Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Watch Out For The Chorizos!

Today let me present you with a post that combines a useful lesson on the double meaning of the word chorizo together with an example of why politicians employ advisers. Mariano Rajoy went down to help out at a comedor social yesterday and decided that he would be the one handing out chorizos to the needy. "Ten cuidado, no te saquen con el chorizo" was the friendly warning he got - so he quickly changed places. It's a bit late, he's spent most of the year being proudly photographed with some of the dodgiest characters on the Spanish political scene.

South of Watford is spending the next few days down by the Mediterranean so let me take this opportunity to wish all those who pass by this space a happy new year. In the words of Dr John, I'll be back in a flash with some more of the trash.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas In Prison For Spanish Greenpeace Activist

The director of Greenpeace in Spain, Juan López de Uralde, will be spending both Christmas and New Year in prison in Denmark. He is being held with three other activists until January 7th. His "crime" was to infiltrate the royal reception at the Copenhagen climate change summit and unfurl a banner of protest. About the only progress we can say that has been made as a result of the Copenhagen fiasco has been the advances in the criminalisation of protest. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested but then released without charge as the Danish police adopted an aggressive approach to anyone who wanted to point out that nothing was going on inside the summit hall.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How To Be A Model Employer

It's bad news for anyone who was planning to fly to Latin America from Madrid this Christmas with Air Comet. The airline has effectively collapsed following the decision by an English judge yesterday to stop them from using many of their planes or from selling more tickets. Air Comet was the successor to the disastrous Air Madrid, and the end has come in a similar fashion just before one of the peak periods when many immigrants in Spain head home for the holidays. The owner of the airline, Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, also happens to be the head of the Spanish employers organisation, and Air Comet is not the only problem he has.

Díaz Ferrán has of course been a prominent supporter recently of ultra liberal solutions for Spain's economic crisis, including the freedom to fire people at little or no cost. Unable to do this with his own employees at Air Comet he adopted the pragmatic solution of not paying them for the last few months. He also has significant problems with loans from the banks, one such loan being the cause of the planes being grounded yesterday. Last week Caja Madrid began the process that may lead to Díaz Ferrán being expelled from the board of the savings bank over the non-payment of another loan he had received from them. At least we get confirmation from this that the banks are still lending to somebody, even if it is only members of their own governing body. Having recently forced a vote of confidence in the employers association over his leadership it looks like Gerardo will still be around for a while telling us what is best for the economy. Meanwhile his employees are joining the ranks of the unemployed.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spanish Television Changes Channels

When Spain's government announced a few months ago that it was relaxing the rules on concentration of ownership for television channels it didn't take long for speculation to start on who was behind the move. The country has gained two new private channels in the last few years, Cuatro and La Sexta, but with the onset of the economic crisis it seems that there wasn't enough money from advertising to sustain so many channels and mergers have come to be seen as the solution. So last week we got the announcement that Cuatro and Telecinco were to become part of the same company in a complicated deal between Grupo Prisa and Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset. This deal effectively brings to an end Prisa's involvement in open access television and also dilutes their ownership of the pay channel Digital+. The company has been looking for ways to deal with its debts and this agreement makes up for them not being able to find a buyer for Digital+. The irony comes from them dealing with Silvio Berlusconi, following the publication by El País a few months ago of photographs from Berlusconi's Sardinian villa which meant that the Prisa paper wasn't exactly top of Silvio's favourite publications.

This is not likely to be the end of the changes, there are also strong rumours that a deal will be reached to merge La Sexta with Antena 3. La Sexta is the newest of Spain's channels, and marked the entry into the television market of Mediapro who seem to have replaced Prisa in the government's affections. Mediapro's influence was crucial in paving the way for the introduction of pay channels on the digital TDT platform, they already had their Gol channel dedicated to football ready to go as soon as the legislation was in place. Incidentally, I'm toying with the idea of an equivalent to the "I Sky" feature in Britain's Private Eye that recorded attempts to hide publicity for Sky TV in pseudo news items in the Murdoch press. Both Público (owned by Mediapro) and El País have been doing much the same in a bid to promote their offerings, particularly for pay to view football.

