Road tax renewal: report from the front line
By Preston Wilder
(archive article - Cyprus Mail - Sunday, March 12, 2006)

I WRITE about TV in these pages, but never had a chance to see the power of TV in action – at least till a couple of days ago, when I went to the Department of Road Transport in Nicosia to pay my road tax.

I never really wanted to be there; I’d heard the warnings, and knew it takes ages. Usually I get the annual renewal notice in early January, and pay the £56 at a nearby co-op. This year, however, the weeks went by and still no notice arrived. I finally called up in February, only to be told my MOT had expired. I got that sorted, but still couldn’t get a renewal notice; it was now too late for that. Instead, I could either pay my road-tax online (at http://rtd.mcw.gov.cy) or visit the dreaded Dept. of Road Transport in Parissinos. I tried the internet, but the site wouldn’t work for me. I called up, only to be told – wrongly, I hope – that it wouldn’t work till I disabled my Norton Antivirus. My options were running out. I could feel Parissinos looming large in my future.

I went there early in the morning, only to discover – there’s always something you discover once you get there in these situations – that they didn’t accept cheques, and moreover my driving licence wasn’t enough; they needed an ID card. By the time I went back and tried again, it was after 10 and the queue stretched from the cashier’s window to the front door and beyond, a distance of perhaps 20 feet. There were around 80 people waiting in the queue; apparently the deadline for paying your tax was the next day, so prompt-paying Preston was lumped in with the last-minute crowd.
It wasn’t long before the grumbling started.

Now, the thing about queues is that most people wait patiently enough, especially in government offices where a certain inefficiency is taken for granted. But there are always a few people who complain, loudly and repeatedly. In this case, they were standing right behind me – a fierce man with a gravelly voice and another, squeakier fellow, flashily dressed in blue shirt and mustard jacket with a silver pendant round his neck, his hair combed forward to hide a sizeable bald patch. “No other country in Europe has a road tax!” asserted the fierce man. (Is this true? I don’t know, but you can always count on Europe being brought up in these discussions.) “Look at them,” added the squeaky man, pointing to the civil servants behind the glass. “Doing nothing, drinking their coffee, and only two windows for all these people!”

That was true, but understandable. This was the Road Transport headquarters, with many other departments besides the road-tax. No extra clerks had been assigned to deal with the influx of people, so we were all being served by the two ladies handling road-tax renewals while other employees went about their normal business. To make matters worse, one of the girls abruptly left her post – presumably going on a coffee break – so there was just one window for 80 people, most of whom had also brought their wives’, friends’ and cousins’ road-tax for renewal. The line barely moved, inching forward every few minutes. The protests mounted. “Get more clerks!” cried a man in a flowery shirt. “You think we’re sheep?”
Ten years ago, that would’ve been that: a disgruntled queue in a dingy government office, a morning wasted, tales of bureaucracy and inefficiency shared with friends over dinner that night. But things in Cyprus have changed: we have mobile phones now – and we have TV channels, “ta kanalia”.

I could see people talking on their mobiles with grimly determined expressions. After they hung up they nodded to their companions, as if to say ‘Wait and see, something’s going to be done now’. Clearly, they were talking to someone who knew someone who knew someone at CyBC or Ant1 – because suddenly an excited murmur rippled through the crowd. A young woman appeared, toting a TV camera, and got up on a bench to take an establishing-shot of the queue. You could feel the energy level shooting up. We were like a beleaguered wagon train suddenly cheered by the arrival of the Cavalry.

“Over here!” shouted the fierce man, joined by other, hitherto-silent customers. “We want to make statements!” The TV reporter was another young lady, her hair impeccably styled, her slim, toned body suggesting serious time spent at the gym (she herself had paid her road-tax on the internet, she explained airily). She went down the line, talking to people, all of whom were predictably outraged. “Any more indignant statements?” asked the reporter at one point.

