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The Greek Referendum and the Princess

The portals to the contents of today’s newspapers are their front pages. Before delving the small print on these front pages (and then within), there’s the large print – the headlines – and the leading images to register. To say the headlines and images of the front pages frame the news is an understatement. These announce an upper limit of newsworthiness, a frontline at which the producers and consumers of news reconfirm their mutual understanding -- their contract with each other -- every time another daily issue of a newspaper appears. For each newspaper, of course, a somewhat distinct contract between producers and consumers has already been established and occasionally been renegotiated through its history. Scanning the front page of any newspaper on any specific day reconfirms and updates that distinctive contract – by what appears on the front page, the selected headlines and leading images. Scanning the front pages of a number of newspapers on any specific day in a specific circulatory domain reveals some broad patterns across such contracts. Through these patterns an understanding of the general character of news production and consumption in that domain may be obtained.

Today is 6 July 2015. The circulatory domain in question is the UK.

The front pages of a number of major UK newspapers are found here. I won’t dwell here on the distinctive clauses of these newspapers’ contracts, their particular ideological inclinations, their ownerships and consumer bases, whether they are designed as quality broadsheets or popular tabloids. To some extent that can be inferred immediately from their design and register. But these details are not immediately of moment here, because this brief essay is addressed to the patterns discernible across these newspapers. Of some importance though is their reach, so their circulation figures are worth bearing in mind:

Newspaper

Average Circulation, January 2015

The Sun

1,978,702

Daily Express

457,914

Daily Mail

1,688,727

The Daily Telegraph

494,675

Financial Times

219,444

The Guardian

185,429

I

280,351

The Independent

61,338

The Times

396,621

Figures taken from Press Gazette

On 6 July 2015 the newspapers had to deal with the fact that 61.5% of the Greek electorate rejected the conditions sought by the EU establishment for a bailout, rejected an exacerbating austerity regime. The headlines in the UK newspapers went as follows:

Newspaper

Greek referendum headline

The Sun

Europe on Brink: Greeky Bum Time > Turmoil as voters reject bailout deal

Daily Express

Greece ready to leave Euro after days of chaos [small box on top left, followed on p.9]

Daily Mail

Meltdown! > EU in crisis as Greece votes ‘No’ to crippling cuts and heads for Eurozone exit

The Daily Telegraph

Europe in turmoil as Greece nears exit > Surprise No vote rejects bail-out deal > Merkel flies to Paris for crisis talks > Eurozone braced for financial crash

Financial Times

Greece’s Eurozone future hangs in balance as No vote set to triumph > Decisive message to reject creditor demands > ECB must decide whether to pull support

The Guardian

Greek voters defy Europe > Landslide vote against further austerity drive > Samaras quits as opposition leader after loss > Hollande and Merkel to meet today in Paris

I

Greeks vote ‘No’ – Europe shudders  > Greek government says referendum result shows people won’t bow to ‘blackmail’  > French President and German Chancellor call for special Eurozone summit tomorrow

The Independent

Greek ‘No’ plunges Europe into crisis > Night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back stance of Prime Minister Tsipras > Merkel and Hollande meet in Paris today, with emergency summit of Eurozone leaders due tomorrow

The Times

Europe faces crisis after gambling Greeks say No > Devastating blow for Union as referendum rejects Austerity

There is a general drift in all these headlines, the drift of an adversarial relationship: Greece vs Europe/ EU/ Eurozone. These appear to state the obvious, in a way – and yet, there are nuances in the guiding construction of that adversarial relationship. The disadvantage seems all on one side, that of Europe/ EU/ Eurozone (that is in “turmoil”, “crisis”, “braced for crash”, “hangs in balance”, “defied”, “shudders”, facing a “devastating blow”), with their harassed leaders scuttling off to deal with this “emergency”. Greece, on the other hand, is either largely presented as cheerily buoyant and/or sturdily firm (“set to triumph”, “ready to leave”, “defiant”, has “huge celebrations”, has a “decisive message”, “heads for Eurozone exit”), or as carelessly irresponsible (“Greeky Bum Time”, “gambling Greeks”).

