‘Morbo’ and the Spanish fascination with emotional hell

Barajas plane crash

Last week’s horrendous, tragic plane crash in Madrid led us and many others living in Spain to take firm decisive action: to turn off the TV, ignore news websites, and stop buying the papers.

The news media had gone (and continues to go) too far again. Within hours of the accident we had all the information we would need. The plane had lost control, crashed near the airport, and all but a few very lucky people (now 18), had died.

Yet the ‘news’, playing to the famous national ‘morbo‘, or morbid fascination with all horrendous events, has been camped out outside hospitals and the main convention centre morgue where bodies are being identified, trying desperately to secure images and, worst of all, interviews with emotionally destroyed relatives.

Occasionally it seems (OK, I have watched a minute here, a minute there of the news, all I can take), they strike gold and discover the story of the guy who tried to get off the plane before the second fatal take off attempt but wasn’t allowed, the text message sent to a friend about ‘problems with our plane’, and more emotion-twisting horror than your average viewer can take.

And still it goes on, 4 days later. Part of the reason it is so hard to watch is that it so closely mirrors the news coverage of the Madrid train bombings, a few years ago, when we were all glued to images of twisted train wreckage and dead bodies for days (or weeks) on end, trying desperately to understand how something so insanely horrendouns could have happened.

According to a conversation overheard in a doctor’s waiting room, all this Spanish morbo can be traced back to a lady named Nieves Herrero (nicknamed Nieves Horrores), who started the trend in the 90’s with a daily morning TV programme called ‘Cita con la Vida’ (A Date with Life), that scoured the country to broadcast the most upsetting, awful social and personal tragedies Spain was hiding in its quiet villages and city suburbs.

Here’s a quote from Wikipedia’s entry on Nieves Herrero that perfectly captures the current Spanish media behaviour, and the average night on Spanish TV:

“She was heavily criticised for the coverage given to the famous Crimen de Alcácer, making a live broadcast from this village the same night that the bodies of the girls were found. In the programme, they took advantage of the emotional state of the families of the victims, interviewing the parents about how they felt at the time, and converting their pain into a public spectacle to be broadcast to the whole country.”

The country became addicted to ‘other people’s awful lives’, the media discovered there was plenty of tragedy to go around, and no watchdog ever stepped in to say just how much horror they could get away with showing. The result is that you will see bodies, devastation, and emotional hell that you would never see in 100 years on the good old BBC.

But let’s face it, this morbo is not just a Spanish problem, it’s just more out in the open here. In the end, revelling in other people’s misery is a very modern, developed world phenomenon. I think it plays to either one of two basic human positions:

1) “Thank god my life isn’t that bad”

……or, perversly, (and please tell me if I’m wrong),

2) “If something that bad happened in my life it would probably give me the shake up I need to change things dramatically forever, and kick me out of the everlasting everyday mundane.”

Whichever the case, for many Spaniards this latest round of media morbo has been a step too far. Is it possible that one day an audience that just can’t take any more will switch off for good? Will we ever see the demise of this endless aggressive probing into emotionally-debilitating modern human horrors?

Comments welcome as always.

26 thoughts on “‘Morbo’ and the Spanish fascination with emotional hell

  1. José

    You are right, my parent died 25 years ago in a flight from Madrid to Bilbao and now, 25 years later they are showing us images from that accident….I really hate them for that….It should be enough to say that there were an crash but not show all bodies…

  2. Couldn't Help it

    The sun Articles about Maddie still going one year after and it is “Spanish fascination with emotional hell”

    I think is more Worldwide than our little Country 😉

  3. Pepino

    I´m glad I didn´t have the option to watch much TV on the days following the crash (as I was away on holiday) so I got most of the news from the car radio. The bits that I saw on TV in the evenings though made me angry enough.

    The official news bulletins are bad enough, but the daily “trash news” shows like Está Pasando, España Directo, or that one on Antena3… Gonzo something, are the worst offenders. They really shove the camera in the families faces, and the moment someone shows any emotion, they zoom right in for the money shot. That seems to be the staple recipe in Spain. Add a dash of sad music over the images, continue to baste for about 4 hours per show on a full heat, and there you go.