One lady said it was a scandal for taxpayers to be treated so shabbily. The squeaky man shouted for the TV team to take a statement from the girl behind the window, apparently not caring that it would delay us even further. Everyone exaggerated during their interviews: “I’ve been here two hours,” claimed the fierce man (he’d been there 45 minutes, same as me), “and I’ve only seen two people getting their road-tax. Two people in two hours!” In fact we’d seen a trickle of customers leaving, though not more than one every 5-10 minutes since the second window closed.

That’s the problem with TV: the people who’d normally grit their teeth and wait patiently (or even impatiently) are too shy to protest on camera. The stars of the show are invariably the Mr. Angrys, giving an exaggerated version of the facts. I was angry too, of course, but I’ve been in enough government offices to expect a slow queue – and besides, I knew it was partly my fault for letting my MOT expire (though they really should send you a letter when it does expire; Life’s hard enough without having to keep track of things like that). To her credit, the reporter raised the issue, but the punters’ indignation turned to mealy-mouthed evasions at the suggestion that they might also be to blame. I doubt the channel used their half-hearted replies in the final news report. It made for bad TV.

That’s the crux of it: TV means reality for many viewers, but TV isn’t reality – even the News on TV are a heightened, selective version of reality. Objectivity could never be as dramatic as raw indignation. Yet TV is more than a spectator; it doesn’t just report news, it creates news by its very presence. Ten years ago, those people in the Department of Road Transport would’ve suffered in silence; now, they call on TV to validate their anger – because if it’s on TV it must be real, and not only real but important. The next step is the hidden mentality behind Fame Story, Dream Show and the rest of the vile reality shows: if you’re on TV, you must be important. And if not? Then presumably not.

As it happens, not everyone is resigned to TV culture; while most Cypriots seem happy to define their lives according to this alternate reality, some are clearly suspicious of the interloper. Just in front of me was a short, intense-looking man with a salt-and-pepper beard – and, as the reporter made a final pass down the line, he suddenly cornered her with a harsh “Excuse me!”.
“Excuse me,” barked the man, “but have you asked us if we want to be on TV? Because I, personally, never gave you permission to film me!”
The reporter was clearly flustered: “Well sir, you’ll only appear in the overall shots of the room…”

“I don’t want to appear at all,” he replied angrily. “I want all the shots in which I appear to be taken out of your report. It’s my right!” he added, turning to his neighbours who were looking at him in bewilderment and hostility. “It’s my right!”

“Hide behind someone else if you don’t want to be seen, mister,” muttered the fierce man, clearly dismissing him as a nutter.

Inwardly, I sided with the short man. Yet there’s no doubt “ta kanalia” made an impact. Not 10 minutes after the arrival of the TV reporters, the second clerk returned to her post (no doubt she’d have come back anyway, but it was a strange coincidence). The mood in the room appreciably lightened. A few minutes after that, one of the clerks from the other windows – the ones not concerned with road-tax renewal – invited any old people or people with young children to come to her window for service. “Isn’t there a young child we can pass around from person to person?” shouted a wag, to peals of laughter. It was almost turning into a party.

The reporters stayed long enough to witness the changes, then quietly withdrew. The line was moving faster now, maybe because there were fewer customers with multiple applications – or maybe because TV had spoken to the Head of Department, and he’d instructed the girls to speed things up. That night, I knew, everyone in the room would be watching the News, waiting for the item about unacceptable delays at the Department of Road Transport. Their wives and kids would be watching too, laughing at how funny Daddy looks. Even the short man with the salt-and-pepper beard would be watching, ready to fire off threatening letters if he saw his image on TV, like those native tribes who refused to be photographed for fear it would steal their soul.

When my turn came – an hour and a half after I first arrived – the whole thing took a couple of minutes. I handed in the forms and cash, got a friendly (if slightly weary) smile and my tax-disc for 2006 in return. One thing bugs me, though: they didn’t even glance at my ID card, despite the clear instructions pasted on the wall. Turns out I wasted time by going home, getting the ID card and coming back again; I could’ve saved an hour that morning. I’m indignant. Maybe Ant1 have space for a final item on the late-night news bulletin…



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