Spain has one of the world's most equal-opportunities-oriented governments, with a higher proportion of female ministers than any other. But a recent spate of sexist comments made by high-profile male figures in the public arena suggests that sexist attitudes run deep throughout Spanish society, and, unlike in other Western democracies, are still widely tolerated.
The most recent example has come from right-wing columnist Salvador Sostres, whose more-than-frank comments regarding his sexual preference for underage girls ("They are firm, like creamy lionesses, and don't smell of uric acid.") were heard by an audience of schoolchildren during the recording of a chat program on publicly funded regional television station Telemadrid. Sostres also took the opportunity to air his views on the alleged sexual proclivity of Moroccan girls.
When Isabel San Sebastián, the host of Alto y claro (Loud and clear) timidly rebukes Sostres, warning him in half-joking terms to keep away from her daughter, he responded by asking how old she was. When told by San Sebastián that her child was 23, he replied: "Oh, she's already far too old."
A recording of the conversation soon made its way onto the internet, after a labor union at the channel filed an official complaint.
Spanish chat shows have long depended on such controversial figures to liven up debate, with many programs quickly descending into little more than all-out slanging matches. Guests are invited - if not encouraged - to air their views loud and clear, particularly when it comes to sexual braggadocio. Writer and presenter Fernando Sánchez Dragó last month let slip that he had slept with underage girls in Japan when he was traveling the world during the swinging decade of the 1960s.
But Sostres has made a career out of being offensive. A regular contributor to Spanish daily El Mundo , he recently wrote: "Talent is as natural to men as beauty is to women." On the earthquake in Haiti, he commented: "The world is simply cleaning up." Of a young woman who died after being trapped in a fairground ride in Barcelona: "This is what happens when poor people go looking for cheap thrills." And of the accusations against the Catholic Church of widespread sexual abuse: "Unproven and not provable. Not important."
In response, around 100 journalists and other staff at El Mundo last week issued a statement condemning Sostres' comments on Alto y claro , pointing out that his "embarrassing and repulsive comments" were not representative of the paper and allowing them to be printed had nothing to do with "freedom of expression."
Spain's female politicians have recently come in for increasingly personal and insulting comments, both from their male colleagues, as well as from journalists.
Eduardo García Serrano, a journalist working at radio station Intereconomía, called the Catalan regional government's health chief, Marina Geli, a "bitch" and a "sow." He subsequently apologized following the ensuing uproar, albeit in his own fashion: "I am a man, and a Catholic, and for this I apologize."
Last month, the Popular Party mayor of Valladolid, Javier León de la Riva, found himself under fire after making sexist comments regarding the newly appointed Health Minister Leire Pajín. "Every time I see that face and those lips I think the same thing - but I'm not going to say what," he said. The mayor subsequently apologized for his "verbal excess," but only after calls for his resignation in Congress.
Another senior PP figure, this time the party's culture spokesman, Juan Van-Halen, launched a personal attack on Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez. Referring to the outsized leather jacket that she wore on the stump during the municipal election campaign for Madrid City Hall in 2003, Van-Halen sought to undermine her handling of Latin America and the recent crisis in Western Sahara by saying that her poncho and caftan were also too big for her.
There is widespread agreement that what passes for public debate in Spain is unacceptable. The question is, what can be done to improve it? Alejandro Perales, the president of the Association of Communication Users, largely blames the producers of programs such as Alto y claro .
"People like Salvador Sostres are not behaving in this outrageous way to attract more viewers, and they aren't acting. This is the way that they are in real life - this is how they behave all the time. Television has become a means to see who can defend their position in the most aggressive and radical way. Television has been taken over by these aggressive, sexist, reactionary, dilettante and rude people, who ply their trade by being insulting."
Sostres' comments have prompted many commentators and viewers' associations to ask why Telemadrid, which has increasingly become a mouthpiece for the PP regional government, cannot set a better example. "The people of Madrid have the right to not see their money used to pay these so-called journalists and literati, figures who not only lack even the most basis sense of ethics, but who also choose to express their excessive views by using the language of the tavern," said a recent statement in protest at Sostres, issued by Telemadrid labor unions. "The management of Telemadrid boasts that it has finished with junk programming, but Alto y claro is quite simply junk," says union representative Maite Treviño, accusing Isabel Linares, the director general of Telemadrid of "looking the other way."
