Antonio Caño (Martos, 1957) was editor of El País between 2014 and 2018, the newspaper to which he has dedicated most of his life, especially as a reporter in Central America, Asia, the Asian East and the United States. He was living with his family in Washington when he accepted Juan Luis Cebrián’s proposal to move to Madrid to run the newspaper.
One of his main aims at the helm of the newspaper was to carry out a profound digitalisation plan, prior to the paid subscription model that would later materialise with Soledad Gallego Díaz and Pepa Bueno. His mandate took place in a scenario marked by political tensions in Catalonia with the procés, the fragmentation of the party map and the censure motion against Mariano Rajoy, the episode that marked the end of his time as editor.
Caño describes his professional career and vision in Digan la Verdad, a book of memoirs published by La Esfera de los Libros (Unidad Editorial), closer, according to the author, to a show of love for El País than a settling of scores with the newspaper that dismissed him for his editorial position. For the last four months, the journalist has been partner and director of the Institutional Relations and Public Affairs area of Estudio de Comunicación.
In recent years, former editors of prestigious newspapers such as El Mundo, ABC and, in this case, El País, have published a book of memoirs after their dismissal. Some seem to be driven by resentment; others, to clarify positions in controversial moments…, why is Antonio Caño writing this book?
To discuss journalism. There is absolutely no desire for revenge because I have nothing against anyone, nor any score to settle. Although my departure from El País was controversial, I have excellent memories of the newspaper. The book is, at heart, a love story with El País, after 40 years working for the paper. What I have tried to do in writing the book is to discuss journalism, to contribute my experience, which I think may have some value for younger journalists, and to debate about it at a time when the profession is in crisis.
You admit in the book that if you were born again you are not sure you would become a journalist again, why?
Normally we journalists with a vocation have such a love for our profession that we think we couldn’t do anything else. But at the moment I have my doubts. The profession seems less attractive to me today than it did 40 or 45 years ago, when I started. Its relationship with society has worsened. Society sees journalists in a more negative light and the profession is in a process of redefinition that makes it difficult to see what it contributes, what it can contribute and what it will contribute in the future. That’s where the doubts come from; and the book is full of doubts.
Does one’s conception of journalism change when one stops walking the streets – in your case, as a correspondent in Washington – to settle in an office as an editor?
Very much so. They are different things. I don’t mean to say that in a managerial position you don’t do journalism. Of course you do journalism, but my vocation as a journalist has always been to be a reporter. I didn’t study journalism to become editor of El País, which was a transitional period. I enjoyed being editor, I have excellent memories, but my main relationship with journalism is journalism, being on the streets, looking for news and interviewing people.
“Excessive opinion has contributed to political polarisation”
He also believes that authorial journalism, in which the prestigious byline predominates over the anonymous reporter, is “one of the reasons for political polarisation and the discrediting of the media”. Why?
The media have put more emphasis on opinion than on news, partly because of the economic crisis, because news is much more expensive than opinion. Having journalists travelling around looking for news is more expensive than paying for opinion articles, which are also very badly paid. This has led to an excess of opinion journalism and the role of opinion columns has been confused. In recent years, not only in Spain, this excess of opinion has contributed to political polarisation.
How do you see Prisa and its president’s management today?
I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t have enough information. I don’t have enough information to assess Prisa’s management. Now I am a consumer, just another reader, and I don’t have enough information to evaluate the company’s performance. I know what you journalists publish.
“El País has been very critical of all governments”
Either as a former editor or as a “reader”, I trust you can answer how you see El País today.
Each reader’s opinion of a newspaper is always subjective. I don’t have different information from a reader. As a reader, there are things I like, pages and sections that keep my finger on the pulse, like the international news, for example, and others where I miss something more critical of the government.
El País has been very critical of all governments. It was critical of Felipe González; although it also coincided with him, there were enormous tensions at that time. Later it was extraordinarily critical of Aznar and was also very critical of Zapatero’s government. The socialist politicians of that time blame El País for some of his unpopularity, which is not true, but reveals how critical he was. I miss in El País that tension that has always existed with the government in political news, essentially. Some days I like them more; other days, less; and some days, not at all.
How would you say your editorial line has evolved since your dismissal in 2018?
When I was dismissed, there was an important breakdown, which is reflected in the book. When I was director, we supported the motion of censure presented against Rajoy’s government because we believed that due to corruption it had lost its ability to lead the country, but we called for an immediate call for elections, because we understood that the majority that emerged from the motion of censure did not provide political stability for Spain, nor coherence with pro-independence, extremist and populist parties. For this reason, we supported the motion of censure, but we criticised any attempt to create what was then called the Frankenstein government [coined by Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba].
When I was dismissed, the newspaper turned around and backed Sánchez forming a government supported by that majority that we criticised. It does not seem to me that the majority of the current government responds to the demands of a social democratic and progressive position.
“The pressures of power are legitimate”
Reading the book, one deduces that your relationship as editor of El País was friendlier with Mariano Rajoy than with Pedro Sánchez, right?
It went through different stages. In the first stage with Pedro Sánchez, the relationship was much more cordial with him, we saw and talked to each other more and had a more fluid communication; whereas with Rajoy it was more difficult and he was more annoyed by what we published. In the first election campaign, we considered that Sánchez had done well and we gave him as the winner in the election debate.
Then, following the crisis in Catalonia, which led El País to support the government, not because it was Rajoy’s and the PP’s, but because it was the Spanish government risking everything in a very difficult circumstance in Spanish democracy, our relations with Rajoy improved. As this coincided with the crisis in the PSOE, in which we did not support Sánchez, it undoubtedly clouded relations with him.
As a director, how was your relationship with political and business power?
The relationship is always complex and tense with political, business and other powers. Sometimes we don’t take into account in Spain and other countries that culture has weight and influence. Everyone wants to appear well in a newspaper, to be spoken well of, and if they are spoken ill of, it bothers them, so they try to put pressure on a journalist or a newspaper editor. I consider these pressures to be legitimate, but none of the decisions I took as editor of El País were the result of any of these pressures.
The pressures existed and it was my duty to deal with them, but journalists were free to act as they saw fit. There are pressures and sometimes the relationships are complex, but in Spain there was and there is freedom of expression and the pressures that are exerted do not prevent its development. At least, to date.
“It’s very difficult to argue the case for your readers when you have to talk to shareholders or management”
Reading the different views of former editors of major newspapers, one can come to the conclusion that the editor – far from what it may seem – is a tremendously fragile and helpless figure.
Yes, it is very well seen, very helpless because his only support is the readers, who are a diffuse force and who do not vote in the boards of directors, nor in the assemblies of the newspapers. It is very difficult to argue the case of your readers when you have to talk to shareholders or managers. It is a figure who makes decisions in solitude and of great responsibility with very little protection.
If you were to go back to 2014, to your life in Washington and you received again the proposal from Juan Luis Cebrián to take over the management of El País, would you accept it?
Yes, of course I would. Without a doubt. Absolutely. If I could rewrite history, I would write it with the same lines.
Do you have new professional plans? El Confidencial published a few days ago that Mediaset is considering appointing you as director of news…..
(Risa) I have excellent professional plans, which are to work in a fantastic company, which is where I am: Estudio de Comunicación. I have no other professional plans, frankly.
But has Mediaset called you?
(Laughter) I have no plans. I talk to a lot of people. I talk to people all the time, since I was director of El País and since I stopped being director, I have talked to many people, to many media entrepreneurs about many ideas and projects, but the one I have and the one to which I dedicate all my efforts and to which I am going to dedicate all my efforts is Estudio de Comunicación. Believe me.