    The press are intrusive in most countries, I know, but you only have to watch TV a short time in, say the UK and Spain, to see a massive difference. Not that the UK is perfect of course, but I don´t ever recall seeing the types of images there that I´ve seen this week in Spain. God knows what the Spanish media would´ve done over something like the Dunblane infant school massacre.

  4. ValenciaSon

    What I fine curious is how España Directo can go from a light hearterd story about baby seals at the zoo to a graphic, protracted display of a horrendous tragedy and then segue to the recipe of the day, all within 10 minutes.

  5. Raquel

    I´m agree with you Ben, the media is going too far with the plane crash but this is not the first time that happens as you said, Nieves Herrero is a good example.
    I remember those times when they said at the ‘Telediario’ “les advertimos que las siguientes imagenes pueden herir su sensibilidad” (the following images may disturb you). Nowadays the ‘Telediario’ opens with a the last bomb attack in Iraq or war images like the recently seen at Georgia but not just bombings in a city or a main view but the victims covered in blood or dead.

    I think it´s unrespectful, first for the victims, they don´t choose to appear on national tv, and secondly for the viewers who have the right to choose what they want to see. At the end of the day they made me choose not to tune the TV on.

    Another great difference about the “morbo” maybe you forgot to say is the “estadística de accidentes este fin de semana” (car crashes during the weekend and victims), I´ve never heard of it at UK/Irish Media, never ever! Here we have every single Monday of the year the number of victims in the roads and also the images of the victims and the cars…. 🙁

  6. Elena

    I agree 100 %, Ben. It was unbearable to watch the “journalists” trying to shove their mikes in the relatives’ faces as they arrived at the airport, in those terrible hours when they still had no idea if their loved ones where dead or alive. There must be a line somewhere, you think. A line that says, now you stop and you keep quiet. But no. There is no line for some people when there is a paycheck waiting on the other side. Which is incredibly disturbing.

    I was at the airport when it happened, so I was glued to the tv when I came back home, desperately switching channels and trying to get some “decent” coverage to no avail. Amongst many other things (including incredibly unprofessional errors in each and any of the channels I checked), I heard this on CNN+:

    “Les estamos informando de esta desgracia, donde parece ser que ha habido víctimas mortales, y por supuesto, también la desgracia de la gente que está en el aeropuerto para empezar sus vacaciones y se va a encontrar con retrasos y cancelaciones”

    (The first time he said it I couldn’t believe it, the second one, I just turned the tv off)

    I am Spanish myself, and I see the fascination with “morbo” in my daily life, like everytime my mother rings me to announce a death of someone I don’t know and proceeds to describe just how gruesome/ tragic it was. Then she stops and waits for my reaction. *Silence…*

    It still baffles me though.

    Is it boredom? Could boredom really be that twisted?

  7. Pepino

    The event which happened a few months back which shocked the hell out of me was the Romanian guy (in Valenica if I remember rightly) who was so down and out with his lot in life, that he ended up setting fire to himself in the middle of the street after pouring parafin/petrol over himself. The media showed the images over and over. The still photos in the press were bad enough, but the full video of it on TV was horrific and should never have made it onto TV.

  8. Graeme

    Lat me play the devils advocate a bit here. I don’t want to defend the harassment of relatives, or the constant coverage of anything concerned with the disaster but the issue of how far the media should go in terms of not showing images that might offend is not so simple. If you take other examples, such as war or famine, you could argue that the showing of images that bring home the reality of what is happening is something necessary. The famous image from the Vietnam War of the little girl set on fire by napalm is horrific but it also brought home to many in the most direct way what kind of things were happening in the country. Which is of course, why those running today’s wars like to keep close control over what the media can show. In the end if we suppress all imagery that might upset us whilst we are eating our dinner then we end up with a sanitised version of the world around us; we are protected from the bad stuff going on but it still happens. I think the issue is more about where we draw the line between informing on events and exploiting those events just to get more audience.

