Guest Blogger Tim Haughton: “Being Talked About and Not Being Talked About” and the Eurozone Crisis in Slovakia

Tim Haughton

When the definitive history of the eurozone crisis is written Tuesday’s vote in the Slovak parliament will probably merit a line or just a footnote. In contrast, last month’s decision of the German parliament to back the bailout will no doubt take up a paragraph or a page. If Germany had rejected the bailout we would have returned to square one, but Slovakia’s ‘no’ merely delays the decision by a few days.

Markets move quickly, much more quickly than politicians. The euro fell on news of the fall of the Radicova government, but will in all probability bounce back in the coming days. Whilst there would not be that much enthusiasm for a return to power of Robert Fico in some international circles, there would be little fear; just a hope he would not jump into the coalition bed with Slota again.

In contrast, Richard Sulik, whom few beyond the small band of political scientists who follow Slovakia had heard of before last year’s elections, has become well known in recent weeks, even being the subject of a prominent profile in the eurocrats’ favourite weekly, the European Voice.

Not Tim Haughton (or Oscar Wilde)Oscar Wilde once wrote that there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about. But in international politics that isn’t always the case. Slovakia was prominent in the coverage of the three most influential dailies in Europe on Wednesday: Le Monde, the Financial Times and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Le Monde, for instance, bemoaned the political game being played in Slovakia, wondering in a linked article whether France’s AAA rating will survive the crisis. Sulik’s actions even caused ripples across the Atlantic where Slovakia was also the subject of articles in the New York Times and Washington Post.

There is some sympathy in international circles for Sulik’s position on the euro. The bailout is an imperfect mechanism designed to ensure the Greek mismanagement of their fiscal policy does not spread like a virus across the southern periphery of the Union. Few think the latest bailout is any more than the latest sticking plaster rather than a definitive solution. Sulik’s decision, however, to allow the Radicova government to fall so he has a clear conscience in front of his children, has not led to Sulik being hailed a hero apart from in the Daily Telegraph; it merely highlights both the weakness of eurozone governance and the willingness of some domestic politicians to risk the collapse of a coalition over a bailout package which will soon be superseded. It also casts doubt on the reliability of Slovak politicians.

Since the 1990s when Madeline Albright labeled Slovakia a ‘hole in the map of Europe’, the country’s image has improved markedly. Sulik’s decision and the fall of the Radicova government may soon be forgotten by international markets and journalists, but small states rarely appear in the international spotlight. The few occasions such states receive attention tend to shape the image of that country. Slovak politicians would be well advised to remember that when they play their domestic games.

Tim Haughton
SAIS Johns Hopkins University & Birmingham University

American Local News Circa 2011

Some might say that I am ill-equipped to judge local news since my experience of it news comes twice a year when my family stays at a particular hotel that insists on keeping it on during breakfast hours. But if lack of experience with politics can become the chief qualification for political candidates, then perhaps lack of experience with TV could improve the quality media analysis.

Normally, the only people to experience the full brunt of my frustration are the hotel staff–who patiently endure my annoying requests to turn off the TV and my occasional passive-aggressive manipulation of the volume button–and my family which has to listen to me complain during the breakfast hour.  This year, however, I had an insight which I feel is worthy enough to annoy the entire readership of this blog.  So quickly to the point:

During half an hour of morning news on January 2, I saw 10 stories.  There were six topics:

  1. Policemen
  2. Firemen
  3. Prisons (on fire)
  4. Airplanes (crashing)
  5. Tornadoes
  6. Football players

From this list of stories (not overwhelmingly different from those found in a rather more rigorous analysis of Chicago-area TV news by scholars at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and another of Los Angeles-area TV news and newspapers by scholars at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism), I wish to formulate a hypothesis based on my own personal experience:

Local news stories are chosen by a panel of 5-year-old boys.

I do have a few doubts about this conclusion, but only because of the relative infrequency of stories about dinosaurs and superheroes, which could be caused either by the presence of some non-five-year-olds on the panel, or by the relative absence on that day of good video footage involving dinosaurs or superheroes.

It is also worthwhile considering an alternative view, which begins from the premise that all of the stories except those about football players involved bad/sad things that are unlikely to happen to most viewers.  From this it is possible to formulate an alternative hypothesis:

Local news stories are chosen on the basis of schadenfreude.

Readers might point out that these two hypotheses are not necessarily inconsistent, and I’m afraid they would be right: while most non-German five-year-old boys might have a difficult time pronouncing “schadenfreude my personal experience suggests that five-year-olds are not immune to feelings of satisfaction at the misfortunes of others (especially if the other person is a seven-year-old sibling).

The schadenfreude hypothesis actually needs a bit of qualification, however, because it is not exactly “joy” at the misfortunes of others but rather a heightened sense of self-satisfaction that “something like that” could never happen to me.” Since schadenselbstzufriedenheit does not exactly roll off the tongue, it might be necessary to resort to an alternative formulation offered by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia: karma.

According to Haidt, a significant portion of the American public wants “to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin” (Haidt’s intriguing book proposal is here).

Whether it is five-year-olds or somebody else who is choosing news stories, there is no shortage of bad things happening to (or being done by, or both) other (lesser) people, especially if they involve video clips of something on fire.