Why is coverage of Greece so bad? – by Kevin Ovenden in Athens

Scores of journalists are now arriving in Athens.

The penny is dropping on the big news organisations. We are heading for something of profound importance.

Just been to the city centre and saw fleets of cabs disgorging the newly arrived – print media, camera crews, some known TV faces from the major channels – in Syntagma.

The main journo hotels seem to be the Athens Plaza and the neighbouring Grande Bretagne (Britannia).

The Britannia is the one where the Greek resistance tried to assassinate Winston Churchill following the British supervised massacre by royalist forces of 28 people on a demonstration by the Left of 100,000 unarmed civilians in December 1944, just like Bloody Sunday in Derry 28 years later, but with twice the death toll.

I wouldn’t wish that upon any colleague – even a Springer or Murdoch employee! But a quick note on why so much of what will be written and broadcast from the balconies of those hotels in the coming days will be such dross.

It’s not in the main that journos are right wing. There are a few who are. It is more to do with the structuring of the media and the subtle ways in which that influences journalism right down to the punctuation in print or the melodramatic pause on air.

There’s immense pressure from senior editors to get what they think is the story. At the highest levels those editors and producers are a part of the establishment echo chamber which fixes the tight parameters of what political debate is newsworthy and what is mere noises off.

There are exceptions even at that level of seniority. But the pressure for conformity is still difficult to resist.

And, because journalists are a social and somewhat libatious breed, that tends to percolate down too, especially when in a pack (the proper collective noun, I believe, for hacks).

I remember as an industrial correspondent covering things like the TUC conference. Most colleagues who did that beat, rather than being sent from the Westminster pack because their outfit, like most, had long since culled their labour and trade union reporters, were far from right wing.

They actually liked trade unionists and had friends who were union officials. But even then, the pressure you felt when you had a dissident interpretation of events and you were in a press room with “senior journalists” whose take set the tone for everyone else was quite great.

More than once I found myself looking through my spidery shorthand to check, “No – he really *did* say that and there *was* a minority in the hall who didn’t like it.”

Class background plays some role, but is far from decisive. Paul Foot came from a family which was a pillar of the Liberal establishment in Britain. But he was a great socialist journalist.

It’s more, I think, how the great conforming pressures and common sense of the middle class intelligentsia resonate with the corporate atmosphere in news organisations and even on foreign postings.We all remember how the Pentagon and British MoD pioneered the corruption of war reporting through the careful embedding of journalists inside Nato’s more presentable units.

More subtly, many colleagues arriving in Athens today are embedded in an alternate reality. Cab or private car from the airport. Into air-conditioned five or more star hotel. Informal induction from slightly older hands as to who’s who and what’s what – best restaurants in a one kilometre radius, who among the companionship knows anything at all about the country you are in.

And because it can be lonely, or hard, or just a lot of effort to head off and chase up the story yourself, there’s a pull to stay with the gang.

Correspondents who actually live in the place are different, but also face the corporate pull in other ways.
And then there are the pressures of the overall ideology of the profession. It’s the kind of ideology expressed politically by To Potami in Greece, which just happens to have been founded by a TV presenter.

There are material reasons why so may European journalists give its puffed up leader, Stavros Theodorakis, so much air time. The joke used to be that political correspondents think they not the politicians should be running the country.

In To Potami, they see that desperate longing made manifest in a parliament. The ideology of that party and of the journalists’ profession may be described as modernising liberal. That is, it is an ideological reflex of the European Union in its, now past, expansionist, neo-liberalism with a human face, phase.

It’s the kind of middle class ideology which rightly finds Pegida and the English Defence League and so on repugnant.

Middle class liberals who welcome a form of free movement of people within Europe – and who tend to equate it with “how cheap those Polish plumbers were who revamped the bathroom into a wet room”. At the same time they are somewhat discombobulated at the thought of a Romanian family moving in to one of the tiny flats owned by the Rachmanite landlord next door.

There are, of course, very welcome exceptions – colleagues who break the confining consensus.

Sometimes that’s down to a strong ideology of their own, not necessarily socialist, but committed to the truth as they see it and robust enough to break out of the bubble.

Some commitment to basic journalistic standards helps too. On hearing the chatter about shortages of meat in Greece, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the London Telegraph went just a 25 minute walk from Syntagma to the Athens meat and fish market to see the retail and wholesale stalls stocked full. He talked, or rather listened, to the stallholders too.

Similarly a colleague from the Guardian a week ago went out of Athens to Corinth and spent considerable time with the No and Yes campaigns there. His piece picked up five days before it happened portents of the referendum result on Sunday.

But that all requires time. Newsrooms tend not to give it – they have had their own austerity too. And it requires effort: not everyone is prepared to graft.

Lastly, the great, Third Informational Revolution, of Twitter and other social media doesn’t come to the rescue. The same condensations of corporate power and the celebrity opinion former appear there. They are not dissolved by the network.

They constitute nodes in it, distorting the free flow of all around. And what flows through the ethereal conduits may be crystal clear insight or fact, or simply sewage.

The feedback loop and the demands of 24-hour news assert themselves permanently. They force the constant parsing of trivia at the expense of the time, effort and, it must be said, skills and knowledge required to grasp and communicate something of substance. The greatest skills being to listen and see.

It’s because so many of these distorting pressures are objective and material that it is not enough for our movement just to denounce or harangue individual miscreants – though a good prod and puncturing of pomposity never go amiss.

And our own frenetic inversion of their inane commentary – negating it, or analysing to death something which was never alive with truth in the first place – is a waste of the movement’s time, in my view.

One thing we can do is to read critically and to encourage all those in the mainstream who do break ranks with the mediocre middle ground. That’s even more the case for those non-Western organisations, such as TeleSUR, which operate to alternative news values and media culture.

The other is to consider as this movement rises how we might concert our efforts in producing a plural and vibrant anti-media, one which is thoroughly interwoven with and the property of the movement and popular masses who are making the news right now.

Kevin Ovenden

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