Why turn a debt drama into tragedy ?

It’s 30 in the shade and too warm to work, especially for an Anglo Saxon in Greece. My compatriots and me have been touring coves of the Chalkidiki in Northern Greece; winding our way amongst three long fingers of land stretching out into the aqua marine Aegean. I’m sat under a tree sipping tsipouro, on the popular campsite of Thalatta Kalamitsi. We are fresh from two days of swimming, sun and relaxation at the University of Aristotle beach campsite. Now! I imagine, this is a culture I can adapt to...a beach campsite, subsidised by a University! 

I chat with Stelios Tzirgas, electrical engineer from Athens. The conversation quickly turns the debt crisis. He talks of the standstill in his industry, the futility of rioting, and how he hasn’t been paid for six months. Amongst all this talk, one phrase resonates resoundingly:

“I work very hard,” he asserts.

I have had no reason to think otherwise. We have only just met, and my experiences of Greeks –part of the constant stream of well-educated ambitious individuals that come to the UK for postgraduate study- is that they know how to work hard and play hard.
That one simple phrase: “I work very hard,” highlights a schism in the Greek psyche.
It reveals the political rupture between long standing socialistic values on the left, and progressive fiscal conservatives on the right. The private sector “works hard” whilst the public sector goes home early; thus rumbles the private v public civil war of words. A Greek friend back in the UK jokes: ”In the private sector they work for eight hours and get paid for four, in the public sector it’s the other way around.”

Arriving at 4AM in the Northern capital Thessaloniki, I take a walk through the Market as it wakes for another working day. The experience does not leave me with a sense of Greeks as workshy skivers. Like any other street market around the world, the people here have hard work etched in their expressions.

As time unfolds, however, I begin to hear stories of ambiguous benefits, bogus bonuses and inflated wages in the public sector. Of teachers who turn up for morning lessons then go home for the rest of the day, of policemen taking bribes. In the semi-private sector I witness sick notes magically appear from a doctor who has not seen the patient and who, it is likely, shows a considerable under declaration on his tax return. Everyday tax evasion seems common practice whilst offshore evasion amongst the elite siphons billions away from government coffers. Greece, I’m informed, has an estimated black market economy of 30%. The public and private sector take full advantage of the pension system too; early retirement at 50 or 55 is possible for jobs classified as “arduous,” such as hairdressers, radio announcers ,waiters, musicians…

The civil schism has deep historical roots that I will take a little time to trace out here. Following a history of post war coups, military dictatorships and constitutional unrest Greece only achieved a stable Parliamentary Republic status in 1975. Central Europe has therefore had a significant political head start in implementing laissez-faire economic policy. Greece joined the EU in 1981 under the Socialist party PASOK, who went on to dominate political life throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As a consequence, Greece was slow to adopt mainstream neo-liberal influenced (if not driven) European economic policy. While Greece stayed left, the centre ground in Europe shifted right. Greece waited until 2004 for the right -New Democratic Party (NDP)- to catch up and gain sustained power. This is when falsified deficit figures, prior to 2002 entry into the Eurozone, were unearthed. Under the NDP of 2004-2009 policy was characterised by privatisation, pension reform, pay ceilings and moves to end public sector jobs for life. Sustained strikes and mass protest ensued. In 2009 the Greek people returned PASOK back to power under George Papandreou, just in time to hit the debt crisis. The consequent implementation of stringent austerity measures resulted in further general strikes, protests and riots. Papandreou resigned, following criticism of his referendum plan, and former Bank of Greece Governor and European Central Bank Vice President, Lucas Papademos, became Prime Minister of a government of national unity.

The perception of all Greeks being lazy, corrupt, unruly, prone to strikes and ungovernable is not one I arrived with. It is one however, one that has been propagated in the media and perhaps explains Stelios Tzirgas’s assertion: “I work very hard.” 

Dr. George Tzogopoulos, of the Greek think tank ELIAMEP (Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy) is currently working on a book entitled: “The Greek drama in the media.” He suggests overgeneralisation is sometimes an important feature of the media discourse: “There are examples of journalists dealing with Greek society as a whole without making specific distinctions. People working in the private sector, for instance, are hard working but the international media ignored this. The problem is that journalists only focused on negative stories (e.g. corruption and tax-evasion) and therefore constructed the image of a problematic country for readers.” 

Dr.Tzogopoulos’s study draws data from an extensive array of international media sources. His analysis shows that amongst the so called European peripheral PIIGS the media was more likely to portray the Greeks, in particular, as lazy. The German press has been a particular propagator of corruption and “lazy Greek” imagery. The current affairs magazine ‘Focus’ ran a front-page image of a Greek statue poking a figure into the air with the headline: ”Cheaters in the Euro family.” On BBC Newsnight, Katinka Barysch, of think tank ‘The Centre for European Reform’ characterised initial German populist reaction to the crisis as: “I work hard and pay my taxes. Why should I pay for people who don’t work hard and don’t pay their taxes?“

The iconic story expounded in spring 2010 was that Greece would have to sell off state assets, including islands, to meet the payroll. On March 5 2010, German politician Frank Schaeffler is identified as one of two originators of the sell-off suggestion. Interviewed on UK Channel Four news his rhetoric is paternalistic: “Greece has to sort itself out, it’s no good if you hand an alcoholic another bottle of schnapps.” he said. On May 17, 2010, the German tabloid Blid ran the headline: “Greece must sell the Acropolis?” Dr Ehud Kaufman, who we will hear more from later, suggests a plot: “The antagonists of the euro and the speculators found an ally within the euro block: German populism.” 

On June 24 2010 the sell off story was still running, this time in the UK. The Guardian newspaper ran a misleading story headlined: “Greece puts its islands up for sale to save economy.” Following a strongly worded rebuttal by the Greek government, the headline was amended to: “Greece starts putting Island land up for sale to save economy.” The story, written by a Spanish financial journalist, was extensively corrected and clarified on June 24 and 30. The connection drawn between land sales to private sector developers and “saving the economy,” however, remains tenuous.

Following the withdrawal of the referendum by Papandreou in November, UK tabloid The Sun waited until January 12 to print the headline: ”Doom and bust for the world economy: British companies take hit over euro deal referendum.” Focusing on British interests only - losses on the stock market - the story is illustrated with picture of protestors clashing with police in Athens, June 2011. The significant date discrepancy between the headline and the photo reinforces negative perceptions of Greece as unstable, and indeed violent. The German Tabloid Blid followed in similar vein: "Greeks plunge Europe into new crisis," ran the headline.

Dr. Tzogopoulos argues that coverage of the crisis by the Greek media has been even more negatively focused than that of the international media: “More striking stories and ones exaggerating the problem have been published in the Greek media.” Two recent stories in Proto Thema, the highest circulation Sunday paper in Greece, illustrate focus on corruption and tax evasion. In the first January 8 2012, the lead article asks how a former friend of the president can get public sector job at 9000 euros a month contrasting with 500 a month with the average worker. In the second article, of December 11 2011, the headline is made that 500,000 Greeks have put their money into foreign banks because of default fear.

Fear, suggests Argyro Kefala, Professor of Communication of the The American College of Greece, has been endemic in Greek media: “Radio and television newscasts through commentary and choice of music have used fear appeals and highly pessimistic modes of reporting.” The media role in shaping public debate, he suggests, is framed between pro and anti arguments regarding IMF/ECB support packages. I ask a school teacher, Olympia Tsarohi, what would have happened if the Greek people had actually been given the referendum? She answers quickly: they would have voted against taking the packages. Her answer reflects a populist opinion in the press. Dr. Tzogopoulos, thinks on balance, the media representation of arguments around economic issues has been “fair”. 

The Greek media itself has been suffering from the consequences of economic failure with falling advertising revenues and heavy job losses. The editors and Journalists who form a legitimate part of Greek society have taken political stances too. It is well known that Greek news outlets have political bias. In a 2002 study by Halin & Papathanassopoulos “Political clientelism” has been shown to have a particular effect on news media and journalistic practice in Greece. Newspaper Proto Thema has a reputation for changing political allegiance depending on who has its ear and who holds power.

