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Storytelling In The News: #91

Political spin and the Spanish election upset

March 17, 2004

Political spin concerns the efforts to tell a new story about some event than is more positive to the interests of the storyteller than would first appear. The practice is common in business ("the huge loss is the result of a one-time charge" or "the sale of this unprofitable subsidiary will enable the company to focus on its core business"). The practice of spin is even more visible and widespread in politics, where the consequences can be serious if the spin is detected for what it is, i.e. deliberately deceptive storytelling.

The case of the Spanish election upset

Thus there has been much speculation in the press as to what was the cause of the election upset in Spain. Thus the government party appeared likely to win according to polls but was defeated soundly by the opposition Socialists. Why? Was it due to a backlash against Spain's support of the war in Iraq? Or a response to the terrorist bombings that the Spanish people were capitulating in the face of terrorism? The Washington Post suggests a different explanation in its front page story today: the electorate was punishing the government for false storytelling.

Thus in the first frantic hours after coordinated bomb blasts ripped through several packed commuter trains Thursday morning, the government of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar undertook an intense campaign to convince the Spanish public and world opinion-makers that the Basque separatist group ETA had carried out the attacks, which killed 201 people and wounded more than 1,500.

Beginning immediately after the blasts, Aznar and other officials telephoned journalists, stressing ETA's responsibility and dismissing speculation that Islamic extremists might be involved. Spanish diplomats pushed a hastily drafted resolution blaming ETA through the U.N. Security Council. At an afternoon news conference, when a reporter suggested the possibility of an al Qaeda connection, the interior minister, Angel Acebes, angrily denounced it as "a miserable attempt to disrupt information and confuse people.... There is no doubt that ETA is responsible," Acebes said.

Within days, that assertion was in tatters, and with it the reputation and fortunes of the ruling party. Suspicion that the government manipulated information -- blaming ETA in order to divert any possible link between the bombings and Aznar's unpopular support for the war in Iraq -- helped fuel the upset victory of the Socialist Workers' Party in Sunday's elections. By then, Islamic extremists linked to al Qaeda had become the focus of the investigation.

Government officials insist that they never misled the public, and that they released in a timely manner all the information and evidence they had gathered. "We told the truth at all times to the Spanish people," Acebes said on Monday.

In retrospect, however, there were signs that the government was at least selective in releasing information about possible culprits. By 11 a.m. Thursday, police had already discovered an abandoned white van in Alcala de Henares -- a town where the bombed trains passed through -- containing seven detonators and a cassette tape with verses of the Koran recited in Arabic, officials said later. Sources familiar with Spanish intelligence services said the CNI, the National Intelligence Center, had suspected al Qaeda from the beginning.

The existence of a potential link to Islamic radicals was not revealed to the public until just before King Juan Carlos spoke on national television at 8:30 p.m.

By Thursday night, with the announcement of the discovery of the van with the Arabic tape and the claim of responsibility on behalf of al Qaeda in a London Arabic-language newspaper, public doubt began to set in.

The morning newspapers Friday ran side-by-side articles comparing the possibilities of al Qaeda and ETA involvement.

By Friday night, police found new leads -- the discovery of a sports bag containing undetonated explosives and a mobile telephone. At a news conference, however, Acebes continued to insist ETA was the main suspect. "How is it that after 30 years of attacks, they are not going to be the prime suspects?" Acebes said. Still, he said, "We haven't closed off any line of investigation."

On Saturday night -- hours before the polls opened -- the government announced the arrests of three Moroccans and two Indians, and the discovery of a videotape from a purported al Qaeda official asserting responsibility for the attacks. Thousands of Spaniards responded by taking to the streets, banging pots and pans in protests and denouncing the government.

The risks of political spin

The Washington Post concludes that it was voter anger at the false storytelling that swept the Socialists back to power for the first time in eight years. The precise extent of the impact of the electorate's recognition of political spin has yet to be determined, but it's a salutary lesson in the risks of false storytelling implicit in attempting political spin.

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