MUNICIPAL POLITICS

Confusion reigns over changes to controversial Madrid news website

Mayor Carmena issues conflicting statements about page dedicated to correcting stories

Antonio Miguel Carmona, leader of the Madrid Socialists, and Mayor Manuela Carmena.
Antonio Miguel Carmona, leader of the Madrid Socialists, and Mayor Manuela Carmena.f. a. (EFE)

The city of Madrid’s latest project, a website aimed at clearing up inaccurate or confusing media coverage of the local government’s actions, has its own work cut out for it, judging by the number of conflicting statements released about it in recent days.

Less than a week after it went live, Mayor Manuela Carmena, one of her top aides and the Socialist leader in the city council have all come out with contradictory comments regarding the nature, content and future of the Versión Original (VO) website.

On just Monday alone, Mayor Carmena issued two seemingly contradictory statements about the project.

On just Monday alone, Mayor Carmena issued two seemingly contradictory statements about the project

The site went live on Wednesday of last week with the stated aim of “rectifying” and “refuting” inaccurate news stories published in the media. Five such “inaccurate” articles were mentioned, including one that EL PAÍS ran last week.

But there was such an outcry from journalist associations and the opposition including the Socialists, whose votes got Carmena, of the leftist Ahora Madrid coalition, invested in office that the government issued a release on Monday morning promising to “modify” the site.

“We agree to improve the website VO (Original Version) for the sake of greater transparency, and to guarantee greater trust in the media,” reads the joint statement by Mayor Carmena and Socialist leader Antonio Miguel Carmona. “We are aware that this is a new experience that we hope will enhance municipal information.”

But at noon on Monday, right after the Socialist Carmona had celebrated the fact that Madrid “has a mayor who is capable of making changes,” Carmena published the following message on her Twitter account: “Just like we announced on Friday, VO is not changing, but it will be open to review and improvement, like all the decisions we take.”

So far, the only appreciable change on the website concerns the explanations given about its nature: the site had originally explained that its goal was to “rectify” and “refute” published news stories, but now it talks about offering “the original information that provided the basis for a news story, and which has been modified and contains data that is not accurate or could be amended.”

To make matters more complicated, just minutes after the mayor said last Thursday that the web page would be modified if necessary, her spokeswoman Rita Maestre asserted that “for now we will keep it the way it is.”

Another week, another row

B. G. G.

This is not the first time that the recently instated Madrid administration has had to backtrack on a project considered too controversial. Just days into her job, the mayor admitted there will be no municipal public bank, even though this was one of Ahora Madrid's proposals to bolster the city's financial self-sufficiency and "serve as a tool to fund social, business and cooperative projects to boost the productive economy."

A report by the Tax Agency, to which EL PAÍS had access, vigorously criticized the notion of a public bank, saying it would require "between €10 billion and €20 billion" when the municipal budget is under €4.4 billion. Tax experts also noted that the city lacks the powers to create such an institution, and would require permission from the European Central Bank.

Even before that, Carmena accepted the resignation of her new culture councilor, Guillermo Zapata, over racist jokes he tweeted in 2011. Another one of her councilors, Rita Maestre, is the target of a criminal case for offending religious sentiment at a public event, also in 2011.

As a result, Mayor Carmena was walking on eggshells all weekend to come up with a solution that would not rile her Socialist supporters but also not contradict her own spokeswoman Maestre. This morning’s joint press release seemed to resolve the matter.

Then, at 12.01pm, Carmena tweeted: “The website continues […] Just like we announced on Friday, it is not changing, but it will be open to review and improvement, like all the decisions we take.”

Rita Maestre had earlier used Twitter to confirm that: “The website is not changing.”

Meanwhile, the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos continue to demand that VO be shut down entirely. Esperanza Aguirre, head of the Madrid PP, said that with this initiative the local government was showing “its authoritarian side.” The veteran conservative leader also called the website typical of totalitarian regimes that aim to suppress unfavorable media coverage of government affairs.

Ciudadanos municipal leader Begoña Villacís insisted that the site should not be funded with public money, but be financed exclusively by Ahora Madrid, a loose coalition of social activists and left-wing political groups whose best-known member is Podemos, the anti-austerity party.

On Wednesday, the city council will vote on an urgent motion brought by Aguirre to have the website taken down.

English version by Susana Urra.

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