The First Pint interview: Walter Oppenheimer

Walter Oppenheimer, correspondent for El País, has lived in London for 10 years. Photo credit: Jonathan López

Despite his Germanic name, Walter Oppenheimer comes across as a typical Spanish man. As foreign correspondent for Spanish daily El País, the Barcelona-native has lived in London for ten years. His blog about London and the UK on the newspaper’s website says that “like many journalists, he doesn’t know much about anything although he writes about everything…”

This was motivation enough for The First Pint to chat with him to see what he really thought of the city, and to find out what the life of a foreign correspondent living in London was like.

The First Pint: What do you think of London?

Walter Oppenheimer: London is a beautiful and big city, with better weather than people think, a good place to live and work.

TFP: The Underground quite often pisses people off…

WO: The Tube is extraordinary. There are breakdowns, but the network is huge and that allows you to reorganise your journey. The Underground is huge and old and perhaps not enough money has been invested in it lately. However, for a city of eight million people, I think it works quite decently.

TFP: What about the food?

WO: There is no bad food in London, the problem is that English people eat badly. Britons have a problem: they don’t eat a proper lunch, they eat sandwiches or any other dreadful thing. Nonetheless, if you go to the market you find everything and you can cook decent things at home.

TFP: What do you think of British culture?

WO: I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I love it and I can’t stand it. I’ve been 10 years here and I am happy, but there are certain things I can’t take. Chauvinism is one of them. It’s amazing how many TV shows have the word ‘British’ in their title, for example.

But it also has great things as well: its live-and-let-live mindset, which is very coherent, idealist and pragmatic at the same time… It’s a place in constant contradiction, and therefore usually radical: either you hate it or you love it.

Oppenheimer praises the quality of British press.

TFP: What is your daily life working as a correspondent like?

WO: My daily work consists of finding stories, covering the daily news and getting information from the British press. El País is well-known and respected in political and financial circles, and that makes your work sometimes easier. That’s not always the case.

Comparing it to my previous experience working in Brussels, I think obtaining information here as a journalist is less direct. In Brussels there are many ways to get news that I don’t get in London, where Spanish journalists would find it harder than in the EU institutions.

TFP: Does the British press deserve it’s good name?

WO: British newspapers are very good. They’ve got a problem though: they talk basically about themselves and a little bit about the US and the former colonies. However, British press is much better than in Spain. They’ve got more staff and they spend more money to obtain  information. It is also more literary- it explains its stories better, with good taste. Spanish press is still basically information. The British path is the way forward- with analysis, explanations.

TFP: Did El País actually lock its foreign correspondents in for three weeks in Madrid to analyse the diplomatic cables?

WO: Yes, it did. It had to be that way because El País was at a disadvantage: The New York Times and The Guardian had the cables since September, whereas we had to analyse them in three weeks.

TFP: Will Wikileaks change journalism?

WO: I don’t think so. Journalism would change if every secret document on Earth was available to the public. I’d say the same applies to papers from private companies: it’d be very positive if the secrets we knew were not just from public officials. But those documents are harder to leak.

TFP: How do you think that the UK’s coalition government is doing?

WO: There is a lot of cynicism about the coalition. It was the only possible way forward, as the Labour Party was totally knocked out. And if Labour was today in power, they also would have had to make spending cuts.

The Liberal Democrats think that just by showing that they are in government they’ll gain respect. But I suppose they will win the referendum in May [about the Alternative Vote], so I don’t see why they should do bad in the next general election. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are just doing what they always wanted to do.