The media misrepresentation of the Catalan independence referendum

Over the past week, news outlets left, right, and centre addressed the issue of the failed independence referendum in Catalonia and the surrounding political debate. The referendum, called by the Catalan Generalitat and blocked by Spain’s Parliament and Constitutional Court, resulted in a day of public unrest and violent struggles with the police. This culminated with the King of Spain addressing the matter personally in a televised message.

As expected, the reaction was heavily polarised, with most liberal sources overwhelmingly in support of the Catalan separatists and critical of the government’s response to the situation. Interestingly enough, numerous conservative sources have both condemned law enforcement for their tactics and the European Commission for its apathy.

One aspect of the referendum that a surprising number of sources have consistently failed to mention is the unquestionably illegal nature of it. In addition to the Spanish government and the Constitutional Court blocking the referendum on no uncertain terms, Spain’s Constitution itself does not include provisions for sedition from the Kingdom. Instead, it unequivocally defends the country’s unity. As such, it is misleading to compare the vote with either the referendum on leaving the European Union or that on Scottish independence. Both of these examples have either had provisions put in place for them – in accordance with Article 50, for instance – or have been cleared by Parliament, as was the case with the Scottish referendum. Sympathy for the Catalan cause is understandable in light of the police brutality and the fashion for referenda, but it fails to recognise the constitutional differences. Furthermore, whilst one may sympathise with the people’s wish to determine themselves by democratic means, one must consider the fact that the Catalan authority (somewhat provocatively) went directly against the Spanish Constitution and the rule of law.

Another aspect that caught the media’s attention was the televised address to the nation made by the King of Spain, in which His Majesty addressed the matter in his capacity as Head of State. Most sources rushed to criticise the King for interfering in politics and for abusing his constitutional position, contrasting it with the Queen’s decision to remain outside the debate surrounding Scottish independence. This reaction on behalf of the media, often strongly worded and accusatory, showed a staggering lack of understanding for the functioning of constitutional monarchy as a system. Under the constitution of the Kingdom of Spain, the King’s role is explicitly stated as “Head of State, the symbol of its unity and permanence”, on top of which upon proclamation, the King swears to carry out his duties and “sustain and see to it that the constitution is sustained”. As such, His Majesty’s address was made fully within the boundaries of his constitutional position and in full accordance with his duty to defend the Constitution and the rule of law. One could even go so far as to say that refusing to comment, or else supporting the referendum, would be a greater breach of the King’s constitutional role. If anything, the King’s speech ought to be seen as a breath of fresh air and a prime example of a constitutional monarch exercising his duty with dignity and grace.

Aside from ignoring the illegal nature of the referendum, the media has also failed to mention two of the most important parties in the conflict: the Catalan unionists and the rest of Spain. Reports focused almost exclusively on the separatists and the conflict between the Generalitat and the government in Madrid, playing into the separatists’ hands by presenting them as victims and the issue as an exclusively Catalan problem. As such, the concerns of millions of Spaniards outside Catalonia, not to mention those within, surrounding the unity of their country were largely ignored. Indeed, contrary to what most media outlets suggest, the independence sentiment in Catalonia is not as widely spread as one might think. For example, the recent unionist demonstration in Barcelona showed the highest level of support for the union since the separatist issue was first brought into public debate. The question of unity is a personal one for Spain: only less than a decade ago, ETA, the Basque separatist group responsible for multiple terror attacks, announced their disarmament after years of tormenting the Spanish people in the name of separatism. It is therefore understandable that the aforementioned King’s speech was welcomed by the majority of the population.

The Catalonian independence question is indeed far from being solved, and the situation far from being under control. After a failed illegal referendum and brutal overreaction on the part of the Madrid government, the unionist sentiment is still strong both in Catalonia and the rest of Spain. However, Catalan separatism also continues to grow and the police brutality has only helped fuel this fire. In the end, whichever stance one takes on the issue, one needs to recognise that any future proceedings will have to be carried out strictly within the framework of rule of law and in accordance with the Constitution of Spain.

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