May 15 2019

A Polarized yet Hollow Debate: The Journalistic Coverage of the Greek Memoranda

By Christos Kostopoulos

The three memoranda signed between various Greek governments and the creditor Troika have been one of the most important European political issues in this decade, generating a lot of journalistic and scholarly interest. This article presents findings from a framing analysis (you can find the complete research here) conducted on three mainstream Greek newspapers (Avgi, Kathimerini, Ta Nea). These frames were compared with the advocate frames promoted through the announcements of the four constant parties in the Greek Parliament throughout this period (PASOK, Nea Dimokratia, SYRIZA, KKE), in order to shed light on the range of democratic debate fostered by the media and the political opinions that were legitimated through their application in the press.

Starting with the first memorandum in 2010 the examination of frames from all three newspapers reveals the range of the debate. The memorandum is discussed mainly in terms of the division between those who are for it and against it, and its good and bad qualities. The framing of the newspapers follows the advocate frames of the two larger parties PASOK and ND, whereas SYRIZA, a marginal party at that point, also manages to be included, because it’s frames fit on the range of legitimate opinions. All the newspapers apply advocate frames by three out of the four major political parties, whereas none of them includes KKE frames. From a market perspective the positions of KKE are not interesting, as lower income workers form it’s main electoral base. Additionally, the examination of the exclusion of the frame from a political and ideological standpoint reveals the limits of the liberal consensus. The analysis of the frames in 2010 reveals that positions that promote a wider criticism of the capitalist mode of production fall outside the acceptable limits of debate. The main frames construct the debate around the issues of efficiency of the measures, their impact, and issues of sovereignty and democracy. The causal attribution dimension revolves around the political game with the parties accusing each other for the crisis, while there is also some blame attributed to the troika. Finally, the solutions discussed concern the future of the memorandum with positions ranging from the necessity of the successful implementation of the program, to its adjustment or complete cancelation. The application of frames is not identical by all newspapers, reflecting a multitude of evaluative positions. Nonetheless, the debate is set around the memorandum without addressing wider reaching topics and alternatives that would question the economic system, which was under a crisis globally. This framing of the debate cuts off the Greek crisis from the global developments and treats it as an issue of management of the system, to be solved by the system itself.

The debate around the memoranda in 2012 is constructed around four pillars. The first one concerns the memoranda, discussing their implementation, their impact, and issues of democracy and sovereignty. The causal attribution dimension is constructed around the government and the troika, shifting the blame for the outcomes of the memoranda. The solutions provided range from the implementation of the memorandum as it is, to its adjustment or complete cancelation. The second pillar concerns the negotiation between the Greek government and the troika and whether it is a hard or soft negotiation. Depending on the frame, blame is shifted between the government and the troika and solutions stem either from the government itself or from its replacement by SYRIZA. Furthermore, a discussion is formed around the European aspect of the crisis that was absent in the previous period. The final pillar concerns the rise of SYRIZA and that debate is structured around the possibility of Greece exiting the euro as an outcome of electing an antimemorandum party and the rise of populism in the country. The solutions suggest supporting parties that do not engage in populism and believe in Greece’s participation in the EU. Therefore, the framing of the debate in 2011/12 fosters a very polarized debate within very constrained limits and options. The discussion focuses on the memorandum itself, without criticizing or questioning the fundamentals of the economic system. The developments are not contextualized and are mainly discussed as part of the political game of the country. The European aspect of the crisis is introduced in this period, however, a polarized but strategically converging debate is constructed. The positions taken do not question participation in the EU, but only diverge on visions regarding its future, as well as the issue of Greece’s national currency albeit while remaining in the wider European framework. Frames questioning Greece’s participation in the EU, such as KKE’s, are muted, indicating where the limits of acceptable political discourse lie in this period.

The final period is 2015. A significant break in the construction of the debate around the memoranda takes place in 2015, due to SYRIZA’s ascent to power. The debate about the memoranda has moved on from the division between positions for or against the memoranda. The frames promoted by the parties against the memorandum are still applied, however since SYRIZA, the largest party sponsoring those frames, signs a new memorandum the situation changes. These frames are now less commonly applied, mainly sponsored by dissenting SYRIZA MPs and associated with a return to the national currency. Therefore these frames are moving towards the sidelines without an important political sponsor and because of their association with a widely unpopular exit from the Eurozone. The main framing topics in this period are the stance towards the government, the framing of the new memorandum and of the negotiation that brought it about. The debate remains very polarized and one could argue that the animosity of some outlets towards the new government has increased the seeming intensity of the confrontation. However, the political developments have further shrunk the limits of this confrontation, as after SYRIZA signs the third memorandum, the frames that are criticizing the memoranda are left without a significant political sponsor and are exiting the forefront of political confrontation. With the new focus of the debate being on the government, the crisis itself is leaving the media spotlight, despite the persistence of economic and social problems plaguing Greece. The wider and European implications of the Greek case are not discussed in this period, but even the management of the problems, namely the memoranda, is being normalized and naturalized. This is an outcome of the process of presenting a debate that is focused on the political managers of the memoranda, which is an even more simplistic view of the case of the Greek crisis and reflects the even more constrained limits of acceptable debate in 2015.

What the evolution of the framing of the debate around the Greek memoranda from 2010 to 2015 reflects is the power of the media to make those that are in appear as relevant, while those that are out have a much harder time to get their opinions through as they appear to be out of the conversation. Therefore, the press constructed highly polarized debates albeit within opinions that strategically converge presenting an image of a vibrant democratic debate, which however lacks both depth and substance.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics.

Christos Kostopoulos holds a PhD in Media and Communications awarded by the University of Leicester and a MSc in Global Studies awarded by Lunds Universitet. His research interests lie in the intersections of framing theory with political economy and the democratic role of the media.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

Greece – Deal or no deal? Parameters of a decision

Greece’s government deserves benefit of doubt

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