Four years ago, as the crisis entered our television sets, its presence already known to certain domestic and foreign circles, two kinds of reactions dominated: on the one hand, anxiety over the country’s exit from the Eurozone with no one taking responsibility; on the other, a parallel, isolated debate about another crisis, that of values, democracy, politics, solidarity and coexistence of citizens (with or without papers). Thus, in which ways did the Mass Media serve the people and democracy?
The fact that it was the first kind of crisis narrative, which prevailed in our national media and the majority of the projected political debate, relates to the type and level of the debate in Greece. Firstly, the media failed to warn society of the national economy’s chronic decline. On the contrary, the media were attached to trivial political affairs which very rarely made more sense than gossip, of neither depth nor consistency.
During the crisis, the country’s media overall limited the debate about its causes and solutions in a few sentences, within a frame of intimidation, dilemmas and pathological enclave of party worshipping. They covered it generally in a ‘photographic’ manner, that is, an instant, limited perspective coloured with ideological baggage of the past. In other words, Greek society repeatedly heard the story of the crisis within specific narrative strategies. Particularly, this narrative was promoted around the frame of ‘urgency’, mostly in the pre-election period, but also in every important historical moment concerning the settlement of the crisis and especially during Parliamentary votes. The ‘urgency’ of a situation marks what is effectively an abolition of substantial democratic institutions, part of which is true dialogue and representation of diffused social interests and not one-sided, so as to enable rushed decision-making, just as in urgent situations or medical emergencies.
Τhe media in general and the European press specifically, including that of Greece, lives and ‘breathes’ the air of the elites, depends on them for content
The second frame of the narrative is associated with the contrast between economy and politics as almost unrelated factors, while often the economy appears as an autonomous, uncontrollable mechanism. Within this context, numbers are used as self-evident proof calling for a certain range of political decisions. In this way, any ‘package’ of economic reform acquires its own meaning, and conversations are held around it between political leaders and ‘Europe’. Media narrate the ‘package’ not as the result of political decisions, which is the case since only political decisions and political, will make it a policy as an effort to solve the credit problem of the country and the Eurozone. Mainly during the election period, the media produced many, but not multiple, political frames of the crisis and remained ‘glued’ to certain agendas. The scenarios presented by the dominant media do not differ from those published in other European media and mostly in the Austrian, German, Spanish, and British press. The continuous production of dilemmas and only slight variation of scenarios, and frames of the crisis has to do with the fact that the media in general and the European press specifically, including that of Greece, lives and ‘breathes’ the air of the elites, depends on them for content.
Another worrying tendency continues to be the polarization between groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is to say, opposing camps and hostile relations between social groups and nations. Within the country itself, the press proceeds towards strategies of alienation and xenophobia on two levels. The first concerns the relation between the country and ‘Europe’, defining this relation sometimes as financing and other times as of policing and surveillance and obedience. This wounds and infects the sense of personal and national value in a broad sense. The constant repetition and coverage of the media, even populist press as was the case of the well known covers of the Bild Zeitung newspaper or Focus magazine, had no particular news value, did not provide crucial information to the debate and did not report the public opinion on time. On the contrary, such coverage shifted the focus of the debate to trivial snapshots of the situation. The commercial press exploited stereotypes and phobias of its own domestic market.
The second level is that of an inward-looking paranoia and xenophobia, between the ‘threatened’ – abstractly defined- Greek people and the ‘threatener’ that is anyone who is politically, ‘racially’, financially different, and therefore becomes the ‘other’. These internal wounds, opened by the collaboration or inaction of the press, express typically the voice of alienation and barbarity of which Cavafy had spoken in Waiting for the Barbarians and J.M. Coetzee in his novel later on. This is a tactic with multiple uses, which has historically stigmatized the political and social life of the country and Europe.
The terms ‘crisis’ ‘Greeks’ and ‘Europe’ lose much of their value as expository terms rapidly and are used with problematic ease and selective memory. The media personalized the crisis and they keep personalizing it around specific people, such as Merkel, Langarde, Samaras or Tsipras and ‘localized’ it in specific geographical places, in Greece, Brussels, Madrid or Paris. If someone is handed the dictionary of the crisis, s/he will create a bizarre geography of persons. Certainly, the journalistic tactic to focus on those things it considers ‘specific’ and comprehensible, is well known. However, it shows a limited way of narrating and therefore fulfilling its profession, which, in situations such as this which the majority of the population is adversely affected, does not provide for the serious need for a different, integrated and critical discourse.
The specific research project on the coverage of the crisis by the European and Greek press, on which this piece is based, followed the frames of the crisis in order to find whether the media offered pluralistic information in such an important historical period of the country and Europe. This research leads to two intertwined analytical levels, the relation of citizens to socio-political institutions and new forms of governance of communication processes, and the range and depth of meaningful pluralism and management of the media.