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Is 'Spain's Fox News' leading its own Tea Party-style insurrection?

Pedro J. Ramirez, the founder of daily El Mundo and a key shaper of Spain's conservative narrative, appears to have set his sights on conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

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Pedro J. Ramirez, founder and director of conservative Spanish newspaper El Mundo, in Madrid in July. Mr. Ramirez, better known as Pedro J, and his paper have been leading the criticism of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – a surprising turn, given their similar place on the political spectrum.

Juan Medina/Reuters/File

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He's the founder and editor of Spain's leading conservative newspaper, El Mundo. Two years ago, his media group strongly endorsed the candidacy of Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party in national elections, boosting Mr. Rajoy to the premier's office and the PP to an overwhelming majority in parliament. His organization has been compared to the US's own conservative news flagship, Fox News.

That's what makes it so surprising that maverick veteran journalist Pedro J. Ramirez has become one of the biggest threats to the government of his conservative fellow traveler, Rajoy.

Pedro J, as Mr. Ramirez is popularly known, is not new to this power. He is used to not only writing headlines, but being in them. In the past, he played an influential personal role in Spain's young democracy, including leading the editorial cavalry that led to the fall of at least one previous government.

But in this critical crisis juncture for Rajoy's increasingly embattled government, Pedro J is once again positioning himself as a kingmaker using his very public role as editor, columnist, radio show host, and advocate.

"Pedro J craves being the protagonist, leaving a mark in politics, and deciding the country's agenda as an editor and personally," says Fernando Jimenez, a political science professor in Pablo Olavide University in Seville.

PP woes

Rajoy and the ruling PP have been under intense pressure this year, not only from mounting public discontent over Spain's economic crisis, but also due to the ongoing corruption investigation into Luis Bárcenas, its former party treasurer.

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Mr. Bárcenas has provided testimony and evidence indicating an alleged scheme within – and sanctioned by – the PP to exchange illegal cash contributions from companies for state contracts. The contributions were then used for campaigning, luxurious expenses, and cash bonuses for party leaders – allegedly including Rajoy and many of the PP's and government's top officials. The revelations, coupled with intense economic pain, have more than halved government support, according to polls.

Rajoy is in little danger of being implicated in the investigation. And he is effectively shielded from popular opinion as a result of the powerful mandate he won in November 2011 elections, giving him absolute control of parliament and the ability to rule with few checks to his decisions, especially from the weak opposition parties.

But internal divisions within the PP over the handling of the economy, independence aspirations from Catalonia, and the Bárcenas case have shaken the traditionally monolithic conservative voting bloc. Rajoy has been widely criticized by the party's hawkish wing, including former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
 
 Many of the disaffected have migrated to less conservative to the center and to extreme right parties. The PP is the only party representing conservatives at the national level and has never hemorrhaged so much voter support, according to Manuel Villoria, a political scientist in Rey Juan Carlos University who researches corruption.

Enter Pedro J

Pedro J is one of the leading voices of Spain's conservative voter base, and is nominally free of the political loyalties that mute intra-PP criticism.

And with Rajoy's unpopularity on the rise – even within the PP – Pedro J's and El Mundo's editorial stance perhaps wields the single most important influence over the future of Rajoy, experts say.

Many believe Pedro J is enabling the internal PP revolt. El Mundo, which is the popular equivalent of Fox News in the US, has published some of the most damaging leaks against the current ruling Popular Party leadership.

"It's clear El Mundo is doing a lot harm," says Dr. Jimenez. "It captures the indignation within the PP's core base."

Dissent is palpable not only through polls, but informal conversations with the party's constituency on the street. The PP's core supporters don't know whether to believe Pedro J, a champion for many, or Rajoy.

Pedro J has repeatedly called on Rajoy's to come clean about corruption within the PP, suggesting the government is betraying the party's essence, a perception held by many party faithful who indeed have grown worried about the damage in future elections.

El Mundo's revelations are also fueling conspiracy theories of an internal revolt underway that seeks to replace Rajoy without triggering new elections, a possibility in parliamentary democracies like Spain's.

In that narrative, Pedro J would be siding with the disappointed wing, disregarding party loyalty and the restraint that Rajoy is publicly demanding – and receiving – from other conservative media and political groups.

The paper is also a leading critic of what it considers a soft response against the secessionist drive from Catalonia and distancing from core ideological traits, including abortion and strong ties to the Catholic hierarchy.

Media power

Controversy is nothing new for Pedro J, who turned down numerous requests for an interview.

In Spain, all media groups are ideologically tied to political interests in the the left-to-right spectrum or nationalist groups, and Pedro J reportedly considers himself the Spanish conservative equivalent of Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor who oversaw Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's coverage of the Watergate scandal.

Indeed, Pedro J lived in Washington during the Watergate scandal and he interviewed many of the editorial protagonists. "Watergate really left a mark on Pedro J. He even wants to look the part, and wears suspenders like Bradlee," Jimenez said.

Pedro J does exert tremendous editorial influence, not only as editor of El Mundo, but also as general editorial director of the Recoletos Group, which includes El Mundo, two others dailies, several magazines, and television channels.

But he has a mixed record as a journalist. After his US experience, he returned to become the youngest managing editor of Diario 16, a popular political daily that was about to disappear. He turned it around, but not without criticism – he was eventually fired for the paper's sensationalist coverage of a paramilitary organization that was assassinating Basque terrorists and their families. He was also sued several times for libel, and found guilty in 1993.

After leaving Diario 16, he went on to create and lead El Mundo in 1989. The newspaper quickly became the second most important in the country, especially after it revealed corruption within the Socialist government, as well as state support for the GAL paramilitary organization. El Mundo's coverage proved instrumental in the defeat of Socialists and the rise of a new generation of the PP.

But El Mundo's journalism has also been dodgy at times, and even unbelievable. For years after the Madrid rail bombings of 2004, Pedro J promoted a conspiracy theory that the real culprits behind the bomb attacks were the Basque separatist group ETA. Despite several Spanish tribunals and intelligence agencies' conclusions that the attacks were the work of Islamist extremists, El Mundo suggested a huge coverup was underway, which irritated many of the newspaper's own readers.

El Mundo also has been accused of stretching the truth to further their political patrons – a charge also made against its rival El Pais and the Spanish media in general.

He has also been the victim of state persecution. In 1997, several Socialist Party members attempted to blackmail Pedro J with a secretly recorded sex film. Pedro J pressed charges for violation of privacy and won, leading to the conviction of two high-ranking Socialist Party officials.

At present though, it is unclear what Pedro J's intentions are toward the PP. But his and El Mundo's efforts appear to be working against Rajoy – a huge concern given the prime minister's precarious position.

"Something could be brewing," says Félix Ortega, a sociology professor in Universidad Complutense de Madrid and an expert in public opinion. "I see covert movements. Big economic groups are also denying Rajoy their support. El Mundo is coming out in defense of the PP side against Rajoy."

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