The merging of the private channels isn't the only change we will see, the state run RTVE is to stop taking advertising on its two channels, another part of the attempt to maximise revenues for the private channels. The loss of revenue for RTVE will largely be made up with a levy on the private channels and with contributions from the telecommunications companies. RTVE is also said to be moving away from attempts to compete for ratings with a remit that is more oriented towards domestic TV productions and films.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Escape From Dell Hell

This is the third post I have written on my shiny new MacBook Pro, and so far I'm very happy that I've made the change from Windows. For four long years I have struggled against my Dell laptop until finally my patience gave way. It wasn't a cheap machine by any means, I bought what I thought was a top of the range model back in 2005. Sadly it never delivered on the promise, and I have experienced constant frustration with a computer that seems to be incapable of handling more than a single application at a time, despite having both free memory and processor capacity. I did everything I could to try and strip out applications I didn't need yet the machine would still spend mystifying amounts of time doing....what? Things reached the point where I told Dell to take me off all of their mailing lists and I vowed to myself that I would never again buy one of their laptops whilst reasonable alternatives existed.

Last year I bought a little Asus just so that I coud have the experience of a machine that starts up and connects to the Internet in less than 20 minutes. Now with the Mac I managed to download all of my web based mail accounts in an amazingly short time whilst still being able to do other things! It's a new experience for me and will probably change my lifestyle, I won't have time to go off for a cup of tea whilst my laptop attempts to open a folder. Once I've overcome the challenge of getting the Mac to run Windows as well my Dell can start to enjoy the comfortable retirement as a backup machine that I think it was designed for.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Who Will Put An End To This Treason?

It's not enough that the Catalans organise votes on independence without asking permission, now they are even considering the prohibition of bullfighting! It's possible that the acceptance yesterday by the Catalan parliament of a popular initiative to put an end to the bloodsport has caused even more heart problems in the higher barrios of Madrid than last week's independence 'consultations'. "La fiesta nacional" is under threat, and the right-wing consensus seems to be that they are only doing it to provoke Spain, El Mundo claimed on its front page this morning that the purpose of the vote was to distance Cataluña from the rest of the country.

Yesterday's vote was actually quite close, and was just a preliminary to the main vote which will take place in a few months time. The bull fighting industry is preparing itself for battle, despite all the rhetoric about the Catalans the reality is that the sport faces growing opposition in many parts of the country, and home grown opposition to it has grown significantly in the last few years. It moves a lot of money, and attracts a lot of spending from municipalities for their annual fiestas, but for many younger Spaniards it is a relic from another age and what probably worries the industry most is the risk of contagion if Cataluña sets the example. Nobody should imagine bullfighting is about to disappear, but we could be witnessing the first clear signals of decline.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Aminatou Haidar Goes Home

At last, after 32 days on hunger strike in Lanzarote airport, Aminatou Haidar was able to return home to El Aaiun last night. The Moroccan government relented under pressure from the governments of Spain, France and possibly also the US. Haidar was already in a weakened state and was admitted to hospital yesterday before the decision was finally announced that she could return. It's a significant victory for her, although it comes at a cost for her health.

There's little doubt that without the hunger strike Haidar would have been condemned to become yet another forgotten exile, the Spanish government only started to take her case seriously when it became clear that she was determined to maintain the campaign and the support she received became ever stronger. What Morocco obviously hoped would be a relatively clean way of getting rid of a problematical activist over the issue of Western Sahara has backfired in a spectacular way. The issue of the former Spanish colony has attracted more attention in the last month than it has in years, uncomfortably for those governments with any interest in the issue who have quietly accepted that it is going to remain part of Moroccan territory.

