Members of pro-communist union PAME raise their fists during a protest in Athens. Photo: Petros Giannakouris

Have some respect — also for the Greeks, please!

  • May 10, 2015

Media & Manipulation

For five years, the Greeks have been publicly shamed, insulted, humiliated and spat upon by the rest of Europe. It is high time to show some respect.

As a former correspondent in Greece I am still regularly invited to radio and TV shows in the Netherlands, or to give lectures or talks about the Greek debt crisis somewhere in the country. The latter are usually organized by some kind of foundation or organization of “Hellenophiles.” In addition to Dutch lovers of Greek culture and parents of children who are married to Greeks and who live somewhere in Hellas, those in attendance often include Greeks (and their partners) living in the Netherlands.

Lately, more than ever, I find myself presented at these type of gatherings with deeply unpleasant anecdotes. The stories of Dutch citizens refusing to pay their bills after eating and drinking at Greek tavernas because “they’ve already given enough money to the Greeks by now” have been circulating for some years, and even made it into the national newspapers. But now I find myself being approached by concerned mothers and fathers of half-Greek children who tell me that their daughters or sons have come home from school angry, sometimes even in tears, because their economics teacher, for instance, would unabashedly depict the Greeks as lazy, unreliable, tax-dodging profiteers who can’t be trusted to live up to their agreements and who are threatening the very survival of the EU, and because the teacher would profess, with full conviction, that kicking Greece out of the eurozone is the only solution — the faster the better.

When those half-Greek kids oppose such contentions in class, recounting the stories of their family members in Greece who barely have enough money to buy food, trying to explain that Greece has in fact been extremely “reliable” for the past five years in terms of sticking to the bailout agreements — only to find the public debt rising and the economy reduced to shambles — they were simply laughed at and publicly humiliated. After class, such rituals would often be repeated at the schoolyard. And things are getting worse, they say.

Ever since Syriza won the Greek elections in January, ever since the “messenger boys from Brussels” (the old parties ND and PASOK) disappeared from the Greek political scene, ever since the media developed its obsession with the striking new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, ever since the new Greek government desperately began trying to do something — however piecemeal it may be — to soften Merkel’s stance and to overturn the catastrophic austerity measures and reforms of the Troika (EU, ECB and IMF), it has become commonplace to openly and shamelessly despise and humiliate Greek people.

Just take a look at the media — it’s all in the details. Consider the journalist who, despite probably never having set foot in Greece and not having the faintest idea what she’s talking about, still chatters along with the rest of the crowd on public radio, constantly yelling that ‘the Greeks haven’t got their act together’, that ‘they don’t live up to their agreements’, that ‘they’re sabotaging the whole operation’, and that ‘the Greeks have voted for the wrong party.’

The Dutch newspapers, not just the main tabloid but even the high-quality ones, are brimming with sentences like ‘the extreme-left Syriza government is bound to be unpopular in Europe’, ‘the Greek Prime Minister Tsipras had an icy reception in Brussels’, ‘the EU member states are fed up with Greece’, ‘patience with Greece is running out’, ‘the Greeks are provocatively engaging in a confrontation that will have far-reaching consequences’, and ‘the Greeks are really getting into the Germans’ hair with their unacceptable diversion tactics, bringing up the question of German war reparations now, of all times’.

All of this without any criticism, nuance or explanation. No one in the journalistic echo chamber seems to wonder whether it’s actually right for a democratically-elected government — one that can prove incontrovertibly that the austerity measures of the past five years have only made matters worse and therefore rightly wants to get rid of them — to have to undergo an ‘icy reception’ in Brussels. No one corrects the description of Syriza, which is anything but extreme-left and much more like a social democratic party that’s simply trying to defend the welfare state — or whatever is left of it — in Greece. No one points out that the Greek government is apparently ‘provocative’ and ‘confrontational’ simply because it delivers an inconvenient truth, without it being heard.

No one compliments the Greeks for the patience they have shown over the past five years as they bent over backwards to live up to the Troika’s impossible demands as well as they could, only to end up with a rising public debt, skyrocketing unemployment, and a situation in which one in three Greeks now live below the poverty line and 3 out of 11 million Greeks no longer have access to public healthcare. No one mentions the fact that the new Syriza-led government, in contrast to previous governments, is the first to genuinely commit itself to cracking down on tax evasion by the country’s corrupt elite. Or that Prime Minister Tsipras will be the first to make the media tycoons who own the major commercial TV and radio stations pay for their transmission licenses, which up until now had been doled out for free in exchange for political support.

