Monthly Archives: January 2015

There’s no cure for Going Viral

Last year, I wrote an article on this blog called 10 Things Not to Say to someone from Pakistan. I’d pitched it to a few outlets with no success, so one night I uploaded it on this blog. I shared it once on my Facebook page, checked the stats and saw it had 19 views and went to bed, feeling pleased. That number of views wasn’t too bad for an article I had left up for an hour.

The next morning, my inbox has exploded with emails and my stats had shot to over 1000 views. By the end of three days, they’d reached 30,000, and that one article currently clocks over 80,000 views. It’s consistently the most popular article on this blog. I’d gone viral completely by accident.

It’s a strange feeling, being suddenly thrust into the limelight like that. As the comments poured in, it felt like I’d opened the door to the Internet and there it was, streaming past me. There was the praise, the criticism, the guy calling me a whore, the other guy calling me a slut, someone else saying I was a fake, a spammer telling me how much money their cousin made online WORKING FROM HOME, and everything in between.

It was utterly bizarre. At that point in time I was in the middle of a bad patch with my anxiety and depression, being in the spotlight and especially the voices telling me what a useless human I was were too much for me, so I quite literally went and lay down, and waited for my temporary fame to pass by.

Eventually it did.

The same thing happened to me again last week. Last Wednesday, I was commissioned to write an article from the USA Today. The article had been my idea. I wanted to get an in-depth face to face with Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s new finance minister. I’d laid the article out in my head. With such articles, I like to set the scene and describe little details. I also noticed that as a regular blogger and user of twitter, Mr Varoufakis often ends up posting corrections to articles or things misinterpreted. I wanted to give an article to the reader in his own words so that they could get to know and learn about the policies of the man with what might just be Europe’s toughest job.

I got on it straight away, trying to track Mr Varoufakis down across Thursday, with little success.

I was still pondering my next move on Friday morning, answering follow up emails from the USA Today asking whether I had managed to get a hold of him yet, when someone posted a story from the New York Times. There was the article, the profile, very much along the same lines as I had planned to write the USA Today article.

I was frustrated. Who could they have possibly contacted that I myself hadn’t tried to reach already? I didn’t get it. I then noticed that Mr Varoufakis had some recent activity on his blog and twitter accounts. Perhaps there was a tiny chance that he’d still be at his computer, so I decided to tweet him. I sent him two tweets, one of which was this:

By the afternoon, I’d received several emails from various Greek TV channels asking to talk to me, and that’s when I realised that I had for some reason become a Greek tabloid story. The journalists that wrote about me had found online pictures from a photo shoot I had done years ago for a friend, Vishy Moghan, and used those in the article.

At first it was funny, and I gave a few telephone interviews hoping the whackiness of my approach might eventually open the door to Mr Varoufakis and the article I wanted to write.

Very quickly, it stopped being funny when I paid closer attention to the context in which I was appearing. Article after article condensed my 10 year career as a journalist, the door knocking, the rejection, the building contacts from zero, the failures, the losing faith in myself, the bloody hard work it has taken for me to get to where I am today, all of this was boiled down by the tabloid press to: “Pretty journalist tries to get an interview with Varoufakis. Fails.”

I hadn’t been contact by anyone beforehand. The articles said that I was American, which I’m not (British, actually, with dual Pakistani nationality). They skipped over the fact that I’m very happily married with two children, and let’s just say given that fact, headlines about me getting on my knees and begging the finance minister for an interview are in extreme poor taste, to say the least.

I then made the time-honoured mistake of reading the comments on the article, and there it all was again. She’s a poser, she’s a fake along with a bunch of racist comments about my ethnicity and how I try to hide it, plus that there seems to be no evidence of me as a journalist.

Now I owe nothing to the trolls, but here goes. To those of you who have been so quick to judge, here is my online portfolio of articles.

Here is my LinkedIn profile that lists my education and qualifications.

And you’re reading my blog, where I have never hidden the fact that I am of Pakistani and Indian origin. Nor have I made it into the be all and end all of who I am, because it’s not relevant to whether I do my job as a journalist well or not. The pictures used in the articles about me were utterly irrelevant to my work as a journalist. They were a casual photo shoot done for a friend, and used without his consent. I speak Greek, not perfectly, it’s a beautiful and complex language that I came to late in life, so I’m bound to make mistakes.

