How to build the political narrative of an attack

From day one, Madrid-based newspapers have targeted the Catalan independence movement in their reports and editorials

Since Thursday afternoon, when the terrorist attack in Barcelona took place, a political narrative has been woven, and it has taken shape and gained momentum as days went by and controversy replaced grief. Madrid-based media have linked the attacks to Catalonia’s independence bid, thus creating the impression that the Catalan government “has taken advantage” of terror and that Catalonia’s police force (the Mossos d’Esquadra) have chosen to exclude Spain’s law enforcement because of the independence process.

Friday August 18
Leadership doubts

One of the few political interpretations that are made the day after the attacks is a call to unity in newspaper editorials. Madrid daily El País takes it a step further in its own editorial, where it demands the end of Catalonia’s independence process. Political reports do not agree as to who is leading the coordination of the efforts following the attacks. El Mundo claims that president Carles Puigdemont “has hoarded the institutional reaction”, whereas no members of the Spanish government turned up “before midnight”. I contrast, other papers mention Rajoy’s “leadership”. The Spanish PM arrived in Barcelona six hours after the attacks. Days later, all Madrid-based newspapers will agree that the Catalan government had aimed to sideline its Spanish counterpart so as to appear as if Catalonia were an independent country.

Saturday August 19
All hell breaks loose over Puigdemont’s answer

Spanish radio station Onda Cero interviews president Puigdemont: “Will these events alter the independence process?” The Catalan leader replies that “one thing has nothing to do with the other” and refers to El País’ editorial by claiming that “it is contemptible when you mix the priority to respond to a terrorist threat with other stuff”. His statement makes headlines. El Mundo: “Puigdemont digs heels in on independence bid” and in the editorial they misquote the Catalan president: “the attacks will not change the independence road map” and they accuse the Catalan leader of being “totally insensitive”. Madrid’s ABC uses Puigdemont’s reply to argue that “he is wasting the perfect chance to show that he has grasped the gravity of the moment”.

La Razón is the first newspaper to question the Mossos’ work in dealing with the blast in Alcanar and, quoting unnamed anti-terror experts, the conservative daily states that “had all three agencies worked together, they would have realised that the blown-up home was a jihadist base”. Upon first inspection, the Mossos believed that the blast in Alcanar was caused by a gas leak and did not alert any Spanish law enforcement agencies.

The other fresh controversy is over whether Barcelona city’s local government should have fitted bollards on La Rambla. All Spanish media slam Mayor Ada Colau and quote a memo from Spain’s Home Office which suggested that bollards should be used. However, they fail to mention that the memo refers explicitly to the “Christmas holiday period”. The shared message is that Colau ignored the advice. ABC and La Razón extend the controversy through to the end of the week, insisting that bollards would have stopped the attack.

Sunday August 20
A tweet, a retweet and the nationality of the victims

El Mundo prints this headline on its front page: “The Catalan government is using the attack to promote independence” and justifies it by stating that “several Catalan officials have mentioned independence in messages about the attacks”. “Several Catalan officials” actually refers to a tweet by the president’s press officer mentioning that Catalan Foreign Minister Raül Romeva had met his French and Italian counterparts; a retweet of a newspaper by the Catalan National Assembly’s US chapter and the words of Catalan minister Joaquin Forn, who spoke of “Catalan and Spanish" victims during an interview on TV3. In its editorial, El Mundo writes that “the Catalan government is adamant it will go ahead with independence and is attempting to turn the attacks into propaganda tools”. La Razón focuses on Puigdemont’s answer on Onda Cero and its editorial accuses him of “being the first to contaminate the scene”. In its report, the Madrid daily claims that Puigdemont “did not address everyone” when he made a public statement in Catalan. Two days later, when the Catalan president spoke in four different languages, La Razón called it a “language travesty”. In contrast, Madrid’s newspapers barely mention José Ignacio Zoido’s mistake when the Spanish Home Secretary claimed that the terrorist cell had been taken out, even though one of the terrorists was still at large. ABC agrees with the Spanish minister and writes that if Forn contradicted him, “it might be because of the bollards affair”, even though the Catalan minister has barely referred to it.

Monday August 21
Enter the CUP

On Sunday CUP MP Mireia Boya says on Catalunya Ràdio that “the CUP is waiting to know the details of the demonstration” and states that if the Spanish king leads the demonstration, her party will not take part in the event. Madrid's newspapers are quick to draw their conclusion: “CUP breaks up united political front against terror” is El País’ headline and only the body of the story mentions that the CUP has not made a decision yet. La Razón uses the controversy to headline its editorial: “The CUP is neither with democracy nor reality”. ABC combines it with Forn and Puigdemont’s words and concludes: “Sick, petty separatism”. Eventually, the CUP decided to join the street march.

Tuesday August 22
A shift in the narrative on the Mossos

The Catalan police shoots down Younes Aboyaaqoub but the unanimously favourable discourse in Madrid’s media up until then begins to shift. With the only exception of El País, whose editorial praises the Mossos, the idea that the State has been deliberately sidelined gains traction. ABC takes it the furthest and plays down the role of the Mossos by illustrating the capture of the terrorist with a photo of minister Zoido taken before the fact. In the body of the report ABC explains that, once the Mossos took the advice of the Spanish National Police and Guardia Civil —both of which, according to the paper, had been demanding since Saturday that a photo of the missing terrorist be released—, the matter was resolved “within hours”.
In another piece, ABC slams Jaume Asens (a BComú councillor in Barcelona) and CUP MP Benet Salellas by taking out of context a statement made when both lawyers had provided legal counsel to a convicted jihadist: “The CUP MP who called jihadists Catalan working people”.

