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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Our Opinion

Olympic Gamesmanship


Reporting on the numerous problems (from organization to construction to security) that have plagued the preparations for the Athens Olympiad has been a staple of the foreign press since the countdown to the opening of this year’s summer Olympics began. For the last two and a half years, Greece and the games’ Greek organizers have been under the continuous and relentless scrutiny of the foreign media — or, to be more precise, the US, British, and Australian media.

This should not have come as a surprise to anyone, of course. The Olympics are a global event of overwhelming proportions, and unremitting media attention is inevitable. What was also to be expected was that, following September 11, the world’s collective paranoia and fear of terrorism would make it impossible for security concerns not to be ceaselessly ruminated over, analyzed, and examined. In the event, it would have been naïve to think that the serious — and, in many ways, unjustifiable — delays in the construction of Olympic venues, the related infrastructural and organizational issues, and Greece’s longstanding reputation as a “terrorist haven” would be ignored by the media. Furthermore, as we draw closer to opening day, it’s only natural that reporting on the Olympics will multiply at an exponential rate and that a large number of these reports will inevitably violate any possible definition of objective journalism.

What has come as a surprise, however, is the sheer malice and schadenfreude, tantamount to a vindictive glee, of the Anglo-American-Antipodean media campaign, which has now not only passed into what can only be described as libel, but has, actually, in recent instances, literally involved acts of illegality and — the crux of it all — provocation. We’ll give only two examples.

The first concerns the segment on the Olympics aired on HBO’s Real Sports last week (May 18), a particularly egregious case of “reportage” that bordered on science fiction. The usual “security expert”(yes, singular) was trotted out, this time a former FBI agent who actually stated that the only city that would have been worse than Athens for this year’s Olympiad would have been…Baghdad! The clincher in this “objective” look at the run-up to the Olympics’ opening, however, was the reference to November 17, which the piece’s “reporter,” Bernard Goldberg, introduced to his blithely ignorant American audience by saying that it “is anti-capitalist [and] leftist.” The careful reader will have noticed something strange in our citation: Mr. Goldberg used the present tense. Indeed, he repeatedly alluded to the “threat” posed by November 17. Strangely (?) enough, however, Mr. Goldberg did not make a single mention of the fact that the group was, of course, broken up almost two years ago, all its members subsequently arrested and tried, and — minor details, these — now serving their prison sentences.

It behooves us to mention that Mr. Goldberg is not your average, run-of-the-mill reporter; Tom Shales, the Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic of the Washington Post, has described him (see “Ex-Newsman’s Case Full of Holes, http://www.TVweek.com, 2002) as “the one-time CBS News correspondent and full-time addlepated windbag” and “no-talent hack” who is “trying to make a second career out of trashing his former employer.” Shales has written that, “Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly [are]…intellectual giants by comparison” to Bernard Goldberg, the author of two books “exposing” (what else?) “liberal bias” in the media. The problem, however, is that Mr. Goldberg is notorious among his (former and current) colleagues for his own less-than-unbiased reporting, which has been described by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog group, as “long on name-calling and vitriol, and short on substance” (see “‘Bias’ Isn’t Supported — Because It’s Not True” by Steve Rendall and Peter Hart, www.fair.org, January 20, 2002) — a precise description, under the circumstances, of his segment on Real Sports.

The second example is, if such a thing is possible, even more outrageous than the one above and involves what is arguably the most famous — if no longer the most respected — newspaper in the English-speaking world, The Times of London. At this point, we’ll let someone else — a British reporter, actually — tell the story. We quote in extenso from “What game is Murdoch playing?” published by The Guardian on May 16 and written by its veteran Athens correspondent, Helena Smith.

Has Rupert Murdoch declared war on Greece? After the [London] Times’s latest sensational scoop, chronicling the ease with which two of its journalists breached Olympic security, many Greeks are asking just that.

The stunt, splashed and described in vivid detail in Friday’s edition, is all the more graphic because Greeks had read all about it in equally vivid detail some 24 hours earlier. If the Athens government is to be believed, the two Times staff were picked up and arrested trying to prise their way into the main Olympic stadium long before they ever got inside.

Precisely because the arena is under construction — and resembles more of a building site than a venue — security is not yet in force and won’t be until 1 July. Indeed, three days before the Times’s intrepid attempts to break the “Olympic ring of steel,” I had taken the same route, walking across the car park and straight into the stadium, escorted by a Ghanaian gardener. It was broad daylight and the guardsman had waved us in, happily. All the details are in my notebook.