Eduardo Sotillos, a Socialist Party member of Telemadrid's board, has called for Sostres to be removed from Alto y claro. Playing down the scandal, the head of the regional government of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, has refused to let Sostres go, saying that his comments were made off-air, and should not have been leaked. "Private conversations are just that, private conversations," she said, adding: "If any of my private conversations were released, my career would be over." In fact, Aguirre has been caught on open microphones making insulting comments about her political enemies on several occasions.
Whether comments made in a television studio in the presence of an audience of schoolchildren are private is debatable. Sostres' comments were not broadcast, but were heard by students from three schools in Tarragona, Cádiz and the Moroccan capital of Rabat, who were attending as part of an exchange project organized by the Ministry of Education. Manuel Martín-Arroyo, a teacher at the Quinta de la Paz de San Lúcar de Barrameda, in Cádiz, was in the audience with a group of 11- to 12-year-olds. He says that he is not sure whether his pupils heard "the insulting comments" made by Sostres, who also referred to the presence of the Moroccan children by saying: "What is this, a school or an NGO?" He also implied that Moroccan teenage girls are sexually active from an early age. Most of the pupils from the Moroccan school came from wealthy and influential families, and the affair has been given widespread coverage in Morocco. "It was a bad experience," says Martín-Arroyo, who has written to the board of Telemadrid to complain about what happened.
The affair looks set to have wider repercussions. The Madrid Minor's Ombudsman, Arturo Canalda, has now intervened. He has opened an investigation into the comments made, and although he accepts that the law has not been broken, due to the fact that Sostres' tirade was not broadcast, he insists that such behavior cannot be tolerated.
"Opinion makers cannot be allowed to come out with these kinds of comments," he said. He has also opened an investigation into Fernando Sánchez Dragó in relation to his published comments that he had sex with underage girls.
Telemadrid is refusing to back down over Sostres' actions, repeating again and again that because they were not broadcast, and were private, there is no case to answer. What's more, it has gone on the attack, saying that his comments should never have been released, and that it is to put the matter in the hands of the police.
"We are sorry that a private conversation has been illicitly taken and distributed publicly. We will be taking the necessary measures to deal with this," the station said. San Sebastián also refused to discuss the issue. "My opinion is the same as Telemadrid's," was all she was willing to say.
On Thursday, Telemadrid's vice president, Ignacio González, faced calls for a change in the station's policy from members of the commission that oversees its content. Juan Antonio Ruiz Castillo, a Socialist Party member of the commission, asked if the station would "continue to tolerate" the fact that a publicly funded television channel was going to allow people tolerant of "pedophilia and perversion" to appear in its programs. He described Sostres' comments as "embarrassing and outrageous," saying that they could not be defended on the basis of freedom of expression.
The matter has once again highlighted the need to set up a council to oversee audiovisual policy. Esperanza Aguirre closed the previous council in 2005, shortly after issuing local television and radio licenses in the run-up to Spain's switchover to digital terrestrial television. Perales believes that such a council is the best means to protect minors from inappropriate content. He conceded that in the case of Sostres, because his words were not broadcast, little could be done, but he did add that the presence of children in the studio meant that Sostres could face disciplinary measures.
While critical of Sostres' comments, Elsa González, the President of the Spanish Federation of Press Associations (FAPE), says that they should never have been made public, given that they were not meant to be broadcast: "These kinds of comments don't come about by accident. If somebody goes around saying these things it is because they believe them - it is part of their personality. They can only be described as shameful, lower-class, and insulting. They are also quite repellent, but there is no need to lower ourselves to their level."
She says that while Sostres is "insulting himself most of all... it isn't the same to speak into a live microphone as it is to speak into one that is turned off. If the microphone is off, then the comments are private, they are not for publication. To catch somebody in this way reflects badly on all of us, and it shouldn't be done."
One thing is beyond argument, says González: the producers of Alto y claro knew exactly what kind of person they were inviting on to their program. Sostres' views on women are outlined in scatological detail in innumerable columns he has written.
"A woman whose underwear doesn't match is concealing poor shaving, doubtful hygiene, and a breath smelling of joints," he writes in a recent El Mundo column. "There is an idea of order and civilization that simply disappears when all is uncovered, and one is confronted by a green thong and a yellowing bra, along with the stench of uric acid that one inevitably notes... In this sense one has to recognize that right-wing women have always been cleaner, more civilized."