“B(u)ild your Opinion”1 on Greece and “the Greeks”.
The Coverage of the Greek Debt Crisis in the German Tabloid Bild
Greece in the German popular press
“Pilloried naked as a defaulter, a country to whom you used to owe thanks is suffering.”2
With these words, from the poem “Europe’s shame”, the German writer Günter Grass expressed his disapproval of Europe and its handling of Greece during the financial crisis. This included what he saw as the abasement of the county that is still today often referred to as the “cradle of European culture”. Even after Grass had been criticized following his controversial poem on Israel, these lines continue to apply to parts of the German press. Beginning in 2010, the German press’s coverage of the event was of such unfamiliar fierceness and aggressiveness that the neologism “Greece-bashing” emerged to describe it.3 An example of this phenomenon is the article published in FOCUS titled “2000 Years of Decline”. In it, the author first identified the contrast between glorious ancient Greece and its deficient modern successor state. Secondly, the article pushed Greece into an inglorious special position among the European nations:
“But is not the whole Mediterranean area, for example is Italy in a similar situation? More or less. The Italians are, after all, are still leading in fashion and especially in gastronomy worldwide. Greek fashion? Greek design? Never heard of it. And gourmets steer clear of the food.”4
Of course in the German media scene there is also coverage that refrains from simplified depictions of such kind and that relativize the shortcomings of the Greek financial system with comparisons to other European countries with similar problems. However, this is rarely the case in the articles of the daily newspaper with the highest circulation, BILD. As shown before, BILD is not the only medium that juggles with questionable comparisons and stereotypical portrayals. Yet BILD’s hate campaign, which included an entire series of articles on Greece’s key role in the European financial crisis, has been so outstanding that it even became a topic of discussion in other newspapers. In 2015, the left-alternative, Berlin based newspaper TAGESZEITUNG (TAZ), for instance, labelled BILD’s coverage of Greece as “nationalistic and one-sided”. At the same time, the German Journalists Association (DJV) demanded that BILD stop the protest campaign it had been running, in which the newspaper invited readers to take a picture of themselves holding up a poster against further aid for Greece. The national chairman of the DJV justified his decision as follows: “As a matter of fact, the popular press employs a different language and a different journalistic style. The selfie campaign by Bild.de, however, is overstepping the line towards a political campaign.”5
Yet, is it really correct to speak of BILD’s coverage as a political campaign? And if yes, what does the campaign consists of? What are the guiding themes of this campaign and in which forms of rhetoric are they imbedded? What image of Greece – an image that confronts so many people every day – does BILD promote? The basis of the following research is the print editions of BILD from January 2010 to June 2015.
From a financial crisis to a national conflict.
The term “campaign” is quite applicable in this situation given the consistently recurring articles accusing Greece, and the Greeks respectively, of the serious condition of the Euro from the beginning of 2010 onward. Instead of providing the reader with a nuanced depiction of the complex circumstances of the crisis and the possible fault of international protagonists, Greece was pushed into the role of Europe’s “black sheep”. As such, it was endangering the whole European Union and its currency6: “The prices fall more and more. Do the Greeks destroy the Euro?” (March 2, 2010, p. 1).
Quickly, the reasons that led to the whole crisis were presented. Specifically, this referred to the shortcomings of the Greek financial and fiscal system which were allegedly unique in the Eurozone. From the bloated bureaucracy (whose exact extent nobody seemed to know), to corruption, inappropriate extravagance and excess, as well as greedy politicians, Greece seemed to have become (at least in BILD articles) the opposite of supposed European values. Headlines about the welfare system and special regulations sounded surreal and alien to some readers. Indeed, so much so that Greek journalist Xenia Kounalaki’s remark that some German media outlets had created a kind of “new orientalism”, placing Greece in opposition to Europe, was not totally unfounded.7 Here are some examples:
- “Corruption! In Greece hardly anything works without bribe anymore.” (February 1, 2010, p. 2)
- “Greeks do not know how many officials they have.” (July 17, 2010, p. 1)
- “That’s why the Greeks never creep out of the crisis. 18 monthly salaries. Double pensions. Bonus for washing hands and punctuality. Days off have 28 hours. 800 politicians want deferred payments of millions.” (May 13, 2011, p. 2))
The portrayal of the „Greek mentality“
Soon BILD also delivered the corresponding “typically Greek” mentality to accompany the picture of a failed state. It conveyed the more or less implicit opinion that Greece could not be helped because even its people were reluctant, unteachable and incapable of implementing austerity measures:
- “General Strike, Street Battles! That’s what Greeks understand as saving.” (March 12, 2010, p. 2)
- “BILD with the crash Greeks. Crisis? Which crisis?” (April 26, 2010, p. 2)
- “Strike in Athens. We do not want to save money!” (April 2, 2010, p. 2)
- “Greeks are still wasting money!” (May 13, 2011, p. 1)8
The picture of the excessive, corrupt and chaotic Greek was extended by another attribute that pushed him further into a state of twilight and molded him into somebody that could not be trusted – the recurrent motif of the Greek as a deceiver that made his way into the Eurozone only by fraud:
- “How Greece deceived the EU” (April 30, 2010, p. 2)
- “BILD uncovers! The Euro Lie. This is how the Greeks spoofed us!” (October 29, 2010, p. 1)
- “Are the Greeks cheating again?” (June 27, 2012, p. 2)
The contrasting of Greece and Germany
This very negative image of Greece and the Greeks was intensified when contrasted with a very idealized picture of Germany. A remarkable example of this is the open letter to the Greek premier published by BILD on the occasion of his visit to Germany in March 2010. It started with the words: “Dear Mr. Prime Minister, when you read these lines, you have entered a country, that is totally different to yours. You are in Germany.” The letter explicitly lists the differences between the two countries and the reasons behind German economic success, at least according to BILD. Here is only one example taken from the text: “In Germany petrol stations have cash registers, the taxi drivers write receipts and the farmers do not misuse EU subsidies with millions of olive trees that do not exist at all” (March 5, 2010, p. 2).
