustrate how Spain works on a deeper level, and explained that buying the line that the media are somehow supposed to put Spain on trial as the real trial of the actual defendants is taking place in Madrid is taking sides, the very antithesis of what a serious journalist—which Mr. Sebastian undoubtedly aspires to be—should be doing. Instead, Mr. Borrell got agitated and upset, probably fed up with yet more partial foreign media questions on the question of Catalan separatism.

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