Friday, 8 August 2008

Greece's image in the world

The beating to death of an Australian tourist on Mykonos has woken Greeks up to the question of how the rest of the world perceives this country. It is a periodic awakening, usually following senseless deaths of tourists.

Last year two French tourists drowned in the bowels of the cruise ship Sea Diamond, run aground by its captain off Santorini. In 2006 two British siblings died tragically of carbon monoxide poisoning when the boiler of their rented bungalow on Corfu malfunctioned. In 2003 a young Briton was slashed to death with a broken bottle in the Rhodes resort of Faliraki following a night of binge drinking. Such stories are inevitably going to generate headlines in countries whose nationals suffer.

Sometimes the tourism-related stories are objectively important. In the biggest such story in recent years, 121 passengers and crew were killed in 2005 when a Cypriot Boeing 737 failed to compress at high altitude and plunged into eastern Attica. And Greece made international headlines in 2000 when 85 people drowned on board the Express Samina in the country's second-worst maritime disaster.

Travel and tourism-related stories, along with natural disasters such as last year's forest fires, also happen to be the biggest international headlines Greece has generated since the 2004 Olympics. This is both good and bad. As one veteran foreign correspondent points out (see article on page 5), it is a sign of how economic and political progress have moved Greece on from the upheavals of civil war, reconstruction and dictatorship between the 1940s and the 1970s; but it is also a signal that Greece is politically and economically trivial - a resort country the rest of the world remembers when the second home market heats up.

The trivialisation of Greece is not all its own doing. The country is partly a victim of the trivialisation of world news. As print media and even television begin to go into the red, news-gathering budgets are being slashed. The only news bureaus in Athens are run by the workhorses of the industry - the wire agencies - which act as a press pool for their clients. Besides them, few news organisations here offer salaried positions. Even active freelancers are few, and a press ministry demand that their dispatches be their chief source of income is a bit of a joke.

The dearth of news-gathering cash is leading to travesties; wire agencies now see their stories cannibalised by would-be correspondents, or sometimes stolen wholesale by desk editors in London and New York who can't afford to field a journalist (or can't be bothered to).

Greece is also partly a victim of each country's natural introspection. With so many foreign nationals visiting (they were the majority of 16 million arrivals last year), any deaths during the news-starved summer months will cause disproportional headlines back home and displace other, perhaps more important, stories.

But if Greece cares about its image globally - and all the indications are that it does - it only seems to remember half the time. Television talkfests buzz with concern over the fallout on tourism and national pride every time a foreign medium criticises Greece; but when the furore is forgotten, it does not seem to occur to anyone that the country's self-determination is its biggest story.

In the postwar stories, the political and social revolution that was the coming to power of Pasok in 1981, in being the eurozone straggler in 2001 and the country with the lowest expectations to hold the Olympics for some time, Greece was seen as striving for something. Our spectacular foreign policy turnaround in 1999 took Turkey by surprise and we leveraged the European Union effectively enough to nearly solve the division of Cyprus in 2004.

Increasingly, though, Greece seems to be getting bogged down in complacency and an inability to pass economic and social reforms. Either they are not passed to the extent that they are necessary (each administration seeming to be in conversation with the next) or not addressed at all. That is the case in the environment and the perception of corruption and lack of transparency, meritocracy and accountability in the public sector.

When a country seems to be at a stalemate with itself the media tend to lose interest. When it seems to be on the cusp of change the microphones come closer. Without a slew of reforms Greece will only be subject to the stories it cannot generate or suppress - human tragedy and natural disaster. It will be in terms of the media and real terms in the hands of fate.

One foreign correspondent speaking to this newspaper put it best: "There's no sense of the country having any specific task to complete."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.