The Spanish government has tried to claim that the decision to admit Aminatou to Spain even though she had no passport was taken by the police without political interference. However, yesterday foreign minister Moratinos confirmed that he was informed about Haidar's expulsion by his Moroccan counterpart, and although he claims that he expressed his rejection of his decision it seems hard to believe that his ministry just left the handling of the affair in the hands of the immigration police in Lanzarote airport. If the government was opposed to the Moroccan decision they kept very quiet about it until the hunger strike and the reaction it provoked forced the PSOE to come off the fence too.

Some of the political opposition to the government has been very opportunist, the Partido Popular has only shown interest once it became clear they could use it to embarrass the government. Meanwhile Rosa Diez of UPyD showed a surprising commitment to the concept of self-determination, not something that she is ever likely to support within Spanish frontiers. Despite this, the origin of the affair lies with a complacent foreign policy that would have tamely accepted Haidar's expulsion without a whimper of protest had it not been for the campaign in support of her.

On The First Day Of Christmas....A Bank Gave Us A Thermometer

Dear Caja Madrid,

I just thought I'd write a short note to thank you for the thoughtful gift of an "In-out thermometer" which you have given to my partner for standing by you during these hard times. I must admit I've never come across a thermometer before that comes together with an instruction manual. I see that it works with as many as three sensors, not that we'll be needing any more than the one that came in the box. I imagine many of your customers who bought those overpriced chalets outside of Madrid at the height of the boom will find it very useful to test how far away they can put the sensor and see just how cold it can be in the desert at night. For us, living in a tiny apartment in the centre of Madrid, it was difficult to decide where to put it but in the end the kitchen won. Now I sit here at my laptop and I can see whether it's warm enough in the kitchen to risk going there. To be honest, I was amazed this morning to find that the temperature in that room was as high as 17 degrees when I had imagined all week that it had to be at -10! As you can see, it's certainly going to be useful, much more so than one of those thousands of houses which you have had to take off the constructors. I know it's not been an easy year for you what with Espe trying to take control and all the infighting, so it was good of you to remember about us. I'm sure that next year, with that nice Mr Rato in charge, things can only get better for you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dark Side Of Spain's Trade Unions

Many of you may have been under the impression that Spanish trade unions were largely harmless organisations, but thanks to South of Watford's commitment to bring you the best of public service broadcasting the truth can now be told. There was a demonstration organised in Madrid by the unions last weekend and Telemadrid marked the occasion by comparing the event to the mass demonstrations organised in support of Franco's dictatorship. They didn't bother showing any footage of the demonstration, the expensive helicopter that they purchased for such coverage is to be used only for anti-government protests. Perhaps this is not too surprising given that the programme was actually made before the demonstration took place.

Another story involving Telemaguirre his week has concerned the former journalist Hermann Tertsch, who now presents the propagandistic remains of the channel's news coverage. He got involved in a bar fight in the early hours of the morning which resulted in him needing hospital treatment. Following this incident there was a concerted and pathetic attempt by sections of the PP, Aguirre included, to present Tertsch as the victim of a politically motivated assault provoked by a satirical item on the programme presented by the comedian Gran Wyoming. The police investigation has subsequently revealed that Tertsch got hurt following an argument with someone described as an "empresario de la noche". Maybe he needs to join a union. Unsurprisingly, Telemadrid and Hermann have managed to avoid explaining the truth in a news bulletin which sets a new surreal standard.

Friday, December 04, 2009

One Flight Leads To Another

I'm hoping that the flight which brought me back to Madrid last night from Frankfurt marks the end of a spell working away from home that turned out to be longer than I expected. I haven't seen that much of Madrid in the last 14 months and with almost weekly commuting to Germany I just hope Iberia appreciate my efforts to keep them going.