Tsipras has also launched an investigation into the fake loans provided to certain TV stations by some of the country’s biggest banks; loans that never had to be repaid as long as the broadcasters would agree not to bring up the bankers’ mismanagement and misconduct. This in turn explains why those commercial broadcasters are ruthlessly accusing Tsipras and Varoufakis of anything that flies, vigorously chanting along in the anti-Greek media chorus of the German spin doctors in Brussels. In their own reporting, foreign journalists often uncritically parrot whatever is being said on those TV stations, presuming that they are citing “objective” Greek news outlets, not knowing (or refusing to admit) that they thereby end up participating in a propaganda war waged by billionaire media tycoons who are outraged at the government simply because they are finally being forced to pay for their transmission licenses.

Beyond this, no one in the Dutch media seems to put the question of German war reparations — an issue that has been flaring up in the Greek press ever since the reunification of Germany in 1990 — in a wider historical perspective, in contrast even to the German media itself, where there appears to be at least some recognition that the Greeks do in fact have a point (and have had one for many decades) when it comes to reparations, and that the matter still remains to be settled. Add to this the fact that Greece, together with Poland, was the country that suffered most under German occupation. As the historical records show, the horrors endured by a country like the Netherlands were a tea party compared to what the Nazis did to Greece. Still the Greeks were far less anti-German after the war than the Dutch. There is no Greek equivalent to the Dutch anti-German slur mof. The Dutch don’t seem to be aware of any of this.

Whatever the Greeks do or say these days is by default considered to be wrong, provocative and unheard of. In the troublesome consensus of the continental underbelly, collective disdain for, irritation with and punishment of the Greeks is more justified than ever. “It’s almost like a genie has escaped the bottle — how will we get it back in?” a saddened mother, married to a Greek wine trader, recently told me during a gathering in the Dutch town of Groningen. Young Greek workers and students regularly approach me on Facebook with terrible stories, telling me they feel relegated to the position of second-class citizens, and recounting how aggressive some of their Dutch counterparts have become. One of them was kicked at a tram stop by a random stranger a few weeks ago, just because she was Greek.

Up until now I would hear these kind of stories and I would try to imagine what it must be like to be Greek these days. But since a few weeks ago, I know what it’s like — if only just a little bit.

I was recently invited to appear on camera for two talk shows. One presented itself as an independent project, a nice initiative by a group of idealists to introduce some more analytical depth into the media, recorded in a remote studio and broadcast on YouTube. I was asked to appear, pro bono, alongside a Greek economist who teaches at the sociology faculty of the VU University in Amsterdam, to talk about the latest developments in Greece. The other is a popular late night talk show that I have joined quite regularly over the last couple of years, for a modest expert fee. There, I was asked to appear alongside a former correspondent in Berlin, for a sort of “debate” — Athens versus Berlin, so to speak. Both shows are hosted by male presenters. I won’t refer to their names, they’re irrelevant — what matters is the remarkable manner in which the Greek economist, but myself as well, were treated, in contrast to the man from Berlin. It was nothing new for the economist; but for me it was.

In the remote studio the economist and I were basically left to ourselves. We weren’t even offered a cup of coffee: the whole production team was smoking outside, and it wasn’t until our actual appearance on the show that we were offered some water for the conversation. The conversation itself was surreal. The presenter announced that the show wanted to be an alternative to the usual superficiality and commodification of the mainstream media. This sounded like music to the ears, but what happened afterwards was the exact opposite. The interviewer really only had one question: Grexit or no Grexit?

Despite the fact that both the economist and I had spent countless hours preparing the conversation with the show’s producers by phone, none of the other issues were discussed. Every time my Greek colleague tried to explain something “complicated”, he was silenced. Whenever I tried to back him up, the same happened to me. Slowly but surely I began to realize what was going on: the presenter simply didn’t take us seriously at all — he couldn’t even lend an ear, let alone show genuine interest in what we had to say. Without any shame whatsoever, he displayed his appalling lack of knowledge, but because he was speaking to and about the “Greeks”, it didn’t matter one bit — or at least that’s how it felt. Before we knew it we were back outside, utterly baffled, after the most superficial, vacuous and stupid interview ever.

The economist laughed.

“What’s happening in miniature here, is happening in Greece and in Brussels on a much larger scale. Now you know what it feels like to be Greek these days,” he concluded, consoling me with a soft pat on the back.