Wednesday August 23
The Mossos, in the eye of the hurricane

What was only hinted at on the previous day is now a full-on criticism by Spanish police unions: the narrative that the Mossos neglected their duty because their leadership is busy with independence is taking centre stage. La Razón gives full credibility to the criticisms by the Spanish police unions: “Independence supporters discriminate against Spanish police and only decorate Mossos”. Nobody in the Spanish executive or the police forces endorses the unions’ jibe.

Thursday August 24
An email message from Belgium’s police about the Ripoll imam

A Belgian police officer sends an email to a Mosso enquiring if the Catalan police has any information about the new imam in town (who will later move to Ripoll). The information is stored on a Spanish police database which the Catalan force has no access to. When he receives the inquiry, the Mosso searches the Catalan police’s own database, to no avail. This narrative fuels the accusations of neglect against the Mossos d’Esquadra and muffles their complaint that they are denied access to Europol’s intelligence. El Mundo and El País speak of Belgium’s “warning” rather than “enquiry”, which are hardly synonymous.

Friday August 25

The Catalan government’s victim mentality

The controversy over the role of the Mossos is rounded off with the Generalitat’s response. El País reports that the Catalan government “does not acknowledge any mistakes”, implying that mistakes were made, indeed. In its editorial, El Mundo criticises the Catalan government’s “victim mentality”. However, the Madrid paper begins to admit that the Mossos are not the sole culprits of the affair of the Ripoll imam and there is talk of a “chain of errors”. Still, it links it with the Catalan independence process: “In a climate of mutual trust and institutional loyalty, the Catalan police should have shared their suspicions with the National Police”. La Razón’s editorial finishes off the job by claiming that the public’s praise for the Mossos is an “opportunistic” means “to a political end to do with the referendum”.

Saturday August 26
Another statement by Puigdemont stirs controversy

Amid the debate over the role of the Mossos and their joining Europol, the Financial Times interviews Puigdemont and the Catalan president remarks: “We told them not to turn security into a political game. Unfortunately, the Spanish government had other priorities”. He mentions the Spanish government’s refusal to grant access to Europe’s police intelligence or to allow the Catalan force to expand its numbers, a criticism that he has already made months before the attacks. Spanish newspapers believe it is unforgivable of him to bring this up on the day before the demonstration: “Puigdemont taunts Rajoy on eve of march” is the El País headline. El Mundo uses the word “demolish”, whereas ABC and La Razón choose to focus on the 177 civic groups that oppose the king and claim that “a separatist boycott against the march is in the works”. The political narrative of the attacks keeps taking shape.

Editorials unanimously against Catalan independence:

El País

“An attack of this magnitude should be a wake-up call for Catalan politicians, including the regional government, parliament and pro-independence movements, which have made the independence fantasy the sole issue on Catalonia’s political agenda over the last few years. It’s time to ditch the democratic nonsense.”

El Mundo

“Puigdemont saw no shame in saying that it was “contemptible” to connect the attacks with his independence plans. By saying so, he intends to dodge his government’s duty to drop its fruitless plans and get down to work on Catalonia’s true problems, of which the existence of highly radicalised pockets of muslim population is one of the most pressing issues. We mustn’t forget how Catalan nationalists have fuelled a real bomb by encouraging the arrival of migrants from muslim countries over Spanish-speaking nationals, as part of their separatist strategy”.

La Razón

“Puigdemont was the first to contaminate the city’s scenery and the mood of a grief-stricken citizenry […]. He was not alone in sneaking in divisive messages and plugs that separate us. […] Spain came out in aid of central part of itself. There was solidarity, affection and togetherness, the exact opposite of those who promote a split, ethnic difference and supremacy”.


“Separatism is Catalonia’s moral malaise. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be fooled by joint displays of public grief because they can barely mask the segregating pulse that inhabits Catalan politics. Evidence is plentiful and ad nauseam […] . They haven’t even managed to feel a modicum of togetherness with the rest of Spain when they’ve been struck by the same murderous hand”.

El Mundo

“Full cooperation between the various law enforcement agencies […] isn’t happening because —on orders from its leaders— one of the forces has embarked upon an independence process. This also accounts for the shameless sidelining […] of the National Police and the Guardia Civil […]. Catalonia’s leaders are quick to present the terrorist attacks as if they were a blow to their own territory”.


“When you go over the questions that must be addressed by the Mossos d’Esquadre and its political leaders concerning their work ahead of the attacks, you come up with a list of potential coordination lapses —to put it mildly— […]. The opportunistic pat on the Mossos’ shoulder […] conceals a political agenda to do with independence and the referendum on October 1”.

El País

“Carles Puigdemont has done everything within his ability to end the fleeting consensus that prevailed in the political arena of a country in shock. As if that wasn’t enough, he has done so —willingly, we must presume— on the day before the demonstration in Barcelona […]. We call on everyone to ensure that this event is not merely a display of grief and a condemnation of the attacks, but the start of a new, realistic political agenda where united action and efficacy against terror take centre stage. We have had enough fanaticism and opportunism in this separatist fantasy that divides us and makes us all more vulnerable”.

La Razón

“Once again, separatists are ready to cross a number of red lines when it comes to loyalty. Are they aiming to turn a demonstration against jihadism into yet another protest, once more, against the Spanish government? Puigdemont has failed to rise to the challenge and he is showing his discomfort with a terrorist crisis that is messing up his independence plans”.

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