Julio Somoano: polemical broadcaster in the news
State television employees fear arrival of former Telemadrid man who once wrote a paper on how Rajoy could win the election
The president of RTVE, the state broadcaster, went down the list of candidates to head the television news department until one of them said yes. First, Leopoldo González-Echenique called in Pedro Roncal, a former deputy director of TVE's newscast, and asked him if he would become the new director. Roncal's reply was a resounding no.
Echenique went back to the magic list, filled with names of journalists he had never even met, and moved on to the next person: Julio Somoano, former chief of Telemadrid's morning news, and a former student of Roncal's at Navarre University. He got luckier this time. The next day, at the RTVE board meeting, Echenique informed the members of the new appointment.
"It was an express choice," said a source familiar with the matter, who added that the list of candidates was drafted partly in La Moncloa (the seat of government) and partly in Génova street (headquarters of the ruling Popular Party (PP))
A few unions took Echenique to task this week over the decision. "We told him that Somoano was not an RTVE man as they are trying to make out, and that he does not have the background for heading the news department in light of his career in Telemadrid. The president told us that he is a good professional with a good résumé," a union leader said.
Somoano, a 35-year-old native of Asturias, left a message on the social network Twitter that seems meant as a mission statement: "I will work my skin off for an objective, pluralistic and quality TVE." But many people fear that in reality, his plans are to clone the Telemadrid model, widely criticized for its lack of objectivity and shameless praise of the PP.
The appointment even raised eyebrows among Somoano's former colleagues at the regional television station. They remember he arrived there as a star, hired to replace the popular Luis Mariñas as host of the 8.30pm newscast. The audience share was plummeting, and Telemadrid placed its trust in the young journalist. But the share kept falling. "Somoano had a share that occasionally did not even reach three percent, which equals zero," said sources in Telemadrid.
These same sources described Somoano as part of a team of journalists who were "faithful" to regional premier Esperanza Aguirre, of the PP, and they say that Madrid Mayor Ana Botella, also of the PP, is one of his main supporters. He regularly attends conferences at FAES, the PP's think-tank, and wrote a dissertation in 2005 for Barcelona's Autònoma University describing the strategy that PP leader Mariano Rajoy should adopt if he wanted to win the 2008 elections (Rajoy eventually won in November 2011). "I wrote it about the PP the same way I could have written it about the [Catalan republican nationalists] ERC," he claims.
Many people were surprised that he wrote this piece while he was working at a public television station, which should demand independence and neutrality from its journalists. But Telemadrid seems different. This network has been denounced by its own workers, who filed a complaint before the European Parliament in 2007 accusing Telemadrid of "manipulating information" to favor the PP and make the Socialist Party look bad. The Spanish journalist federation, the FAPE, also concluded that Telemadrid "repeatedly misrepresented the truth" in a report it aired about the alleged arrival of illegal migrants at Barajas airport.
While he was working for Telemadrid, Somoano was part of a group of workers who described themselves ironically as The Dark Side, a reference to the bad guys in Star Wars. This group specialized in praising regional premier Esperanza Aguirre, and its leader was news director Agustín de Grado. "When they arrived, many professionals stopped putting their names on their own work because of the constant political interference. You could not do pieces criticizing Esperanza Aguirre or her government. And they laughed about it," said one source at the station.
After working for five years on the afternoon newscast, Somoano was sent to the "baker's shift" to prepare the morning news. It was not the first time he was forced to work nights, as he had earlier presented the six o'clock news on Radio Nacional de España. In 2003, the unions had complained he was admitted into Radio Exterior, the bilingual news service, even though he did not speak two languages. He later filed a suit against RTVE for firing him when it emerged that he was working for Telemadrid when he was supposed to be on a temporary leave from the state broadcaster. The court ruled in favor of RTVE.
Now, Somoano is back at RTVE and he is back in style. Never mind that in a non-binding employee survey, nearly 71 percent voted against him, declaring Somoano "not ideal" for the post. Less than a third of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballot.