"Spain won’t improve its image by giving journalists money", Graham Keeley

Journalists love to win prizes; they massage our fragile egos. I was once given one by the Spanish government for an article about architecture. But news came this week of an award that I and any other self-respecting correspondent would prefer not to win, despite the generous €12,000 prize money.

Spain’s foreign ministry is putting up the cash for the foreign correspondent who pens the best article “about the role of Spain abroad”. The Palacio de Viana prize, named after the 15th-century palace where the Spanish foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, has his offices, is one of a series of awards for promoting the image of Spain.

Writing in praise of this beautiful country — which, despite its maddening bureaucracy and eccentric traditions, is a glorious place to live — would not be difficult. But that is not journalism, it is PR.

This announcement comes at a time when the Spanish government’s image abroad needs all the good PR it can get. With the honourable exception, ironically, of the foreign ministry, it has failed miserably in a bitter media war over the Catalan independence crisis.

Last week, Madrid renewed its commitment to direct rule over Catalonia, despite the election of a new regional leader. Nine Catalan politicians remain in custody pending trial on charges ranging from rebellion to extortion. By giving access to foreign journalists, the separatists have been getting their message out and winning the media battle abroad.

Meanwhile, Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, has remained aloof. It was left to Mr Dastis to deal with the world’s press, because he is articulate and speaks English, but it should have been the prime minister explaining why his government chose to act the way it did during the independence referendum. Briefings with foreign correspondents would have at least helped the world understand why he sent the police in. The exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has exploited these openings with a carefully co-ordinated social media campaign and well-placed interviews in the international media.

If the Spanish government wants to improve its image it would be best employed explaining its actions in Catalonia. And the most coveted prize it could offer at the moment is not €12,000 but an interview with the prime minister.

Graham Keeley is Madrid correspondent