At the other talk show, the late night one, it already began when I walked into the editorial office. The “latest news” from Greece was doing the rounds: the Greek government would not only lay claim on German buildings in Athens — including the renowned Goethe Institute — as collateral for German war reparations, but they would also begin to seize the private holiday homes of German citizens. Amidst all the consternation I shouted as loudly as I could that this couldn’t be true, but it said it in The Economist so it had to be true. For a second they even managed to convince me that I had gone crazy, so against my better judgement I made a phone call to Athens just before the start of the live broadcast. Obviously the rumors were wrong. No state-owned German buildings were to be seized, let alone the private holiday homes of German Hellenophiles. But the tone had been set. In the studio, before the cameras start rolling, just before the broadcast begins, the presenter always welcomes the live audience, summarizes the topics under discussion that evening, and presents the guests to the public. When  my colleague from Berlin and I were up, the host wearily rolled his eyeballs into the back of his head and said something like:

‘To be honest I’m really sick and tired of this subject, and of the Greeks as well… It bores me to death, but what can we do: they’re back in the news. So, as always, we have Ingeborg Beugel back in the studio with us tonight. But thankfully we also have a fresh new voice from Berlin this time, former correspondent bla-bla-bla.’ I froze up. No guest would ever want to be introduced like that. I didn’t show up just to contribute to the subject-fatigue of some TV presenter. For a second I considered taking off my microphone, getting up and simply walking out. ‘Jeez,’ I thought, ‘that’s probably what Greek officials in Brussels must be thinking as well, just before they start their Eurogroup meetings.’ It didn’t get much better when I took my seat across from the Berlin correspondent. With the cameras now running, he was introduced as a knowledgeable guest who knew a lot about Germany. I was more or less contemptuously presented as the guest who stands “squarely behind the Greeks.”

Excuse me?

For fifteen years, I made a living — together with correspondents from many other countries — tirelessly pointing at everything that was so obviously wrong in Greece. It was almost like the bureaucrats and diplomats in Brussels weren’t even reading the newspapers: during all those years, the silence from Europe was deafening: the EU kept providing subsidies that would disappear into corrupt pockets without any oversight whatsoever — let along any sanctions — and European banks kept lending irresponsible sums of money to Athens against all odds, blinded by the alure of easy profits. Over the past five years I was like a lone voice crying in the wilderness of the Dutch media: no, I argued, the Greek crisis is not just the fault of the Greeks. Let’s put things in historical perspective.

Everybody knows that this was above all a banking crisis; but we’re simply not allowed to say that. And, lo’ and behold if things get a little too complicated — there has never been any space or time for that. Now that Greece’s new left-led government correctly points out that the past five years of unbridled cutbacks and reforms, instead of leading to recovery, have led to the very opposite — a humanitarian and economic catastrophe — and that the European banks were the only ones to profit from the 240 billion euros in emergency loans, things are worse than ever. Just because I try, as any good journalist should, to explain the stance of the Greek government and judge it on its merits, I am considered to be (and treated like) a Greek. And now I understand: the Greeks are not supposed to be listened to, and they definitely do not deserve any respect.

The conversation during the late night talk show proceeded accordingly: I could barely contribute my two cents, was constantly interrupted, and whenever I said something that actually made sense — like the fact that the Greek public debt was 120 percent in 2010 and currently stands at 175 percent, i.e., the past five years of misery for the Greeks have proven to be a massive failure — the looks I received and the body language of my interlocutors spoke volumes. The icing on the cake came at the end of the interview, when the next guest was just about to start. I mumbled, somewhat desperately, that the Greek government also has its election pledges to take into account, that this is the reason they ended up passing an urgently needed law — which, by the way, had already been greatly weakened under EU pressure — to provide 200 million euros for the poorest of the poor in Greece, unleashing the collective ire of all EU member states.

“But that’s obviously insane,” the presenter concluded. “They just shouldn’t have voted for a government like that.” As if democracy doesn’t matter anymore; as if the Greeks are naughty and wrong for having voted (new) politicians into power who no longer want to abide by the German austerity diktat. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. But no one appeared to be the least bit shocked.

Even though I felt horrible about that broadcast, even though I felt I hadn’t managed to properly express myself, had allowed myself to be cornered and trampled, that night I received an astonishing amount of positive reactions on Facebook and Twitter. Normally I receive hate mail, but this time there was clearly a sense of “sympathy for the underdog.” Apparently the show’s viewers hadn’t missed how I had been put up against the wall with nowhere left to go — just like the Greeks in the Eurozone today.

The next day, to revive my spirits, I read some passages from Wolfgang Streeck’s latest book, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, in which the German sociologist and former director of the Max Planck Institute explains that the Greek crisis is not the result of the Greeks having burnt a hole in their pockets, nor of the Germans being too stingy, but is instead a characteristic manifestation of the inherent incompatibility between capitalism and democracy. Greek democracy is simply the first to be sacrificed at the altar of European capitalism, just to buy some more time for the country’s creditors.

Reading that somehow made me feel better. Perhaps I’m not in such bad company, after all. And so I put on some Aretha Franklin, and sing along at the top of my lungs:

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Also for the Greeks, please!

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Ingeborg Beugel

Ingeborg Beugel is a Dutch journalist who was formerly based in Greece as a foreign correspondent for various Dutch media. She regularly appears on Dutch television and in print to comment on the Greek debt crisis.

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