Thursday, 5 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 5 July 2012

This week, I managed to escape the city. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’m now slaving over a hot keyboard as I sit at a battered kitchen table several decades older than me, under the shade of a feral grape vine in the back yard of my in-laws’ small country house an hour’s drive from Athens.

And yet, although the insistent buzz of the cicadas has replaced the city’s shouts and sirens as my workday soundtrack, my escape is incomplete. The noisy insects have a rival for the attention of my eardrums – the relentless drone, and occasional explosion, of wall-to-wall TV news from the moment my husband’s parents make their morning coffee til late at night when they head for their bed.

Like many things in the country, the Greek way of delivering broadcast news takes some getting used to – especially if, like me, you’ve been raised on a diet of BBC’s Radio 4, ITN’s News at Ten or (on particularly daring days) Channel 4 News.

Greek news broadcasts are an entirely different beast. Though the main channels aspire to the standards set by Auntie Beeb, CNN, even Al Jazeera, with fancy opening titles, dramatic music and somber-faced anchormen, they don’t quite deliver.

For domestic news, especially politics, the main order of the day – every day – is shouting. Loudly, insistently and without a care for whether viewers can actually make any sense of what they’re watching. In a news technique particularly loved by the country’s private TV channels, a panel of guests are invited to (ahem) ‘debate’ the issues of the day, with each talking head shown on screen in a separate ‘parathyraki’ (little window). Perhaps it harks back to the days when the news of the day was passed from window to window in the villages that many Greeks still consider their ancestral home.

In reality, guests will probably be seated around the same table in the studio, but on screen we see each one in their own little box. And even before newsreader finishes their intro, we know that that three or four of squares will spend much of the following debate staring blankly out at us, saying nothing but looking increasingly frustrated and taking sneaky peeks at their watches, while the two most vocal – or extreme – members of the panel with go at it hammer and tongs. Most times, it’s little more than a formalised slanging match, a legitimised form of a schoolyard brawl (quite literally in a recent case), that viewers can justify watching in the name of staying abreast of the news of the day.

Almost everyone complains about the news programmes, whether it be for their sensationalism, political bias or obsession with plunging necklines for female newscasters. But the older generation, a highly-politicised group who built their lives against a backdrop of post-WW2 hardship, civil war, military dictatorship, the return of democracy and a period of prosperity before the current storm, stay loyal.

Not so, however, their children and grandchildren. They have grown up with, or been born into, the digital age. More and more, the theme tune of the morning, midday, early evening, mid evening and late night news is their cue to switch off, change channel or head out of the room for a toilet break. It’s not that they don’t want to be informed – though many would love to be able to simply turn a blind eye to the daily diet of doom and gloom – they just don’t trust the TV to deliver anymore.

Civilian journalism is on the rise. Countless blogs and portals have sprung up to keep the citizens of Greece – and beyond – abreast of what’s going on, and what’s not, in the country. Some are reliable. Others little more than rumour-mills. Some are highly professional. Others would make a fifth grade school project look good. Some strive to maintain balance. Others have a clear (or worse, hidden) political axe to grind. Here, as elsewhere, the extreme open access nature of the www is both its blessing and its curse.

Since I first arrived in Athens 23 years ago, the news landscape has changed beyond recognition. Then, TV was a stark choice of what was on the menu of the state-sponsored broadcaster, ERT. Today, myriads of private channels vie for the attention of your living room, and more and more people go online for their updates.

Babble is the order of the day, even in the idyllic Greek countryside. Most humble country retreats are equipped with antennas, so even when sipping your frappe over a game of backgammon on a balcony with a view of the Aegean, there’s always a timely reminder of the impending doom to compete with the shimmering summer heat and incessant cicadas.

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