Telling the Greek story
On a busy Athens street, a homeless man lay dead. I could see his hand, stiff with rigor mortis, poking out from underneath his blanket.
A curious crowd gathered. "Only a junkie," someone muttered. We began filming. Several people turned on us. An old man asked angrily: "Why do you only show what is bad in Greece? You would not film this in your country."
In one sense, I disagree with this man.
The death on the street of a homeless person would be news in Britain ["my country"], and passing journalists would not ignore it out of some sort of patriotic feeling that national honour was at stake, as my interlocutor seemed to be implying.
I believe that this particular death was significant, if put into context of what is happening in Greece today.
There has been a dramatic increase in homelessness in Athens as the economy contracts. So what we were seeing was another sign of how the fabric of Greek society is under strain.
I don't like filming bodies. But our responsibility was to explain this context, and, of course, film with sensitivity so as to protect whatever was left of this poor man's dignity.
On the other hand, I knew where this passerby was coming from. His question - "why do you only show what is bad in Greece?" - took me back to other countries where I've had to try and justify my work.
Many Africans, for example, feel that foreign [and "foreign" invariably means "Western"] reporters present their continent in a simplistic and negative light.
Often, Africans argue, these reporters arrive with preconceived prejudices, and through laziness or lack of intellectual curiosity, do not open their eyes to the true complexity of what lies before them.
Unfortunately, I've got more [bad] news for that angry Greek man on the streets. He'd better get used to us, the foreign reporters, with all our prejudices and theories about his country.
Because Greece is now, in journalistic parlance, "a story".
The Greek story
What happens next in this small country on the edge of Europe affects all of us. So, be it economic salvation, or else disastrous default, we'll carry on reporting this story.
And if we sometimes get Africa wrong [and believe me, we do], we're going to get Greece wrong too.
You can see the foreign TV crews in the lobby of every smart Athenian hotel these days.
A correspondent from the BBC told me he's lost track of how many times he's flown into Athens in the past two years.
Reporters based in the former war zones of the Balkans now rotate in and out of Greece, in time for the latest strike or debt deadline. We bring tripods, light cases and satellite phones.
We look for defining images - riots in Syntagma Square! - and the worst of us have got our clichés ready for our scripts - Greek Tragedy! Greek Drama!
Never mind that for most, local language skills don't extend beyond "Kalimera", that won't stop the confident-sounding analysis on the 24 hour news channels.
And our appetite is voracious. The modern news machine is a hungry beast, and we have to keep on feeding it.
We need new angles as we struggle to illustrate a country's downward spiral ... the frightened pensioner who speaks English, the unemployed graduate who wants to emigrate, the man who burnt the German flag, and, yes, even the dead homeless person on the street.
Ebb and flow
Narratives will ebb and flow, as the crisis drags on and on. If you only read the British press, you might have noticed how the Greeks of 2010-11 [feckless tax-dodgers who needed a good dose of austerity] have morphed into the Greeks of 2012 (a brave, long-suffering people who are once again under the ruthless German jackboot).
These narratives, of course, are only partially shaped by what is actually happening in Greece, but owe much to events and ideologies elsewhere in Europe or beyond.
Given the sheer volume of coverage on the Greek crisis, over-simplifications, exaggerations, factual errors and omissions are inevitable. It’s not easy, especially as for many of us it entails getting our head round complex new economic and financial concepts.]
Then we have to package all this information into either two minutes of television, one minute of radio, or a 500-word newspaper article.
But that, after all, is precisely what we are paid to do. And there is, in fact, plenty of outstanding coverage in English of events in Greece, although perhaps inevitably, much of the best that is written/broadcast is by colleagues who are actually based in Athens and have family ties to the country.
Responsibility to all
A few personal favourites; Joanna Kakissis' on NPR Radio, and in Time Magazine, Niki Kitsantonis in the New York Times, and the blogs by Nick Malkoutzis (http://insidegreece.wordpress.com/) and John Psaropoulos., (http://www.thenewathenian.com/) who you can also see on Al Jazeera English. [Full disclosure: all of these reporters are friends of mine.]
As the body of the homeless man was loaded onto an ambulance, another passerby came up to me. "It's good that you are here", he said, "we want you to record all the things that are happening in Greece right now."
Of course, it was gratifying to hear that. Some people are happy to see us. Others are not. But our responsibility is to all of them.
Dear Greeks, forgive us, because most of us are doing our very best to understand, and explain your country’s slow-motion train crash.