Following this month’s embarrassing bombings, Olympic host Athens has got what it dreads most — a bad press. But no other group has covered Greece’s perilous Olympic preparations as gleefully as News International [Rupert Murdoch’s company]….

In the space of three weeks, the paper has carried more stories on the Greeks’ modern Olympic drama than it has from its Athens correspondent over the past two months. Together, the Times and the Sun ran 45 stories in the first week of May….

It’s a good story that any decent journal would want to carry. But the Times has gone one step further. Last week, after inspectors from the International Olympic Committee heaped glowing praise on the progress the city had made, the paper continued its withering criticism under the headline: “Athens will be ready, but what about roads?”…

International coverage of Athens’ Olympic preparations has increasingly become a story in itself. Following this month’s triple bomb blasts outside an Athens police station, almost every single medium in Greece carried reports on what was widely viewed as the “exaggerated reaction” of the world press….

But, once again, it was the Times’s coverage that rankled most. “The bombs shattered attempts by the Greek government to reassure participating countries that security in Athens was adequate,” the paper wrote in its report on the attacks last Thursday.…

Local media watchers have increasingly begun to wonder if the Times is harbouring some kind of vendetta against Greece. After all, they say, Athens is spending a record $1 billion on mounting the biggest security operation in the 108-year history of the modern Olympics. Sydney, by contrast, spent less than a third of that amount — a fact that even the US press has praised….

Local belief that the Times might have a hidden agenda is rooted as much in its controversial front-page scoops as the fact that the paper is also involved in a court case for libel in Greece.

The civil action, which could result in the paper being ordered to cough up considerable damages, was brought by the lawyers and judges involved in the appeals court trial of the British planespotters arrested on spying charges in 2001.

On the eve of the verdict, the paper ran another front-page story suggesting that the enthusiasts’ defence team had bribed the judges to cut a “secret [£5,000] deal to free the Britons.”…

Enraged by its “Johnny Foreigner is corrupt” tone, both the Greek judges and lawyers who were supposed to be bribing them, got together and slapped the paper with a writ. On 6 May, the drama moved to Athens’ Court of First Instance after both parties failed to reach a settlement. Another hearing has been set for October.

What Greeks are also asking is can this case be Rupert [Murdoch]’s long-smouldering casus belli?

This is an astonishing story, and doesn’t need further comment from us. We will only add that anyone who knows Helena Smith’s work also knows that she is no kneejerk philhellene. Quite the opposite, she has always been a critical observer of Greece, and of its government(s), who has never failed to strike a sore spot when she feels the country deserves it. The fact that she, a British journalist, has catalogued this bill of particulars against the preeminent institution of British journalism is almost as revealing as the story she recounts, and indicative of how out-of-control things have gotten.

And where is the Greek government — current and previous — in all this? Huffing and puffing — and playing catch-up — as usual, but also (as usual) relatively clueless. While it has apparently put together a media “crisis” team to deal with the attacks, the truth is that this coterie of bureaucrats and kalamarades (or penpushers, as Palamas or Kazantzakis would have said) has been put together basically to feed local consumption and satisfy internal political needs. The stock-in-trade of these government officials and so-called “media experts” are stereotypical, defensive, and ultimately vacuous declarations that utterly fail to address, let alone alter, the negative image of Greece and the upcoming Olympics that is being fed daily to the global public. Add to this dismal situation the fact that there has been no systematic — or even haphazard — advertising campaign to promote the Athens Olympiad outside Greece and one gets a sense of the truly dreary state of affairs. (Turkey has taken more advantage of the movie Troy to promote tourism than Greece has of the Olympics.) In the absence of such a campaign, and of an active and preemptive media strategy, all that the foreign public has seen, and continues to see, about these games are endless discussions of construction delays, warnings of terrorist groups waiting to strike, and videotape of bombed cars in Athens.

The responsibility for all this lies squarely with the previous government, of course. In lieu of a professional advertising campaign, they concocted a highfalutin curiosity (and amorphous monster) called the Cultural Olympiad, which was the brainchild of a former minister of culture whose feeble organizational capacities were no match for his egotism or megalomania. It is only recently, and under the enormous pressure of the ever-increasing wave of negative coverage, that the Greek government has considered creating a press center to anticipate the international media’s criticisms of the games as well as to respond in a timely and thorough manner to the various issues of concern.

The fact is, Greece can no longer afford to rely on officials and cabinet ministers to combat what seems to be an almost orchestrated campaign of censure. A press center that addresses foreign media criticism of the Olympics is sorely needed at this stage, even this late in the game (although it should have been created years ago, when Athens originally learned it had won the 2004 Olympiad). Now, if the government can only find the right professionals to staff it….

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