  9. John Ross

    Let’s be fair, here – Couldn’t Help It is quite right, there is the same interest in morbid affairs, just a slightly different focus.

    Plus, while I do share the distaste for the shove-the-mike-in-the-victims’-face approach, there is one big difference between the UK and Spain, namely Franco. Forty years of fascism gave censorship a really bad name, here. And given Spanair’s – and others’ – mishandling of the whole business, it does seem that public interest is better served by over-inquisitive, over-intrusive media than by drawing a veil over things, even if the bad-taste line gets crossed. I mean, something like two hours after the Barajas crash, the official line was still that there were only twenty-odd fatal casualties, bumped up to fifty around about five o’clock. I think it was nearly six when they started to talk about the number of survivors instead of the injured. Meanwhile, even though Spanair and the airport authorities must have known that the majority of passengers had been killed, all Madrid’s major hospitals were on red alert or whatever (which must adversely affect normal care of ordinary patients), unneeded ambulances were mobilized, calls for blood donors made, and so on.

  10. John Ross

    “Les estamos informando de esta desgracia, donde parece ser que ha habido víctimas mortales, y por supuesto, también la desgracia de la gente que está en el aeropuerto para empezar sus vacaciones y se va a encontrar con retrasos y cancelaciones”

    OK, the mention of “vacaciones” puts that in the really-dubious-taste category, but flight delays / cancellations are serious matters, often of life-or-death importance or nearly so. Think of all the people flying to visit sick relatives, or to have an operation, or conclude a business deal which might save a factory, or that poor South American fellow who wanted to die at home and the airline nearly didn’t let him until the pressure of public opinion – stirred by the kind of junk journalism we are talking about here – forced them to change their minds. And in the end he only just made it by a day or so. Just from the sheer number of people passing through Barajas, quite a few of them must be in that sort of critical situation at any one time.

  11. Shannon

    Graeme, it is true that the media can help shock us into action by showing disturbing things that we might not have otherwise been aware of. Your example of the carnage of Vietnam is a strong one. But do we need the TV to remind us that when a plane crashes, people usually die in messy ways? It accomplishes NOTHING good to show images of dead passengers.

  12. Pepino (Dave Hall)

    I didn’t see a single reporter knocking on the door of Spanair’s top management in order to ensure the public get to know what’s going on, or following them down the street, or shoving a microphone through the window of a passing car. Whereas all those things were aimed at the families who were just trying to find out what had happened to their loved ones. It just seems that the “morbo” side of it is all the media (TV media especially) are really interested in.

    There are ways of ensuring the facts get out there (including showing difficult images) without putting them on a never-ending showreel all day long.

  13. John Ross

    So where do you draw the line? My mother maintains, quite seriously, that the film “Titanic” is unacceptable because it might offend surviving relatives. Better to have a few gory pictures, say I, even if they make people uncomfortable.

  14. Shannon

    Well good thing for you, there are thousands of gory pics online for you to enjoy. Check out rotten.com or thenausea.com and have fun. But why do you feel the need to have gory pictures 4 hours after the event, when it’s simply an accident? And your mum, no offense, sounds a little batty. Gory pictures of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, etc., reminds people of the lunacy of killing others for religion and politics. But gory pictures of some poor chap who just got on an airplane and is now in pieces? What’s the point?

  15. David Jackson

    “morbo” is a difficult one. For example, our maths teacher in Bachiller was not pretty, but extruded “sex appeal” to the sweating 17 years old. “No es guapa, pero tiene morbo” was the comment.
    Rather then “morbid curiosity” the correct translation might be “‘unusual’ excitement[of the senses]”.

  16. MotoMujer

    Images of war, genocide and the abundant other similar tragedies bring to our attention actions which need to be stopped, while this recent event and the medias exploitation of it is a sign that, above all, the media (world wide) lacks the moral fortitude to know the difference between right and wrong (just another reason for not watching TV).