The fueling of sentiments of injustice
This sentiment of superiority fueled by BILD was quickly accompanied by a fostered sense of injustice at the idea that the Germans who, “get up quite early and work the whole day,” and who, “always save a part of our [the German’s] salary for bad times,” (March 5, 2010, p. 2) have to share their money with the Greeks:
- “We already knew! The Greeks want our money!” (April 24, 2010, p. 2)
- “750 billion for crash neighbours, but the tax reduction is cancelled. We are again Europe’s losers! (May 11, 2010, p. 1)
With that in mind, headlines proclaiming the Greeks’ ingratitude were possibly seen with even more dismay and eventually lead to the request of the Greeks’ expulsion from the Eurozone: “We are paying and they are swearing at us. Boot the Greeks out of the Euro finally!” (February 17, 2012, p. 2)
The wish for compensation and the corresponding idea delivered by BILD was also embedded in this rhetoric of injustice: “The government in Athens wants to save strongly now – but what if that is not enough? Just sell your islands, you crash Greeks… and with them the Acropolis!” (March 4, 2010, p. 2)
The creation of two opponents
Looking at the last three examples, another recurrent phenomenon BILD’s coverage of Greece can be observed: The employment of the pronouns “we/ours” and “you/yours”. This stylistic device highlights the opposition between the lazy Greeks, who are to blame for the crisis, and the hard-working Germans who have to pay the Greeks’ bill. Thus two opponents are artificially created.9 Headlines like, “As if we were isolated. These are our friends in the Euro crisis!” (June 29, 2012, p. 2), and the explicit listing of who these friends are, underlines this obvious friend-enemy-schema. Indeed, since the election victory of the “Syriza” party the Greeks have been presented more or less implicitly as an enemy: “THE RUSSIAN or THE GREEK. Who is more dangerous for us?” (February 19, 2015, p. 2).
Yet, whereas this we-you-rhetoric divides the Greeks and the Germans at least on paper, the rhetoric simultaneously fosters the collective feeling of the German readership. Bickes/Otten/Weymann comment on this issue: “The collectivization also serves the purpose to express unity and solidarity within the collective. For the readership, the messages of the BILD articles become more personal and trigger a direct feeling of involvement.”10
The interaction with readers and politicians
BILD tried to transfer this feeling of involvement directly into readers’ actions. Thus the newspaper, on several occasions, invited their readers to express their opinions on the Greek crisis. This occurred for instance in a survey held in November 2011: “Greek drama. Mrs Merkel, that’s how we want to vote!” (November 3, 2011, p. 2). Given the options “YES, go on throwing money after them!” and “NO, not a single cent more for the crash Greeks, take the money away from them!” the reader, or voter, was obviously pushed toward one direction. Bickes/Otten/Weyman, moreover, indicate another function and outcome of such votes: the principle of “the majority rules” which means that, “members of a community are strongly influenced by what the majority consider as legitimate. Hence surveys and statistics are effective instruments for the formation of opinion. […] Especially with lacking background knowledge that, what everyone thinks seems most likely to be right.”11
The final step of the anti-Greek campaign was the direct address and instructions issued by BILD to both the readership as well as to the politicians themselves. Thus, the newspaper attempted to put pressure on politicians either via its readers or directly through its own articles:
- “Dear politicians, would you guarantee with your private property for the Greek billions? Dear readers, send this letter to your deputy!” (May 4, 2010, p. 2)
- “EU aid for the Greeks. Mrs Merkel, keep to your NO!” (March 24, 2010, p. 2)
- “Tomorrow government policy statement on Greece. Mrs Merkel, this is the speech we want to hear from you.” (June 17, 2015, p. 2)
Looking at the individual motifs of BILD’s coverage of the Greek financial crisis, we find that the motifs are well-matched and truly convey the impression of a systematic campaign against further aid for Greece, as well as against the Greek state and its people. Whereas some media generated a negative image of the country by comparing Greece with its ancient ancestor, BILD hardly used historical comparisons but instead contrasted a “faulty Greece” with a “successful Germany”. In doing so, it conveyed the impression of two opponents. The assumed anti-Greek atmosphere among the readership, which was fueled by BILD through the sentiment of personal involvement and injustice, was used in an attempt to apply direct pressure on German politics. This took place in the form of surveys, calls for action on the part of the readership and open letters to politicians which reached their peak with an appeal for Greece’s expulsion from the Eurozone. Bickes/Otten/Weymann remark that the discourse about Greece in the German press can only be grasped when one keeps in mind the previous coverage of the global financial crisis and its difficulty in naming actual culprits. In Greece, and its people, BILD found a “punching bag” to which it could more easily assign blame than to abstract terms like “financial markets”, “economic system”, etc.12
According to Arlt/Storz, who conducted extensive research on BILD’s coverage of Greece in 2010, the anti-Greek campaign was not arranged well in advance but was the result of a steady working process. Yet, Arlt/Storz regard the campaign against further aid for Greece, and BILD’s subsequent intervention in politics, as a deliberate decision made by the newspaper’s management.13 In this context, the headline from October 2012 which stated “Nobel Peace Prize for EU. 27 countries. 23 languages. 67 years of peace: We all can be a bit proud of that” (October 13, 2012, p. 1) sounds rather ironic, given that BILD had conveyed the impression that it was not really eager to preserve this peace.
