Interview with Katharine Sarikakis
Many Europeans have lost trust in the media. Biased reports on the crisis, the war in Ukraine or the total lack of coverage regarding other important issues raise questions. How independent are the media? Whose purpose do they serve and what is missing?
EUdyssee has talked to Katharine Sarikakis, Professor for Media Governance at the University of Vienna, about the proximity of media to the political elites, the myth of the unruly Greeks and why left-wing media should learn to be kinder to each other.
EUdyssee: The leading media in Germany judge harshly upon Tsipras and the Syriza government in Greece. They are called a threat to Europe and the Euro (these were Chancellor Merkel’s words after the elections several weeks ago), media repeatedly suggest that Tsipras will isolate Greece from the Eurozone, and both, he and the Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, are continuously criticized for their expressions, behavior and appearance in official meetings. Former Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, was pretty much left alone by the German media. Can you explain why that is?
Katharine Sarikakis: The first thing to state here is that media are generally close to political elites. They have to keep them happy and vice versa. The political line as well as the projected values will be followed by a vast majority of the media, especially opinion leading ones. The new government in Greece is the exact antipode of the political course as represented by the German government. The coalition in Athens comes with specific ideas that oppose the tone set mainly by the German media, ever since the government in Berlin has taken over as the main ‘manager’ of the crisis. Proposing alternatives, as done by the Tsipras government, constitutes a genuine threat, questioning the legitimacy of the current leadership. The course of action is being challenged and put into question.
Across Europe we can observe a lot of protest and many signs of solidarity. We see social movements against austerity policies that all target public assets: health, education, wages and unemployment. The public is challenging the legitimacy of the crisis management, for which the questions that arise from protest movements are dangerous.
At the same time, however, another interesting factor is that the media maintain this narrative of the ‘unruly and bad’ European, when they talk about Greece. At first Greeks were presented as difficult, as the people that allegedly caused the crisis. This myth is being maintained. Only now Greece’s behavior is bad in terms of being moody and unpredictable. When Varoufakis is being referred to as a ‘sexy ideologue’, then this damages his role as a politician and reduces him to a demagogue.
EUdyssee: Which possibilities come with the Syriza government for both, Greece and Europe, and at what risk, especially after a campaign that many people perceived as populist?
Katharine Sarikakis: Well, I do not agree that the campaign was populist. It merely addressed many issues that a broader public is concerned with. Also, many people in Syriza are not professional politicians, which also has an effect on how they presented themselves. And if they fail to deliver on what they promised, then this is mainly because they are not being supported by their so-called European partners, but also from within the party or the Greek parliament. What they said was authentic and their social focus has been overdue for many years now. They never promised that they will solve the financial problems.
Their most important message was: We do have agency as a sovereign state and also as the first left-wing government in Greece. And this brings possibilities. It brings the imagination that another world is possible. Something else that we need to understand is that they don’t just communicate with Troika or the Euro-Group, but with the citizens in Europe, the public, as well with political parties and social movements. They are betting at something more and strive for a different politics in Europe. They remind us that it is in the interest of all to maintain social cohesion. The risk I see does not have to do with the Syriza government itself, but comes with a growing fear from outside that Syriza is too risky for governments like the German or also the UK.
EUdyssee: The Minister of Finance in Athens has sent a letter to Brussels in which he presented the course of action as agreed upon with the Euro group. How do you evaluate the discussions between Varoufakis and the Euro group in general and the special role that German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, took?
Katharine Sarikakis: The way, in which the communication with the new Greek government was handled, can only be described as condescending and disrespectful. Schäuble was not able to disguise his dislike. He is in a leading position and it is worrying to see that he is stuck in his situation, not moving at all. Also, he was using words such as ‘ridiculous’ to describe his peer Varoufakis, which I find unbecoming of a leading politician of his position and inexcusable.
EUdyssee: You are Greek, but you live and teach in Austria. Thus, you know the two sides of the coin. What do you tell Greek people, who want to go back to the drachma, hoping for an easier way out of the crisis on the one hand?
Katharine Sarikakis: Well, to the Greeks I say that a return to the Drachma is not necessarily the best solution. Greece is not like Argentina or Italy, countries that have resources and industry and can sustain themselves. I also remind them of the sacrifices that were made in order to enter and remain in the Eurozone, namely all the years of austerity now and in the past. Nor must we forget that the country suffered from one recession to the next in the eighties. A huge majority of the Greek people was in favor of the new currency.
Also, the whole narrative of the so-called “grexit” is being used as a means of intimidation. Just thinking about that, right after Greece had announced the new elections, German media reported, the government does no longer regard a grexit-scenario as unthinkable. That is scare mockery.
EUdyssee: And what do you say to Germans and Austrians, who criticize the new government for their focus on what they call the “human catastrophe” in their country on the other hand?
Katharine Sarikakis: To others, and not only the Germans or Austrians, I say that facts speak for themselves. Most negative opinions are based on gross generalizations and it is of utmost importance to look at actual numbers and the context. One third of the Greeks live beyond the poverty line, the public service is totally destroyed.
All independent non-governmental organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International speak of a humanitarian crisis. And looking at the collapse of the health system, the lack of freedom of expression, the handling of migrants – all of this shows that this humanitarian crisis cannot be denied.
The media have misled people into believing that all the money, which was paid, actually went to Greece in order to reduce the debt. That is false. Information in the media is not transparent. They mainly play with this whole package of stereotypes, the lazy Greek, who spends all the money and so forth. In reality, all the statistics show that Greece is among the countries with the longest working hours and, on the other hand, with the lowest expectations for the future.
Overall, one has to understand that reality is a complex issue. And it is difficult to maintain constructive discussions while being bombarded with simplified messages. Also, journalists have to produce more for considerably less money nowadays, which has a vast effect on how information is being presented, since explaining reality is about as complex as reality itself.
EUdyssee: Thinking about the future of a united Europe, what measures will have to be taken in order to bridge the gaps between the people, national states and Brussels? In what way can grass-root democracy and the media (both new and traditional) contribute to achieve these goals?
Katharine Sarikakis: We have to distinguish here between all the different dialogues among the European peoples on the one hand, and between the financial and political elites on the other hand. The latter is marked by a history of conflict and separation. The dialogue between the people you find is different. There are growing movements and demonstrations, as well as participation in social media that are neither mainstream nor a niche.
We need media that are as free from business or political influence as possible and we need sensitized journalists who will not settle for easy answers. The media and all the grass-root movements we find in Europe have to work together more efficiently. Also, left-wing media have to learn to be kinder and more respectful to each other, one has to look for alliances that serve the mission, what for the media is to be the watchdog of power.
We, the people, have to remind both, media and politics, of the role they have. The state has a contract with the citizens to serve them and this contract needs to be upheld. Media also have this kind of obligation to society.
Professor Katharine Sarikakis researches the political processes and political economic dimensions of media and communications governance, nationally and globally. In her work, institutions are central spaces for the construction of ideas, legitimacy and exercise of control. Her current research explores these dimensions through the tensions of varying forms and degrees of state intervention upon individuals and communication and media industries.
She is currently working on a research monograph that explores issues of control over citizenship through commercial and political surveillance and communication and cultural policies of copyright, labour and ownership. The book Communication and Control is contracted by Palgrave Macmillan.