  17. Parubin

    I agree with the comments that say that sometimes ‘the horror picture’ has a reason because it is a denouncing visual report so powerful that will draw the public’s attention towards the issue.
    But in this case, I can´t see the point in providing ‘this information’ other than the insane morbid curiosity.
    This kind of curiosity may be indeed different from one country to another.
    An interesting case of this (sorry if it goes a bit off-topic) is domestic violence cases (or wife battering). In Spain, this type of crime get a lot of attention in the media, and every single case is reported nation-wide. This, which maybe was born out of insane curiosity, has helped to strengthen legislation against agressors and to make it easy for all potential victims to report an incident. But the curiosity for this type of crime still persists, and Spain is wrongly believed (both within Spain and abroad) to have a strong problem of domestic violence, when it is quite the opposite. Spain is among the lowest countries in Europe of ‘domestic violence cases per capita’. In other EU countries the situation is worse, but it isn´t reported as heavily as in Spain. Maybe because the media or the public is not intereseted in these morbid affairs which they consider ‘private issues’, so there is not a public awareness as in Spain.
    Where to draw the line?. Most of the times it seems easy to decide if it is in the public interest or not to publish disturbing piece of news (picture or not).

  18. soy pescador

    I think it is a case of supply and demand. When the public stop asking for sensationalism then spanish TV will have to switch to something else. The dead are more alive than the living . I have also witnessed the same morbid approach as to when some friend of a friends aunt or twice removed relative dies there is this chain of phone calls and need to go to the funeral even though you last saw or heard from this person 20 years ago.
    Fascinating ????

  19. Criss

    The problem is not exclusive to Spain – here in the US, all we see is this pretend news. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the credo by which they live. The opening news story features a three-year-old raped and murdered in a state clear on the other side of the country – this “news” is not in any way relevant to anyone living in my state, but it’s gory and will gather ratings.

    Graeme (and others) brings up a good point: sometimes unpleasant images help stir us into action, as they did with Vietnam and, aparently, with domestic abuse problems in Spain. But the examples brought up here (plane crash) don’t fall into that category – we already know plane crashes are bad, and do what we can to avoid them. Shoving cameras and mikes in the faces of grieving family members does nothing more than satisfy our sick, morbid curiosity; a sick desire to watch others suffer. (On a lower “level”, I was appalled and disgusted with the reporters during the Olympics who shoved a mike in the face of the athlete who has just lost – even as the poor girl is crying – instead of interviewing the athlete who won the gold. Why do we need to rub salt on the wound? Why can’t we be happy celebrating with the winner?)

    If, as Pepino mentioned, the media were talking to the people in charge of the airplanes (and of making them fly safely, without crashing), then the morbid images might serve a purpose – they would rally the people into action to hold the people in charge accountable for their action (making sure there are enough security checks before the plane takes off, etc.) But, alas, that’s not what the media does.

    Which is why I refuse to watch the news (other than The Daily Show… which plays on a Comedy Channel. Says a lot about the state of my country, doesn’t it?)

  20. Victor

    The illness, the brutality or any feeling of this nature is not inherent nor exclusive of Spain. For example, the Americans, by example, have not put pictures of their deads in the attacks to New York, but they don’t doubt to put pictures of all the Iraqis that have killed since the war began

  21. RayTibbitts

    @Victor: I agree, the ‘morbo’ is not exclusively Spain’s. I watch more TV than I should, in both countries, and I agree that the amount of airtime, and the amount of repetition, of horribly violent or tragical stories is very comparable.

    Just one observation, though. You can sit down for dinner in the U.S. and leave the network news on, and make it through your meal without ever seeing images that would turn your stomach. And on the rare occasion that they would show the actual human carnage of the aftermath of a car bomb (etc) they warn you before hand, to let you know they are about to put something gross onscreen.
    You can’t be guaranteed the same when you sit down in Spain. But at least in Spain they take longer than 80 seconds to “Go Around the World.”

  22. Beckett

    One of the biggest criticisms in the U.S. about the media coverage of the Iraq war is that it has been sanitized and has not shown a lot of images showing the carnage there. So, which U.S. news sources are you talking about? Or are you just making a blanket generalization based on what you think things are like in the U.S.?

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