There are some fairly obvious possibilities elided there: maybe Europe/ EU/ Eurozone are not as unitedly disheartened as suggested; maybe the note of discord struck in the referendum resonates with many in different member-states of the EU; maybe the “No” vote is more a cry of anguish than a triumphantly defiant gesture; maybe the EU establishment is more responsible for this “crisis” than the Greek electorate; maybe the result causes as much if not more anxiety in Greece as anywhere in the EU, maybe particularly for those who voted “No”. One needs to go into the small print to see whether these nuances are registered – but headlines set the tone anyway.  It is possible to imagine other headlines: “Greece referendum calls for a rethink on the European Union”; “Greeks say ‘No’ > call for a new European order”; “Eurozone brinkmanship backfires”; “Greeks get an opportunity to say what many in the EU would like to”; “A ‘No’ for Austerity in Europe”; “Greek ‘No’ expression of despair”; and so on.

In some newspapers the headlines on the Greek referendum are attended by an accentuating and related leading image. The Guardian and The Financial Times have pictures of defiant-looking people after the referendum; I, The Independent and The Times carry roughly the same image of two young women looking dead chuffed. The common denominator across these is the Greek flag. In all the leading images related to the referendum, the main feature is the Greek flag – people waving many flags, people wrapped in the flag. The banner of nationality is foregrounded, a unifying symbol, people under their flag. Any anguish, doubt, anxiety, suffering that is imbued in voting “No” (let alone the proportion who voted “Yes) is blanked out under the banner of nationality. That, perhaps more potently than the words, puts them Greeks squarely against us Europeans/British. That plays unambiguously, because, after all, the EU has always -- from inception -- hardened the identities of nations as cultural entities within the trans-nation and as economic competitors within the common market. I mean, EU policies were designed more to harden than to weaken national identities; of course, some lukewarm efforts at weakening can be cited.

From the UK perspective, it is of particular interest that quite a few of the leading images didn’t accentuate headlines about the Greek referendum (instead studiedly disregarded the headlines), and indeed the Greek referendum wasn’t necessarily the main headline. Of the newspapers listed above, the four with the largest circulations had their visual attention pinned elsewhere. On 5 July 2015 William Windsor, heir apparent to the throne, and Kate Middleton’s second child, Charlotte, was christened. In The Daily Telegraph the headline on the Greek referendum on the left was rivalled by one on this event on the right, and the leading image was of the happy parents and the newly christened kid (the second and third pages gushed about this more elaborately). The Sun’s headline on the referendum was topped by a picture of Kate holding her baby (labelled “Her Royal Cryness”); The Daily Mail headline on the referendum was similarly preceded by a very large close-up of the royal infant (“Kate’s little cutie”); having put the referendum in a little box at the top, The Daily Express headlined with “Our Perfect Princess” with two photographs of the child. So, incidentally, did the popular free newspaper Metro, and The Scotsman and The Belfast Telegraph. The Daily Mirror (circulation 922,235 in January 2015) didn’t bother with mentioning the referendum on the front page at all and devoted it entirely to news of a super-elite christening.

The utter triviality of the christening compared to the momentousness of the referendum in Greece thus repeatedly juxtaposed cannot but be considered as designed. And in the juxtaposition, the triviality of the royal images and headlines acquire a kind of tangential significance – a significance that is the counterpart of the many Greek national flags that featured where leading images did appear for the referendum report. These royal images and headlines were not really about the christening at all. These were insignia for a British nationalist sentiment calculatedly deployed against/alongside attention to news of the referendum – the sentiment of those rightwing nationalists who go weak at the knees when “queen and country” is mentioned. To them the result of the Greek referendum has a less troubled significance than it probably has for many Greeks who voted “No”: they are waiting for a referendum too.

Suman Gupta, July 2015