However, I'm not going to be leaving the airport alone for very long. Tonight we are leaving for a week in Cape Verde. When I suggested this as a destination I was thinking of it as compensation for my efforts in the Himalayas a few weeks ago. The image I had in my mind was one of beach hammocks, chilled beer, fresh fish and a couple of good books. Now, thanks to that mysterious process known as "not being in control" it seems that the walking boots are coming too. Ate logo.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Manifiesto: En Defensa De Los Derechos Fundamentales En Internet

The Spanish government announced some proposed legislation yesterday that could lead to Internet users having their access restricted in the name of "anti-piracy". The proposal is being tagged on to the still largely content free Ley de Economia Sostenible. This is a law which is supposed to set out a way forward for the Spanish economy in the next few years, yet it's hard to see how giving the music companies what they want is going to do that. I already pay well over the odds for blank digital media I buy in Spain so that organisations collecting royalties can become ever fatter and regardless of whether the media is used legally or not.

In response to yesterday's announcement a manifesto has been drawn up in opposition to the proposed measure and I am happy to publish it and encourage all those who agree with its content to do the same. An English translation of the manifesto is available here.

Ante la inclusión en el Anteproyecto de Ley de Economía sostenible de modificaciones legislativas que afectan al libre ejercicio de las libertades de expresión, información y el derecho de acceso a la cultura a través de Internet, los periodistas, bloggers, usuarios, profesionales y creadores de internet manifestamos nuestra firme oposición al proyecto, y declaramos que…

1.- Los derechos de autor no pueden situarse por encima de los derechos fundamentales de los ciudadanos, como el derecho a la privacidad, a la seguridad, a la presunción de inocencia, a la tutela judicial efectiva y a la libertad de expresión.

2.- La suspensión de derechos fundamentales es y debe seguir siendo competencia exclusiva del poder judicial. Ni un cierre sin sentencia. Este anteproyecto, en contra de lo establecido en el artículo 20.5 de la Constitución, pone en manos de un órgano no judicial -un organismo dependiente del ministerio de Cultura-, la potestad de impedir a los ciudadanos españoles el acceso a cualquier página web.

3.- La nueva legislación creará inseguridad jurídica en todo el sector tecnológico español, perjudicando uno de los pocos campos de desarrollo y futuro de nuestra economía, entorpeciendo la creación de empresas, introduciendo trabas a la libre competencia y ralentizando su proyección internacional.

4.- La nueva legislación propuesta amenaza a los nuevos creadores y entorpece la creación cultural. Con Internet y los sucesivos avances tecnológicos se ha democratizado extraordinariamente la creación y emisión de contenidos de todo tipo, que ya no provienen prevalentemente de las industrias culturales tradicionales, sino de multitud de fuentes diferentes.

5.- Los autores, como todos los trabajadores, tienen derecho a vivir de su trabajo con nuevas ideas creativas, modelos de negocio y actividades asociadas a sus creaciones. Intentar sostener con cambios legislativos a una industria obsoleta que no sabe adaptarse a este nuevo entorno no es ni justo ni realista. Si su modelo de negocio se basaba en el control de las copias de las obras y en Internet no es posible sin vulnerar derechos fundamentales, deberían buscar otro modelo.

6.- Consideramos que las industrias culturales necesitan para sobrevivir alternativas modernas, eficaces, creíbles y asequibles y que se adecuen a los nuevos usos sociales, en lugar de limitaciones tan desproporcionadas como ineficaces para el fin que dicen perseguir.

7.- Internet debe funcionar de forma libre y sin interferencias políticas auspiciadas por sectores que pretenden perpetuar obsoletos modelos de negocio e imposibilitar que el saber humano siga siendo libre.

8.- Exigimos que el Gobierno garantice por ley la neutralidad de la Red en España, ante cualquier presión que pueda producirse, como marco para el desarrollo de una economía sostenible y realista de cara al futuro.

9.- Proponemos una verdadera reforma del derecho de propiedad intelectual orientada a su fin: devolver a la sociedad el conocimiento, promover el dominio público y limitar los abusos de las entidades gestoras.

