What next for Greece?

Maria Margaronis writes for PEN Atlas on the complex and at times chaotic relationship between Greek media and the people of Greece, and what their future together might holdFor a long time, Greece was almost invisible to the outside world, a country not to be taken entirely seriously. There was that little fuss or farce in the 1990s about the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; there were the marathon Olympic Games of 2004 which were meant to be a disaster but turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Then, in December 2008, a policeman shot a fifteen-year-old boy in Athens. The young took to the streets and refused go home again; Athens went up in flames. Suddenly papers all over the world wanted to know: Is this a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown?Whether you call it a nervous breakdown, a crisis, a catastrophe or an epochal shift, what’s happened in Greece over the last five years – and is still happening – has unravelled the old narratives, both inside and outside the country. People have lost their future, and with it their past; everything is in flux. Out of the chaos, all kinds of possibilities and stories have emerged, some hopeful, some terrifying. The ruling elites in Athens, Brussels and Berlin seem increasingly anxious to impose the appearance of normality, declaring, against the evidence, austerity’s triumph. Financial pages report on improved balance sheets, glossing over the misery stamped under those figures: the joblessness, the hunger, the illness and depression, the family breakdowns and the suicides. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras touts the Greek ‘success story’ with Orwellian insouciance in foreign capitals (tellingly, the phrase always appears in English).From the beginning, the media – foreign and Greek, conventional and new – have been actors at the centre of the drama, pushing different agendas, framing the way we see things, presenting different facets of reality. In the first months of the crisis, most Greeks following their country’s fate in the foreign media felt exasperated, enraged and humiliated by turns. Readers were treated to endless stories blaming the world’s financial ills on the corrupt Greeks, the lying Greeks, the skiving, scrounging, tax-evading Greeks who think the world owes them a living. Channel 4’s programme ‘Go Greek for a Week,’ in which British people supposedly ‘lived like Greeks’ by retiring at 53 or cheating on their taxes, was the apotheosis of that school. This was followed by a kind of pornography of pain: as well as corrupt Greeks we now got suffering Greeks, reaching out their hands for food parcels, hunched homeless on street corners.Inside Greece, television became a form of terrorism, broadcasting endless ‘thrillers’ about whether Greece would default or leave the Euro, or about the new cuts and austerity measures coming down the pipeline and how they would affect YOUR pocket. People turned off in droves and tried to get on with getting on.Then, some time after the 2012 election, something began to shift. Under the scrutiny of the outside world, chipped at by many voices coming from the plethora of new blogs and websites, from Twitter and citizen-run media and from the chaos in the streets, those monolithic narratives began to crack. Investigative journalism barely exists in Greece, where too many newspaper journalists content themselves with rewriting press releases and where private TV channels (effectively the only ones left since the government shut down the state broadcaster in June) give platforms to their owners’ pocket politicians and ratings-boosting thugs like the MPs of the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn. As the government’s crackdown on protesters and on whistleblowing journalists like HotDoc’s Kostas Vaxevanis began to intensify, as mainstream Greek outlets failed to report on Golden Dawn’s increasing violence or on the corruption of judicial and parliamentary processes, reports published outside (often following leads from Greek alternative media) began to seem more and more vital—the only way to get the word out publicly in Greece.Police malpractice, racism and violence against arrested migrants had been condemned for years by international human rights agencies; no mainstream Greek paper conducted a serious investigation. But when the Guardian and the BBC published protesters’ accounts of beating and torture by police loyal to Golden Dawn, the story was picked up by newspapers in Greece and widely circulated. The government’s first response was to threaten to sue the Guardian for ‘defaming Greece.’ A year later, the arrest of Golden Dawn’s leaders on September 28th 
has been accompanied by a (very partial) purge of the police. The subsequent ‘discovery’ of Golden Dawn’s true nature by Greek media has been unedifying; nevertheless, the walls of silence are finally breaking down. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran detailed stories on corruption and the ‘lost’ Lagarde List of possible tax evaders, again, followed up in the Greek media to some extent.As Greece has stopped being portrayed as a threat to the Eurozone, as ‘the crisis’ has become more of a chronic condition, it has mostly fallen off the world’s front pages. Five years ago, I would have said the deepest rift was between the versions of Greece produced and consumed at home and those produced abroad—very few of them either accurate or true. Now I think it’s between the accounts produced by those professional journalists who work for particular interests, for business elites or their political patrons or for political parties, and the stories told by reporters, both paid and unpaid, both in and outside Greece, who are interested in listening, understanding, telling the truth as best they can. Those stories are often turbulent, provisional, incomplete: sketches from the edge of an unclear reality. But the lid is off the box; Greeks are facing their own demons as well as the ones sent to torment them from outside. The unravelling – and the contest for the world that might emerge – isn’t over yet.About the authorMaria Margaronis is London correspondent for The Nation. Her work on Greece has also appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the TLS and Index on Censorship, and on BBC Radio 4. She will be taking part in the panel discussion on Media Myths in Greece is the Word on Saturday September 19th on the South Bank.Additional informationGreece Is The Word! is a celebration of modern Greek culture and a cutting-edge, creative response to the Greek crisis. Join historian Bettany Hughes, novelist Victoria Hislop, BBC correspondent Paul Mason and a pantheon of Greek stars for a lively day of debate and performance. Enjoy poetry from inspirational performer Katerina Iliopoulou, comedy from brilliant stand-up Katerina Vrana, top analysis from journalist Maria Margaronis and lyrical literature from Ioanna Karystiani and Alexis Stamatis.  Plus fabulous designer Mary Katranzou designs the dresses for some of the stars to wear. You can find out more information about the event and how to book tickets at the Southbank website.BBC correspondent and Greece aficionado Paul Mason, the author of two books about the global economic crisis and the global protests (Meltdownand Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere), chairs a provocative debate about the Greek crisis and the role of the media. With journalist Maria Margaronis, London Business School Strategy Professor Michael G. Jacobides and journalist and broadcaster Theodora Oikonomides, he discusses: the truth about the Greek ‘meltdown’; media myths and manipulation in a crisis; the role alternative media play when mainstream media stop functioning, and, what happens next for Greece? You can find out more information about Maria’s talk at the Southbank website