On the international stage, Dr Ehud Kaufman, a former Senior Banker at the Bank of France, suggests the media has been manipulated to cause market instability. This allows speculators to feed off the ensuing frenzy: “To bolster the impression that the crisis is big and unavoidable, the public and media discussion of the crisis in Europe has been spiced by stereotypical characterizations of the Greek people as lazy, corrupt, devious, and indulged,” he blogs. The main reason this happens, he asserts, is that the main providers of information, Bloomberg and Reuters, are a platform for the leading players in the financial markets to promote their point of view. Blaming the people switches attention away from corporate culprits.

Sitting in the Bloomberg’s London HQ overlooking an occupy camp in Finsbury Square I ask Paul Addison, Bloomberg’s head of training and education, how he defends his reporters from manipulation: “People are always trying to manipulate us,” he said, “One of our main tenants is to make sure we don’t get screwed.” In order to help defend against manipulation all quotes in stories must be transparent, on the record; there is no such thing as a ‘source close too x’ at Bloomberg. Mr Addison is well aware of the power of a story: “When a story goes out, the price of a security goes up or down because of what you have written,” he said.

The media moves the markets, no news there, but can stories sustain and sometimes even trigger instability? This “Boffin” theory carries little wash with some journalists. Financial Times blogger Tracy Alloway responded to the question: “Has the media made the Greek crisis worse?” with the succinct answer: ”Puh lease!” In her blog of January 24th she lays the blame for the crisis firmly at the door of Greek Bankers. 

It is worth taking some time here to understand her view of how the crisis began. Ms Alloway traces the start to October 21, 2009 when Greece announced it would be revising it’s budget requirement estimate upwards. This was followed credit agency Fitch downgrading Greece. Then and only then only then did the media sit up and take notice. She describes how Greek Bonds, (requiring a yield of 6% interest to be paid back by Greece) were sold by Greek banks, to the European Central Bank to secure liquidity. Take liquidity here to equal more loans. In other words, debt was sold to secure more debt...on a massive scale. Further down grades followed, making Greek bonds ineligible as collateral for further ECB loans. But for further loans the liquidity well was running dry, bonds became worthless. The main driver of the crisis from according to Ms Alloway is the market, not the media.

It was at this point in time, December 2009, that D word began to be mentioned: “DEFAULT.” The Tzogopoulos study shows the word “default” to be the most commonly used word headlines across the media. Since Nov 2009 to today the ‘D word’ is prevalent in the press. Take the Independent sub headline, Jan14 2012: “Collapse of Greek bailout talks bring default nearer.” The implication is that default equals the ever present threat of disaster. The much used “bailout” word incidentally, infers free money rather than repayable or reduced loans.

Melisande Middleton, Director of the Centre for International Media Ethics sums up the balancing act required by the media in times of crisis: “Media reporting in an extreme crisis faces a dilemma: the need to report on an urgent situation versus the need not to exacerbate a situation by exaggeration.”

It is apparent that the depth of austerity is inflicting hurt in Greek society. The depth of skepticism and anger towards the global economic system is also tangible, and not just amongst so called “anarchists”. The crisis has led to further development of discussion, particularly in independent media, about corruption, greed and nepotism at government levels & beyond.

Much of the resistance to austerity measures in Greece is characterised by Professor Pedro Olalla of the University of Athens. Speaking on a YouTube video, embedded in a Journalist’s blog, he argues: “Nowadays, coups are undertaken by financiers. The Greek people - following the dictates of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF - have to suffer tax rises, wage cuts, and unemployment, and all their health and social gains are snatched away. They have the privatization of their state enterprises imposed upon them, and are forced to put the country’s wealth in the hands of foreign investors.”

