Live from Greece: The media and austerity

By Media Reform Coalition / Tuesday July 21, 2015 Read More
by Lee Salter What is happening in Greece right now is a microcosm of the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy. A government has been elected whose main platform was to put people before profit and, despite the fact that it had enormous popular support, international financiers have ensured that its platform cannot be realised. Whilst the relation between Greece, the Eurogroup and the Troika more generally is quite simple, the vast majority of the corporate news media across the world has managed to get the story upside down. The notion that the Eurogroup offered a ‘bailout offer’ to ’end the crisis’ is so incredibly wrong that the mind boggles. But it is not just in relation to Greece that the news media has things wrong. The crisis itself has been carefully – and one can only assume that senior politicians, financiers and media moguls are working consciously to achieve this – constructed as a public debt crisis. In 2008 newspapers and television news stations were telling us that Wall Street had crashed, that financial markets were collapsing and that stock markets around the world were tumbling. Yet by 2015 we find ourselves involved in discussions about how to cut public services due to overspending by a Labour government in the previous decade. The propaganda campaign to turn the blame from the banks and financial markets and on to disabled people and the unemployed has been so successful that when Ed Miliband finally attempted to explain the actual cause of the crisis a few days before the election, he was shouted down by members of the BBC Question Time audience. The problem gets more intense when we think of ‘discourses’: bodies of knowledge that frame our understanding of the world. To this end, Michael Chanan and I are currently working on a sequel to our previous documentary, Secret City (which can be viewed here) in which we are looking into money, debt and the discourse of economics. One of the most striking things we’ve found in our research for the new film, Money Puzzles, is that economics is based on a myth about money – that it was invented to replace barter systems. Yet the renowned anthropologist David Graeber argues convincingly in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years that no community has ever used barter as a means to exchange goods. Money isn’t what we think it is, and nor is debt! Rather the myth of barter was simply a thought experiment to fill in a gap in Adam Smith’s theory of market economics. Yet this myth is taught to economists in all of the great universities. Once we start to understand the fallacies of classical economics, we can begin to understand how journalists manage to get it so wrong. As one interviewee told us when asked why economists didn’t see the crisis coming, ‘they weren’t even looking in the right direction’. There is another element that has become visible in the Greek situation. It’s not really about an economic solution to the crisis. Rather, the consensus among activists in Athens, where we are currently filming, seems to be that the Eurogroup led by Germany isn’t interested in solutions – they want to use the crisis to force a deeper and more thoroughgoing form of neoliberalism on to Greece. As the Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas told a conference we filmed, the ‘bailout’ money wouldn’t even make it to Greece – it would simply go straight to the banks that caused the crisis in the first place. Yet this crucial fact is hardly mentioned in the news. The notion that economic powers might not have the interest of Greek people at heart is anathema to reporters. What we hear is of ‘saving’ Greece, of ‘bailing out’, of ‘averting crisis’. We hear little about what’s happening on the ground. We see some poverty porn, a nice human interest story, we see people queuing at banks, and we hear of the possible inconvenience of all this to British tourists. We hear less about the dynamics of recession in people’s lives. A few days ago we visited a Solidarity for All food centre. We were told how Syriza MPs give up 20% of their wages to fund the programme, how farmers donate and sell the food that is not ‘pretty’ enough for supermarkets. We heard how cooperatives are emerging that are bypassing capitalistic structures to the benefit of farmers and recipients of food. We were told of the devastating psychological impact of the crisis on human beings and how support networks have emerged to provide support and free healthcare. So there is a narrative of the brutal effects of the financial crisis on ordinary people but at the same time a narrative of community and solidarity, of creating a different system, a different world. These are stories of political action, of successful social movements that oppose austerity and resist financialisation. Such stories of hope, however, cannot become dominant if they are not reported. This notion also goes some way to explaining the narrative of the ‘bailout’ . Talking today to Christos Giovanopoulos of Solidarity for All, we were told how the Greek media transformed during the crisis, its plurality quashed in favour of presenting a united front in favour of austerity and against Syriza. So in Greece, as in the UK, a monolithic, media system has been united in misrepresenting every aspect of the crisis. Once we understand the political aspects of the situation we can begin to understand why Syriza in Greece can’t be allowed to succeed. If Greece can show that the response to the crisis doesn’t have to be starvation and poverty, then Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and then perhaps the UK and France might follow its lead. Perhaps with this, the hegemony of neoliberalism would face a final challenge. This speaks volumes about the problem of media ownership. When billionaires and financial investors own the means of communication, it would be simply irrational for them to bring about their own destruction by telling the truth. This is why the media around Europe have done their best to turn their attention to the ‘problems’ of immigration and ‘benefit fraud’ rather than tax evasion and unworkable economic policies. This is also why proposals – such as nationalising banks and restructuring the economy to rebalance production – are marginalised. They would hurt the interests of the wealthy. Yet the referendum in Greece a few weeks ago show us that whilst the majority of reporting in the majority of mainstream media leans toward the interests of the oligarchs, financiers and banks, with all the contradiction and absurdity that entails, their power is limited. The picture of why Tsipras called a referendum on the austerity programme (rather than ‘bailout’) and then turn his back on it is not quite clear. Some people have said to us that he didn’t expect to win, others that he didn’t think he would want to be responsible for the further immiseration that would follow a debt default – despite the fact that by all serious accounts is what the ‘deal’ will do anyway. So how did the no vote win against all the odds – against the oligarchs, most EU member states, against the whole of the Greek media and most international media, against most of the political class and against the powerful economic interests? There does seem to be a consensus on this. With the depth of the recession, with the impact on the lives of ordinary people, with the abject failure of previous governments to solve the crisis with austerity, no amount of media propaganda could convince people that their lives were improving nor that austerity was working. The juxtaposition of media lies and lived experience was such that the ideological grip was broken. It does, however, seem to be the case that many Greeks have abandoned mainstream media, especially those under the age of 35 – who also formed the vast majority of those who voted no to austerity. It is also the case that Syriza was, and still is to a degree, a grass roots movement, involving an array of community groups, all of which communicate to members and other audiences that there is an alternative. Against this solidarity we see the old political class discredited and unable to maintain its hegemonic position. The mainstream media are largely failing to communicate these stories. In the UK the dominant class alignment and its control over political institutions, the media and the economy is still so strong that their united front is holding. Michael and I want to challenge this dominant narrative through Money Puzzles. We are seeking not to forefront policy alternatives such as progressive taxation or piecemeal reforms, but to consider the history of money and debt, the rise of capitalism and financialisation and how this has created a fundamental misunderstanding of economics that has left us with a boom and bust. To achieve this we must ourselves struggle with money – we seek to tell stories and understand analyses not just from Greece, but also from Spain, Argentina, Ireland and the UK, and of course this all costs money. As academics and independent film makers are all too aware of how mainstream funding restricts the ability to report adequately and to construct narratives, especially those that unapologetically seek to challenge the structures that are currently inflicting so much misery. It is for this reason that we have chosen to crowdfund our efforts – quite a task as our audience is largely those suffering from the crisis. Yet we are hopeful that if enough people support us with whatever small amounts they can afford, we can make a concrete contribution to understanding the reality of the situation and the alternatives to it. We need all the help we can get, so if you can spare a few pounds, please help us with a donation here.