10.- En democracia las leyes y sus modificaciones deben aprobarse tras el oportuno debate público y habiendo consultado previamente a todas las partes implicadas. No es de recibo que se realicen cambios legislativos que afectan a derechos fundamentales en una ley no orgánica y que versa sobre otra materia.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Never Ending Story Of The Catalan Estatut

There's no escape from the Estatut, Cataluña's now not very new at all autonomy statute. The deliberations by Spain's Constitutional Court concerning the Estatut have dragged on for years, assuming of course that there is any deliberating taking place at all! It now seems amazing that I ever imagined the verdict might be delivered before the last general election. The case for the Estatut being unconstitutional was originally presented by the Partido Popular, one of many attempts by that party to obtain results from the tribunal that they could not get via elections or parliamentary votes. The statute was approved by both the Catalan and national parliaments, as well as by a referendum in Cataluña.

The reason for the delay in the verdict, if we are to believe the reports in the press, is because the court is completely divided over what to do about the Estatut. It is claimed that there is a majority against allowing the Estatut through with only minor modifications, but that does not seem to mean that this majority can reach agreement on what should be done. Frustration over this delay is increasing and last week 12 Catalan newspapers published a joint editorial protesting about the situation. This in turn provoked protests from the right about illegitimate pressure being placed on the Constitutional Court, even though the newspaper editorial is nothing more than a legitimate expression of opinion. The PP know all about applying pressure on the judges, they have made multiple attempts to exclude those judges whose opinions might not coincide with their own on the issue. Their proposed replacements for those whose term has expired are loyal conservative hardliners.

The main issues on which the court has been unable to reach a verdict seem to be those which suggest that Cataluña has an identity as a nation, a concept which is of course anathema to Spanish nationalists, but it is arguable whether it is anti-constitutional. There were attempts to avoid this kind of challenge, for example the preamble to the Estatut simply records the fact that the Catalan parliament voted on the issue of the national status of the region. In many ways the parts of the statute that attract the most attention are not the most important in terms of powers for the regional government, but they are the ones that have the most symbolic value on both sides of the argument.

Anyone who wants to pretend that the process of deciding the Estatut's constitutional status is not deeply political is welcome to believe anything they like, but the court is essentially a creature of the two main national political parties; the PP and the PSOE. The current division within its ranks is a faithful reflection of the fault line over regional autonomy in national politics, that line runs through the PSOE rather than in between the two parties. It is the reported defection of a PSOE nominee to the conservative side on key issues that is said to have blocked the court's verdict. The longer they take to make their minds up the less credible the result is going to be and it is not just Catalan nationalists who are questioning whether this is really a good way of doing things. Sometimes you have to wonder whether it's a good idea to have a written constitution at all, never mind a court supposedly there to enforce it. Perhaps the solution might be to impose a sanction of "administrative silence", meaning that if they fail to pronounce on a law within a certain period it automatically becomes constitutional. Then maybe we can all leave Groundhog Day.

Back in Cataluña the newspaper editorial has raised the political temperature. It is unlikely that the entire population is as concerned about the issue of the Estatut as that editorial would have us believe. Perhaps readers who live there can tell me if I'm wrong about this, but I suspect it is an issue of far greater importance to the political and media elite than to the population in general, most of whom probably don't include choosing their favourite article from the Estatut amongst their party games. This is not to say that a decision to declare large parts of the statute unconstitutional won't be seen as an affront by many people in Cataluña, a bit of perceived interference from Madrid is never going to go down well even if Barça do keep beating Real Madrid. If an unfavourable verdict emerges before the planned votes on independence that will take place in many municipalities later this month then things could get very interesting. Although the way things are going that seems like a wildly optimistic time frame.

Meanwhile, the PP is keeping a low profile on the issue. Mariano Rajoy knows that his party is unlikely to win more votes in the region but what he really wants to do is to demobilise the anti-PP vote which means that the gap between PSOE and PP in Cataluña more or less accounts for the difference between the two parties at national level. The PSC, local wing of the PSOE, has reason to be worried about the whole affair and there are already noises being made stressing their autonomy from the national party. It may not help that they seem unable to make their mind up about the independence "consultations", and elections are due to be held in Cataluña next year. Anyway, let's finish with some Estatut humour. It's a mixture of Catalan and Castellano, but anyone familiar with A Night At The Opera should understand it regardless of their language abilities.