The independent film “Debtocracy” was financed by citizen contributions and is distributed freely. It seeks to demonstrate: “The causes of the debt crisis and propose solutions that are hidden from the government and mainstream media.” The documentary holds successive Greek Governments to account for shady dealings with Goldman Sachs, Siemens and arms dealers. (The Goldman Sachs story suggests they helped massage Greek declarations by using out of date exchange rates. This story has also been cited in mainstream journalism too: Vanity fair published “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” in October 2010). The film criticizes the government for defaulting on Greek citizens rather than pan-global creditors. It holds the ECB, IMF and EU Troika responsible for neoliberal agendas that sacrifice nation state sovereignty. From a historical perspective, Manolis Glezos traces the origins of Greek debt to a British loan in1871. Only once since then has Greece been a lender of money: To Germany, during the Nazi occupation.

Contrary to some mainstream media thrusts, Greece is not the most indebted country in the world. Figures from the BBC show the UK to have significantly more foreign debt than Greece at 436% of GDP as compared 252%*. When looking for the supporting hand of friendship for Greece it is not long before the owners face is shown to be the French left. Coincidentally, it turns out, Greece owes the majority of its foreign debt to France, 41.4 Billion*. The most strident defence of Greece in The European Parliament came from Frenchman Daniel Cohn Bendit, President of the green-European Alliance. In a rousing speech widely broadcast he declares: ”Were all Hypocrites!” before elucidating on arms sales to Greece worth seven Billion. 1T
French-Egyptian Economist Samir Amin is a persistent critic of capitalism as a driving force for development. From 1957 to the present he has argued that so-called underdeveloped countries are created for exploitation by capitalistic monopolies. He vehemently rejects any suggestion that Greeks are Lazy: “I won’t even bother with the rumor that Greeks are lazy, that is pure racism.”

The production offers an alternative solution to the debt crisis: “Odious debt,” or debt accumulated without the mandate or knowledge of the people. This kind of debt may be written off and was used most recently by the US in relation to Sadaam Hussien’s debts and in Ecuador by President Rafael Correa. In Ecuador the argument came down to a similar dilemma faced by throughout the EU and Greece: What is more urgent, National or International commitments. In Ecuador, however, there was no EU to consider.
With the move of Central European politics to the right, little media time if any, is given to penetrating critiques of capitalist “development” given by left wing academics, thinkers and writers. The media does not support a capitalist critique because it runs on capitalist tracks, advertising revenues. Many critiques of neoliberalism can be found on the web and that much undervalued outlet, the bookshop. A dramatic example is John Perkins book: “Confessions of an economic hit man,” in which he describes how US banks and corporations lure developing countries into debt, erode local market protectionism and push privatisation, whilst flooding the newly opened market with grand infrastructure projects, weapons and goods. His critics, as with all radicals, dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist.

When fully realized left wing arguments are given credence questions about laziness and corruption seem superfluous. The neoliberal “monster” it seems, may have got what it always wanted: nation states subjugated to market forces. Right of center sentiments stretch debate similarly; they too want to retain Greece as Greek. A phenomenon of resurgent nationalism has arisen in Greece, joining left and right. Talking with a so-called Athenian “anarchist” demonstrator, BBC reporter Paul Mason recalled the following comment: “I never went on a demo with a Greek flag. Now I’m cool with it, were all together now.” In much of the rest of the debate the age old blame game ensues. People blame politicians, progressives blame feet draggers, leftists blame neoliberals, and everyone blames bankers. When former Finance Minister Theodoros Pangalous is asked the question what did you do with the money? He has a ready response: “We made you civil servants! We all had a part in this.”

At the heart of debate there is an internal dilemma. To bolster competitiveness and move forward with structural reforms Greece is required to further embrace neoliberalism. At the same time Greeks are aware of a certain malevolence; that the lure, like the mythological Scorpios, may well have a sting in its’ tail.

Meanwhile, outside the media circus, the people sitting in the sandy coves of Chalkidiki show no outward signs of suffering. They swallow seafood, sup beer, sing, swim and smoke cigarettes. From here the media maelstrom seems like a dark cloud of collective neurosis. Here there is no headline driven focus on negativity. No knife- edge walk into impending catastrophe. No crisis to blame for ills. The world is still spinning and the sun will still rise behind Mount Athos in the morning.

The Book “The Greek drama in the media” was published Ashgate late 2012.
*BBC source: IMF, World Bank and Bank for International Settlements.
Written in 2012 , Published to blog 2014.


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