Interview with Yiannis Mylonas
, media scientist at the University of Copenhagen and at the National Research University, Moscow,
by SIMONE SEYRINGER
Please cite this article as: Mylonas, Yiannis. (2015). „Griechen werden seit 2009 von den Massenmedien karikiert.“ Interview by Simone Seyringer. in: XING Magazin, #30, pp 50-57; Download article reference as [RIS], [BIbTex]
You analyzed the reporting about the so-called „Greek-crisis“ in German print media, Bild Zeitung and Spiegel. Do you see fundamental differences in reporting style between an outspoken boulevardesque and a quality paper?
My idea was to study a) an indicative newspaper of the so-called yellow press, such as Bild Zeitung, and its coverage of political affairs such as the economic crisis in Greece b) a journal that is considered to be credible, objective and investigative, such as Der Spiegel, on the same topic. I studied the two different media in different temporal occasions. I studied Bild- Zeitung’s coverage of the so-called Greek Crisis during the years 2009 and 2012. I studied Der Spiegel’s coverage of the same issue during the years 2009 -2014.
The differences I found mainly concern the style of representation. Der Spiegel offers a more ‘objective’ kind of coverage, avoiding the fat wording that the yellow press, like Bild, uses. In that sense, Der Spiegel could be seen as more ‘politically correct’ than Bild. At the same time though, the ideological position of the two media regarding how to make sense of what the Eurozone crisis is, who is to blame for it, and how we can solve it, is essentially the same. Spiegel avoids the crude nationalism and spiteful indignation expressed by Bild, but like Bild also does, Spiegel stands in favor of the German government’s political positions in the crisis, favoring austerity, without questioning the German economic interests in the crisis and the responsibilities of the political and economic power of Germany in the Eurozone’s crisis.
Both media adopt the culturalist understanding of the crisis, attributing it to national characters and European exceptions, rather than casting a systemic view on the crisis, connecting it to economic globalization, free market regulation, the financialisation of the economy and predatory financial activity, to name but few systemic issues related to the global economic crisis (staring in the US in 2007), part of which is the Eurozone’s crisis. They fail to understand the structure and the flaws of the current economic system of late capitalism. They offer a very narrow and rather national- orientated point of view -given that the global economy ‘works’ for powerful countries like Germany- and they also run into an important contradiction: if you defend competitiveness (capitalism’s main driving force), then by default you cannot establish equality between countries in economic or political terms; you will only deepen inequalities as competition is not about solidarity and equality. Therefore the so-called ‘help’ or bailout loans given to Greece in return for austerity reforms only weaken Greece’s economic and political position.
In that sense, both media have it wrong, but apparently their defense of austerity works for the capital interests of Germany. Both papers are often questioning or negating the so- called bailout packages to Greece from the German taxpayer’s point of view (as they claim), but they do so without questioning the principles organizing these loans to Greece. Nor do they question the fact that such loans are returned to the German and French banks exposed to the risky process of loaning Greece, a country which saw its productivity collapsing after its entry to the Eurozone and was run by a political establishment that was very corrupt. In that sense, their supposed defense of the German taxpayer is not well established and potentially pretentious.
The cultural understanding of the crisis – launched by the German and EU conservative elites and followed by both Bild and Spiegel among other media in Europe and elsewhere – estranges the Greeks as something different from other Europeans. This is an old colonial idea, seeing Greece as ‘Balkan’ or ‘Ottoman’ and thus making it, culturally as well as genetically, different from ‘Europe’. This is a slippery path, which evokes racist reflexes to the general public, combined with a call for indignation against the Greeks or other south Europeans as they are presented to be the roots for our (German or North European) own (systemic) problems and uncertainties. In any case, culturalist ideas are inherently racist, establishing a new form of racism – also advanced by the new far right – that appears to be much more ‘polished’ that previous forms of racism. The racialization of the Greek people is nowadays a fact, especially experienced by Greeks forced to migrate in other EU countries due to the crisis.
Furthermore, both media studied are uncritical to the failed policies of austerity, attributing their failure to the Greek’s supposed unwillingness to reform, although no society could develop such antisocial reforms that Greece has, since 2010. In that sense mainstream media produce distorted information on the crisis and the failed policies of austerity, as even the IMF has admitted errors in its calculation of how austerity could be implemented in Greece.
At the same time, both media avoid referring to -or spin- Germany’s responsibilities for the crisis. For instance, the position of German multinational corporations in scandalous cases of high corruption in Greece (like that of Siemens) is not often mentioned. Instead, one finds more frequent references to small-scale corruption in Greece, related to people bribing officials or cases of people receiving pensions for deceased family members, in order to prove that corruption in endemic in the Greek society.
Further, the racist crimes committed by the Wehrmacht against the Greek population as Greece’s occupying force during the Second World War – resulting to the full destruction of the country with 1 in 14 Greeks to have perished – and Germany’s lack of paying war reparations to Greece through effective political maneuvering, are also issues avoided by these media. So is the 1953 agreement to abolish Germany’s war debt to the countries it destroyed –with Greece among them. This practice further victimizes Germany to the German public, making it to appear as an honest and generous partner who is deceived by the scoundrels of Europe.
Analyzing U. S. media reporting of the financial crisis of 2008, R. H. Giles and B. Sussman („The Media and Financial Crisis“, 2012. In: Schiffrin, Anya (ed.) Bad News: How America´s Business Press Missed the Story of the Century. New Press) criticized in their article that journalists narrowly focused on debates of political and policy elites, and did not take into account other effects and views of the crisis (social security, poverty or different economic concepts). Can you see similarities in your sample? This assumption is true for the European media as well?
