Last week I attended an event organised by AnalyzeGreece in which foreign correspondents covering Greece spoke about the issues they face, stereotyping in the media from both sides and how this affects the stories that come out of the country.
At the core of the discussion were two key issues – Greece as the villain of the economic crisis story portrayed by those outside Greece, and Greece as the heroic, unfailing underdog by voices from within Greece.
The panel was made up of several well-heeled journalists such as Eleni Colliopoulou, Greek correspondent for AFP, Adéa Guillot from Le Monde, Maria Margaronis, The Nation’s London correspondent and contributor to the Guardian and BBC and Marcus Walker, European Economics editor for the Wall Street Journal and recently moved to Athens from Berlin.
First comes prejudice. Think of the last few stories you might have read about the Greek economic crisis. What was their tone? If the journalist did a good job, it would be fairly neutral, but you need only to glance at the comments section to gauge the feelings of the reading public.
Since 2009, you’ll see the same rhetoric repeated again and again: it’s our money, pay it back, get out of the Euro, Greece should be left to self destruct, it serves them right etc etc. Bild regularly troll baiting an entire nation comes to mind, but even reputable newspapers fall victim to this.
The Financial Times recently ran a poll asking their readers what parenting method they would use with the Greeks, painting Greece once more as the naughty child in need of discipline. They ran an article on this topic too, just for good measure.
The five years of severe economic crisis and the battering that Greek society has taken, the skyrocketing suicide rate and utter misery that current policies have caused are so often repeated that they now seem to make no impact, and these comments continue well down the line, having seen in action the destruction that current policies caused. The image that has been painted is of the lazy Greek guzzling the money of hard working Europeans finally having to actually do some work and not liking it. So what if their lives are completely falling apart in the hands of botched governing both from Greece and Europe.
Adéa Guillot mentioned this as she spoke about the myth of Greek tax avoidance, saying that on tax avoidance stories she tries to counter stereotypes with facts such as that two thirds of Greeks are taxed at source. Nevertheless she has often found herself in discussion where her facts and figures are dismissed and the line of the lazy, tax avoiding Greek is adhered to.
The groundwork for Greece’s portrayal were laid before the crisis broke out. Greece as the fun-lover, enjoying life, coasting from beach to beach, frappe in hand, sharing tips on avoiding tax, dancing until dawn and trying to do as little work as possible. In this context, pre-crisis, Greece was the lovable rogue of Europe, the wayward, fun loving son that the rest of Europe looked at, shrugged and said “Greece will be Greece.”
Maria Margaronis also raised the concept of Greece as not quite European enough, Greece as the ‘other’, in Europe but not of Europe, more belonging to the dark folds of the Orient than the West, a prejudice that began in Roman times as she describes. This otherness of Greece persists in today’s reporting.
She also highlighted the failure of media to see the crisis in terms of political failing rather than making the Greek population a scapegoat for a global financial crisis, and and to “avoid facing the weaknesses in the global financial system and the Eurozone”.
Post crisis, things immediately got nasty, and instead of looking at Greece’s breathtakingly inept system of governing through history, the press across Europe were quick to level blame at the Greek population itself. I was asked this recently by an ex-colleague from an investment bank I used to work for: couldn’t the Greeks understand that now it was time to pay for all their careless spending?
If you don’t live in Greece it’s very hard to make people outside Greece see that this entire country is not condensed within Athens, and even within Athens you’ll find very few people who know how government spending works, what government bonds are or why they should have been suspicious of so much easy credit.
As far as your average Greek was concerned, they saw the fruits of good governing when living was easy. After so many years of hardship, they finally felt a sense of financial stability. They had no idea of the bubble it was all riding on, and they were as shocked as the rest of Europe when that bubble finally burst.
The mantra of “If it bleeds, it leads” has never been more applicable in how editors prioritise what’s coming out of Greece. Bad economic news sells. News of Greece’s blossoming startup scene does not sell, neither does the host of other problems in Greece that are entirely overshadowed by the economic crisis, such as the migrant issue which is fast getting out of hand.
The correspondents on the panel also noted the issue of how little time they get to think, fact-check and analyse with the pace of news moving on the Greek story which sometimes leads to misinformation.
Everyone who lives in Greece instantly recognised the magazine cover that Marcus Walker held up during his talk, showing Venus de Milo giving the rest of Europe the finger. When this cover appeared on Germany’s Focus magazine, it caused outrage and was immediately countered by Greek press taking their usual cheap shot of comparing Germans to Nazis.
This takes us to pride. The Greeks are a proud nation, and this level of demonising has been extremely polarising, to the point that Adea was shooed out of a restaurant recently when the owner found out she was a journalist. Having been roundly humiliated in the foreign press, Greeks are suspicious of their motives.
That’s not to say that Greek press have behaved that much better. Flying the flag of their nation’s pride, we in Athens are subject to knee-jerk Greek journalism and the famous, hysterical TV debates where the one who shouts loudest wins.
The Greek press have launched Greece as the victim of a mean and racist Europe. They have latched onto the stereotype of the cold, heartless Northern European who doesn’t care about the Greek granny shivering in her flat because she can’t afford heating. Greek media readily attacks the governments of Europe rather than laying bare Greece’s own atrocious, often comically bad governing.
Forgetting that this is now 2015, they cart out the country’s admittedly grand ancient history to a public desperate for any scrap of dignity and sell the story of noble Greece, the pillar of philosophy and culture, that the rest of Europe hates because of its glorious past. Lines of “Look at all that we gave Europe, what did Germany give Europe?” do nothing to further debate.
Pride and prejudice in reporting both from Greece and about Greece have led to a highly polarised state, one where Greece sees itself as up against the rest of Europe, and Europe sees a little country that is causing nothing but problems and keeps trying to get away from the negotiating table to work on its tan.
This is where we find ourselves today as Europe watches to see what will happen next. Greece has without a doubt had its reputation dragged through the mud by poor reporting. Greeks going overseas will tell you as much when they face hostility such as drinks being poured over them as soon they reveal where they’re from.
The damage has already been done, though it was clear from this event that the journalists with connection to Greece, either living here or of Greek origin, are working very hard to remedy this and present balanced, fact-based reporting. It’s another matter that their editors based in far away offices might not always be ready to listen.
First impressions count, and a bad first impression, even if it is later corrected, is the one that stays in mind. Ten years down the line, I wonder how we’ll be reporting this story.
See the correspondents address the audience at the Analyze Greece event here.