On Friday night I spoke again to the press officer of Mr Varoufakis. Somewhere in our conversation, he asked if I was the person who has made it public on social media what a big fan I am of Mr Varoufakis and how badly I want to meet him.

That’s when I understood that if ever I had a chance of getting my serious interview with Mr Varoufakis for the USA Today, it’s now probably dead in the water. If his own press officer has me in his mind as a fame-hungry social media personality, the chances of him ever agreeing to an interview just dropped like the price on a Greek 5 year bond this week.

I deliberately went into print journalism because I didn’t have any interest in being a broadcast journalist. I love words. I have a passion for writing, I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 11. In the last 6 months, after 10 years of work, that goal has at last come within reach.

On Monday morning, I have agreed to appear on SKAI TV’s ‘Tora’ current affairs programme. If that sounds contradictory, it is.

‘Are you sure?’ my sister in law asked me. The comments about me online had already been less than generous. Did I really want to get on live TV and stumble through a Greek interview. I’ll take my chances. My Greek used to be a lot better, but two small children mean I am usually sleep deprived, and in among work, childcare and the constant worries about my older son’s condition, there’s little room left for correct Greek grammar.

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been asked on air, or whether it will just make things worse for my chances of being taken as a serious journalist. Now my only motivation is to try and correct some of the ridiculous things I’ve seen about myself online as this story took on a life of its own, and maybe readdress the balance. I couldn’t pass up the chance of handing a few cards out right in the headquarters of a major news channel, and maybe point out the strangely gendered world of media where I would never have been the story if I had been a man.

Doctors make the worst patients. Journalists make the worst news stories. I’ll be happy when this dies down. I’ll be even happier if I get to write my piece.

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Exit polls cause surprise in Greece

syriza

From humble settings in a suburb of Athens, it now looks like Alexis Tsipras, the firebrand Syriza leader is poised to take the helm in the Greek parliament. Not only that, if the exit polls being released at the moment are anything to go by, he might even manage to make it with an outright majority.

It’s already been a long day here in the beautiful marble building of Zappeion where the media centre of the Greek elections has been set up. Across the day, the world’s media have been coming and going as they turn their lenses and their keyboards on the developments in the Greek capital.

Coming up to 19:00 pm, the centre began to fill up.

We sat facing a large television screen showing live split-screen feeds of nine of major Greek and international TV stations. In the top right hand corner, a timer ticked down to when the polls closed as 19:00 pm. As the clock ticked down to zero, the official exit polls were released, and everyone gasped.

Syriza has been leading in polls since these elections were called almost a month ago. Their lead has varied between 3-6%. What no one saw coming was the almost 10% gap that had widened between Syriza and New Democracy.

The first exit polls were as follows:

Syriza: 35.5 – 39.5 %
New Democracy: 23 – 27%
Potami: 6.4 – 8%
Golden Dawn: 6.4 – 8%
KKE: 4.7- 5.7 %
PASOK: 5.2 – 4.2%
Independent Greeks: 3.5 – 4.5%
Kinima: 2.2 – 3.2%

Here in the eye of the storm, journalists immediately scrambled to report the numbers.

Out of a parliament of 300 seats, Syriza needs an outright majority of 151 seats. Up until this moment, everyone has been talking about what kind of alliances Syriza will form in order to form a coalition government.

Over the coming hours, we’ll learn if this will be needed at all. If the exit polls are to be believed, Syriza is on its way to form a government outright.

At this moment, there is a carnival atmosphere at the Syriza headquarters and in Propilia square. In the meantime, we have a long night ahead of us to see where exactly Greece stands.

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All eyes on Greece as the nation votes

Votes cast at a voting centre in the Southern suburbs

Votes cast at a voting centre in the Southern suburbs

Athens’s central squares on Thursday night were transformed as Greece’s major political parties jostled for position in their final major public rallies before Sunday’s election.

In a scene so ironic it seemed for a moment to have been set out on purpose, the current centre-right government party of New Democracy was forced to share Syntagma square with the Communist party, KKE, albeit at different times of the day.

Less than a mile away lies the run-down square of Omonia, situated in a severely neglected part of the city plagued by drug use, rough sleepers, prostitutes, petty criminals and shabby buildings. It was here that the left-wing Syriza’s  Alexis Tsipras chose to hold his political rally.