Regarding the media I studied, Bild continues publishing a monotonous propagation of lies and stereotypes against the Greek people, presenting them as scoundrels of Europe, and making the effects of austerity to appear as a form of just punishment. Der Spiegel began focusing on the human side of the crisis and austerity, from 2012 and on. This coverage however, was done in a way that is disconnected from a critique of the policies producing the kind of human suffering and destruction that the Greek society experiences. The policies of austerity are to a great extend defended by both Bild and Spiegel as necessary, as objective and as policies with no alternative. In that sense, the humanitarian coverage of the crisis presents human suffering as a collateral damage of necessary and correct policies, despite their utter failure, even to produce the economistic results they proclaimed they would (boost competition, bring growth, and ‘rationalize’ the problems of the Greek state).
The production of pity does not create solidarities and further estranges the conditions of the Greek lower and working classes from those of the German ones. Again, a representational politics of exception is played here, that fails to address the important issues of the crisis and its management by the EU elites. In that sense, austerity is further legitimized, and Spiegel’s coverage of the humanitarian and socio-political effects of the crisis may be creating an alibi covering the responsibilities of Germany in this crisis.
What do you think about how policy and political elites are presented in the media?
Mainstream media present policy and political issues either in depoliticized terms, as technical issues to be solved by economic engineering of problematic societies, or in a so-called ‘realistic’, post ideological perspective. The discussion on crisis-policies is done on the basis of technocracy and cost-benefit analyses that depart from the point of view of national orientated, capital interests. This appears as a ‘realist’ perspective, while ideological arguments that challenge the ideas driving policies of austerity and economic growth, are presented as outdated, irrational and failed.
There is an almost total lack of a discussion of ideology there, which delimits the possibility of introducing critical arguments challenging antisocial and anti-democratic policies like austerity. Simultaneously, such a depoliticized presentation of politics, does not allow much space for the coverage of alternatives to austerity. Anything challenging austerity is presented as populist and even extremist, although the fundamentalist support of austerity is extremism. Politicians are also presented in similar depoliticized terms, as experts or strong leaders able to manage economic objectives, to effectively maneuver and compete with their opponents in ways most beneficial for the nation’s capital interests.
Experts are supposed to manage complicated entities that the public is distanced from, and instrumental logics prevail over issues related to values and the possibility of broader forms of civic participation in decision making processes. In effect, such a process is exclusionary, as the interests and identities of the lower classes are misrepresented and the public has not much potential of effective intervention. In that sense, the main problem with such a depoliticized representational approach is the abandoning of the democratic values that could guide politics, particularly when speaking about a Europe that presents itself as democratic.
Coming to the last two weeks, what do you personally think about the coverage?
The last two weeks have been very intense and hectic for Europe and Greece in particular, from a political point of view. Many concentrated and contradictory events make the study of the ongoing realities of the crisis in Europe, an extremely difficult task. However, following the Greek and the Danish media during this period, as well as some British ones on the topic, I can say that the Greek mainstream media launched a tremendous propaganda strategy to blackmail the people’s referendum vote towards a pro- austerity direction, in order to secure Greece’s position in the Eurozone. Mass media in Greece are owned by Greece’s oligarchs who have
interests in maintaining the country in the Eurozone at all costs.
Fortunately, the Greek people did not succumb to the propaganda. The lived, blunt reality of a recessional spiral with no clear and positive end in sight, showed the limits of propaganda. The north European media also tried to delegitimize the referendum on the very exceptionalist arguments over Greece, that were also found in my own study of the German media.
The referendum was thus presented in very poor and false terms, as controversial, ‘illogical’, even undemocratic (!), and as another act of Greek scoundrelism, so that the Greeks would avoid repaying their debts and escape their responsibilities over ‘the mess they (supposedly) caused’ and continue to cause. The referendum was caricaturized in the same way that the Greek people have been systematically caricaturized by mass media across the world since 2009.
This coverage was effective in terms of alienating the north European publics from the common causes they have with the Greek people. Fortunately, a growing solidarity movement began developing across Europe which we can hope that it will continue to grow in the face of the EU’s economistic and technocratic authoritarianism.
Finally, your personal view: In the light of your research on the „Greek- crisis“, what do you think about the role of media as the fourth power in democracies?
My studies show that the media coverage of the Greek/Eurozone crisis produces the kind of civic mindsets and subjectivities required by policies of austerity. As Margaret Thatcher had said, the important thing is to win the hearts and the minds of the people. The repetitive and monotonous, ‘objectivist’ or ‘enraged’ coverage of crisis-negotiations in the EU over the application of neoliberal reforms – despite their failure and misery – and the effective sidelining of democratic decisions and processes in favor of supposed economic necessities, publicly enforces a particular paradigm of how to think over the crisis, politics and the economy, and how to behave as a competitive economic individual.
In that sense, the kind of crisis- coverage these media offer is connected to the new requirements for a post-social welfare state that conservatives and neoliberals advance in
Europe. The particular, neoliberal framing of the crisis that Bild and Spiegel – among other mainstream media- offer, publicly advances the neoliberal morals of citizenship, which entail the self-patrolling of the so-called reforms in Greece and elsewhere, the celebration of austerity, and a kind of shared pseydo-knowledge over remote geographic locations and distinct societies, which serves the process of economic accumulation and profiteering, while further divides people’s common states of being, causes and interests across the world.
Thank you very much for the interview!