In the last week of November, El Mundo published two articles by journalist Pedro Simón about a young girl, Nadia Nerea, who was reported to be suffering from a rare illness called trichothiodystrophy. In the first, on November 26, Mr. Simón wrote that "36% of her cells have aged and, if [her parents] don't get the money for a new operation before that reaches 46%, she will die within a year". He also reported Nadia's father, Fernando Blanco, was suffering from terminal cancer but had chosen to forego his own operation to help his daughter, that he had taken the girl around the world in search of a cure, that one of the specialist consultants operated out of a cave in deepest Afghanistan, that Al Gore had spent an hour on the phone with Mr. Blanco before concluding that he was "a hero", and that she needed a brain "reset" operation that would mean teaching her how "to read, write and walk again" but would give her four more years of life.
The original version of the article (archived here) noted in the introductory points that the family needed €90,000 to pay for the new operation "to lengthen her life by four years" and the last line read "Banco Sabadell account number to help Nadia:", along with the bank account number. Three days later, on November 29, Mr. Simón reported back to El Mundo readers that the campaign had worked: "In just three days, €142,381 has been collected for an operation that will allow this girl, sick with trichothiodystrophy, to survive". He noted a similar appeal for Nadia had also worked in 2012, a year in which he himself had written a previous article and blog post in El Mundo on the same subject. In May 2016, he was named "Best Journalist of the Year" by the Madrid press association APM.
Also on November 29, Mr. Simón, Nadia and Nadia's father appeared on a popular TV programme on La Sexta to talk about the new appeal, and the same Banco Sabadell bank account number "to help Nadia" was displayed prominently on the screen.
There was just one problem with all of this. It wasn't true.
The day after he published his article this year, a journalism blog called Malaprensa, written by a sociology lecturer in Toledo, called him out. Then a news site called Hipertextual made some phone calls, checked some facts and said Simón's article was rubbish. Finally, El País published its own take down of the El Mundo piece. Having been caught, Simón published an apology on December 3, after the fact, in which he explained Nadia's father had asked him for help again "a month ago". El Mundo published an editorial on December 7 attempting to apologise for Simón's article, but spent most of it praising the paper's journalism. It blamed Nadia's father, not its senior reporter, for the "grave error". Instead of taking Simón's articles down and launching an investigation, it added a note to his November 26 article describing the journalist as "a victim of Nadia's father's lies".
Hours after El Mundo published its editorial on the affair, the Mossos, Catalonia's regional police force, arrested both of Nadia's parents as part of a fraud investigation. Fernando Blanco was detained with a blank-firing pistol, real rifle bullets, €1,450 in cash, two expensive watches and "several high-end electronic devices". He had fled from a police checkpoint set up to find him. During a later search of the family home, police found more watches, "valued at €50,000", more cash, more computers, tablets and smartphones, "all high-end", and some marihuana.
The police added "a very large number of people" had likely been defrauded by the couple and added: "One of the moments the parents obtained most money was on a TV programme, whose aim was to collect as much money as possible for the eventual care of the girl. Between November 28 and December 5, [the total] reached €300,000".
On Friday night, an investigating judge in Catalonia sent Blanco to prison on remand and gave custody of Nadia to the girl's maternal aunt and uncle, in Mallorca. Her mum will be allowed to visit at weekends.
In harsh remarks in his initial sentence, the judge rips apart the story. Having spoken to two doctors, the court now even doubts Nadia is suffering from trichothiodystrophy: "either the girl is not suffering from the illness in question, or the minor is not receiving the treatment for which her parents were raising money".
Out of a total of €918,726.14 raised since 2009, the judge believes Nadia's parents spent just €295 on normal medical expenses. They had spent €599,343.57 on a somewhat lavish family lifestyle. When they were arrested on Wednesday, there was €319,676 left in the bank accounts (according to the police statement) or €313,748.10 (according to the judge's initial sentence). "Of the entire amount spent", wrote the judge: "the unending succession of cash withdrawals made by the suspects is startling, with weeks when they even withdrew ten thousand euros in cash".
A third of the total, remember, €300,000, according to the police, had been collected during the eight days of the recent media appeal. That means that before that campaign, the couple had around €20,000 left in the bank accounts. And the judge reports they were capable of spending up to €10,000 in a single week. In his apology of December 3, Pedro Simón wrote: "A month ago, [the father] asked me to help him again: there had been developments and he wanted to tell a group of us about them".
Would the couple have been able to raise €300,000 in eight days without the help of gullible Spanish media outlets that didn't do their fact checking before allowing themselves to be used as instruments in what has now become criminal deception? Of course not.
The different criminal law options for prosecuting participants in a crime do not seem to fit—they require intent and knowledge of the crime—and The Spain Report does not believe the journalists and their editors, as neglectfully as they behaved in professional terms, knew they were helping Nadia's parents to con so many thousands of Spaniards out of their own hard-earned cash. They just did not do their job. They did not check facts, they did not find documents, they did not make sure it all fitted together in a logical way. They did not tell anything close to the truth, which is what people expect journalists to at least attempt. That damages the journalists involved and the media brands they work for, but it also damages journalism in Spain more broadly and badly undermines the relationship and expectation of trust between readers, viewers and media outlets.
Shame on them. With a world awash in fake news, it does not help when senior journalists make stories up and their newspapers label them "victims" instead of sacking or suspending them and investigating their articles. Given the systemic nature of the failure, an external enquiry of some kind would not be out of place.