It is not correct to claim that there is no neutral coverage at all of Greece in BILD, but these articles are definitely in the minority. Mostly they consist of only a few sentences and seem almost invisible beside the extensive articles of the anti-Greek campaign that, without doubt, prevail. Of course it is hard to say to what extent the Greek image distributed by BILD influences the opinion of its many readers, but it is not unlikely that the consistent recurrence of stereotypes and clichés at least leaves a mark.
- Allusion to BILD’s German slogan: “Bild dir deine Meinung” (Engl.: Build/Form your opinion). ↩
- Günter Grass, Europas Schande, Website of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, 27 May 2012, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/gedicht-von-guenter-grass-zur-griechenland-krise-europas-schande-1.1366941.” Translations from German by the author. ↩
- Hans Bickes/ Tina Otten/ Laura Chelsea Weymann, Die Rolle der Medien, in: Ulf-Dieter Klemm/ Wolfgang Schultheiß, eds, Die Krise in Griechenland. Ursprünge, Verlauf, Folgen, Frankfurt am Main 2015, 326-351, 326. ↩
- Michael Klonovsky, 2000 Jahre Niedergang, in: Website of the FOCUS, 22.2.2010, http://www.focus.de/finanzen/news/staatsverschuldung/wirtschaft-2000-jahre-niedergang_aid_482500.html. ↩
- Press release of the German Journalists Association, Selfie-Aktion von Bild.de. Sofortiger Stopp gefordert, 26.2.2015, http://www.djv.de/startseite/profil/der-djv/pressebereich-download/pressemitteilungen/detail/article/sofortiger-stopp-gefordert.html. ↩
- Bickes/Otten/Weymann, Rolle, 334-5. ↩
- Jannis Panagiotidis, Die Krise ist kein Fußballspiel. Bemerkungen zu einem medial inszenierten Konflikt, Südosteuropa 60 (2012), 433-454, 452-3.; Headlines like “Dead persons in Athens! Severe riots in Greece. Protesters burn three people” (6 May 2010, p. 1) and “Mass protests against austerity measures. Crash Greeks want to “eat” their politicians.” (30 May 2011, p. 2) strengthen the impression of a non-European people. ↩
- By reporting on individual cases that corresponded to the image created by BILD, that is the negative idea of the lazy and corrupt Greek, the image itself was further fostered: “Greek politician resigns…because her husband has tax debts of 5 Million” (19 May 2010, p. 2), “Greek minister feasted at government expense” (21 May 2010, p. 2), “Despite the crisis! That’s how rich Greeks enjoy their lives in luxury” (11 June 2012, p. 2). The motif of the unteachable Greek was especially intensified after the government takeover of the radical left wing party “Syriza”, when the rhetoric referred strongly to an apprentice-teacher-relationship: “Bild interview with the president of the European parliament: Will you rap the Greek premier over the knuckles, Mr Schulz?” (29 January 2015, p. 2), “What Athens can learn from the rebuilding of East Germany” (23 March 2015, p. 2); “Look at this, Mr Tsipras, THAT is saving” (23 March 2015, p. 2-3). ↩
- Bickes/Otten/Weyman, Rolle 337f. ↩
- Bickes/Otten/Weymann, Rolle, 338. ↩
- Bickes/Otten/Weymann, Rolle 340-1. ↩
- Ibid., 347. ↩
- Hans-Jürgen Arlt/ Wolfgang Storz, Drucksache „Bild“ – eine Marke und ihre Mägde. Die „Bild“-Darstellung der Griechenland- und Eurokrise 2010, Frankfurt am Main 2011, 18. ↩