December 12, 2013
POLITICS AND the PRESSSaturday, October 26, 2013
Post (media) war in Argentina
The country goes to the polls tomorrow to fill what increasingly begins to look like a power vacuum. The outcome of the vote is likely to be similar to that of the August primaries, but the big political novelty of this second leg of the midterm vote campaign is President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s absence as a result of the head surgery she underwent on October 8.
The political nation is getting a taste of what the country might look like in the post-Kirchner era - the President officially begins the lame duck stage of her eight-year government (12 counting her late husband Néstor Kirchner’s 2003-2007 term) and the administration seems to have entered run-for-your-life mode without her around - as Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo’s words that he ‘did not consult with anybody, not even acting President Boudou‘ his decision this week to place the Sarmiento train line under government management.
The vacuum is not just political. The would-be dusk of the Kirchner rule era as we have known it with a member of the Kirchner couple in charge might also sink with it the decades-long dominance of the country’s main journalistic outlet, Grupo Clarín. This does not mean —should not mean — that either the Kirchner movement or Grupo Clarín will cease to exist, not even that they would cease to be important players in the country’s public life. But it does mean that their clout might shrink to more reasonable sizes.
The business future of Grupo Clarín resides in the hands of the Supreme Court, which has to issue a ruling expected before the end of the year to decide whether anti-trust legislation introduced by a Media Act in 2009 is legal. In public hearings on the issue in August, the Court showed in its questions to Grupo Clarín that it had doubts whether the media giant feared for its freedom of expression or its fat profitability, as the law would force the conglomerate to dismantle its successful cable TV distribution company. Speculation abounds about the content and the tone of the Supreme Court ruling, with the odds moving intermittently from one side to the other depending on the political moment.
The Kirchners and Grupo Clarín have established a style for political and media dominance in Argentina. Both have been accused of trying to monopolize their trade and both were undisputed hegemons on their fields. Both could have lived happily ever after should they have stuck to a marriage by convenience that lasted for half of the Kirchner decade, until their interests clashed heads-on in 2008-09. The Kirchners political hegemony will likely begin to dwindle more rapidly starting tomorrow.
Grupo Clarín dominance was build around the hardware of a multi-media empire but also around the software of a belief in political circles that the opposition of the newspaper Clarín and the Group’s media and star journalists could turn the public against any government to the point of making it collapse. As with any belief, the notion that Grupo Clarín could topple a government is a fallacy thinly attached to some real life elements. That ghost was the basis for the ruling party charge on Grupo Clarín. In the process, however, the assumption proved wrong: the Fernández de Kirchner government reached its political climax (re-election in October 2011 by a landslide 54 percent of the votes) with the staunchest — and oftentimes grotesque — opposition by Grupo Clarín.
The Kirchners pushed Grupo Clarín into a ring where the group did not want to be. Its place had been that of the arbiter — sitting comfortably at the ringside. The fight has taken its toll on the Group, which is over 60 years old and whose management has been on the job for almost four decades. It has shed part of its credibility — and harmed the almightiness myth in the process. The fight has extenuated both, and even if they still keep strength to throw out a few extra punches, their careers will never be the same again — or so it seems.
The main opposition candidates repeat that the Kirchner era will soon be over but have failed to address the issue of how the media and information picture will look once the war is over. For instance Sergio Massa, mayor of Tigre and favourite in the Buenos Aires province race, played the typical media darling campaign. His critics have accused him of having the backing of Grupo Clarín. Massa was, ironically, the person who gave the opening speech the day the government presented the Media Act in March 2009, when he was serving as Fernández de Kirchner’s Cabinet Chief. He was also the Cabinet Chief when the most hated (and loved) of the pro-government television programmes on State television, the evening talk show 678, appeared on the air in April 2009.
The challenge for the emerging leaders of tomorrow like Massa — be it in the ruling party, the parallel ruling party or the opposition — will be to fill the empty space the Kirchners and Grupo Clarín will be leaving if they finally decide to walk out of the ring.