Tens of thousands of people crammed into the square that is usually deserted after dark to hear his rallying cry of the coming of hope and change in Greece and Europe. Once a fringe party, Syriza’s lead in the 2012 elections caused total panic with their hardline stance against austerity.

Then, no one party had been able to form a government, leading to a second round of elections in the same year. In the space between the two events, spooked by rumours of a Grexit if Syriza came to power, voters backed off and their lead slipped.

This time, with the markets reassured about the possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone, things are different. In a country as austerity weary as Greece, limping along exhausted with no finish line in sight, the voting public has put its weight behind Syriza more as a means to punish New Democracy than out of a real belief in Syriza’s promises.

Austerity, much despised by the Greek public, was meant to offer a way out of the country’s financial mess. Instead, several years down the line, things are barely any better. In the last few years, Greece has received a total of  EUR 227 billion in money from the EU and IMF. No other nation has received as much in the last few years.

Detailed analysis of where the money went, showing that 32% went to paying maturing debt, 19% to Greek Banks recapitalisation and 16% to interest payments, only added fuel to the fire.

Since 2008, the country’s economy has shrunk almost 25%, with the Greek stock market losing a whopping 84% of its value. Unemployment rose to 26%, millions of Greek households were dragged below the poverty line and the birth rate declined while child mortality rose.

The austerity measures imposed by a troika of the IMF, EC and ECB turned a European Union country into a shadow of its former self, and this outcome is what Syriza and other parties like it latched onto to propel themselves up the opinion polls.

In December 2014, after failing to satisfy their latest demands, the troika had given Samaras’ government an extension to the bailout terms into early 2015. With presidential elections scheduled for February, this presented a problem to the current prime minister who was seeking to show the public the success of his plan while still in office.

If the parliament of Greece fails to elect a president after three rounds of voting, Greek law states that general elections must then be held. If this scenario played out after the troika’s next bailout meeting, Samaras would have to walk away without any of the glory of being the leader that brought Greece back from the brink of disaster.

So he took a gamble and brought the presidential election forward to December, thus triggering early elections in the process.

The public response was immediate, and Syriza led the polls from the beginning by a margin of around 3%. The last polls, released last Friday, showed that the lead had widened to 6%. As of Saturday, Greek law prohibits any more polls being issued and calls for all campaigning to cease. This window of silence, the eye of the storm, is meant to allow the public time to reflect and make up their own minds without being swayed.

In a country where 22% of the voting public is aged 70 and over, Syriza’s campaign has stood out. It has been slick, modern and heavily sold the message of hope in response to New Democracy’s increasingly panicked scaremongering.

Syriza’s electorate is by and large under 30. Their campaign has embraced social media, and their campaign website is in both Greek and English. Greece’s disillusioned youth have embraced them with gusto. They have set social media alight with various hashtags, including #ftanei, meaning enough in Greek to voice their frustration at the decimation of their futures, and #sexyAlexi in homage to Syriza’s charismatic leader.

Their problem in the eyes of nervous lawmakers and economists in Europe, however, is the same anti-bailout stance that has rocketed them to popularity.

No political party has so far offered a viable alternative to austerity, Syriza included.

I spoke to Kevin Featherstone, the LSE’s Eleftherios Venizelos Professor of Contemporary Greek Studies and  Director of the Hellenic Observatory who said “Greece needs further debt relief, of some type, in order to help the return to growth and avoid crippling constraints.  More and more economists would recognise that something of this kind is in the interests of both Greece and the euro-zone.”

“The other agenda is of the need for domestic structural reform to improve the efficiency and effective of public administration. This last agenda is one that has been inadequately taken up in Greece and one that SYRIZA seems to oppose. But it is crucial to enabling Greece to converge more with the EU and to become more competitive.  Without this second agenda, the credibility of Greece’s claims on the first are seriously undermined.”

The world’s media have descended on downtown Athens, awaiting the first poll results which are expected to be available from 21:00 on Sunday night. Over 800 journalists from around 76 media outlets are in the city to cover the events as they unfold. As the world watches, this tiny Mediterranean nation that sent waves through the financial markets will wonder if Monday morning will see them counting the cost of their gamble.

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