Oh, what a lovely media war!

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Among the plethora of explanations put forward for the Greek crisis, one of the most prominent has been the cosy relationship between the country’s media ownership and the financial and political establishment. Some observers have gone so far as to claim that this so-called “triangle of corruption” is the chief cause of Greece’s ills, while SYRIZA, currently the lead partner in the country’s governing coalition, named tackling the country’s “oligarchs” through their media interests as one of their first priorities on the eve of their coming to power in 2015.

Whether a weak and interest-led media can be made to shoulder such an overwhelming burden of blame for the country’s economic collapse is open to question (if only because this view, championed enthusiastically by the foreign media, seems itself suspiciously, ahem, media-centric). That said, there is no doubt that the fourth estate is a crucial part of the democratic anatomy, so when looking for signs of a turnaround it is one of the places to check for vital signs. It has to be said (SPOILER ALERT!) that things are not looking good for the patient.

Sure enough, SYRIZA made good on their promise to go after the “anarchic” broadcast licensing regime, and we gave our take on their efforts here and here. About a year ago, with a new – supposedly more transparent and incorruptible – legal framework in place, the government set out to allocate new broadcast licenses. What happened from that point on is instructive.

When it came to the allocation, the government devised a devilishly complex auction procedure, seemingly designed to humiliate the bidders by subjecting them to an extended sleepover in a heavily guarded office block, complete with camp beds and invigilated toiled breaks. Perversely, the private TV channels, whose proprietors were personally involved in most cases, lapped it up. The spectacle gifted them a reality TV format which they didn’t have to pay to license (as they do when they copy gameshows like “Survivor” or “X Factor”) – in essence hours of free entertainment, with plenty of occasion for anti-government invective. Indeed, the Greek Union of Journalists, faced with hundreds of job losses whatever the outcome, wrote the advertising copy, describing the contest as a “badly written reality show” (translation: ratings gold!).

The outcome of the auction was equally entertaining to observe (though no doubt very stressful for anyone with a personal stake in it). The lowest successful bidder was Skai TV, which had been singled out as the coalition’s bête noir for its hostile coverage. Another incumbent, Antenna TV, also won one of the new licenses, ensuring that at least 50% of the allocated spectrum remained firmly in the hands of the old “oligarchic” regime.

What of the new entrants? One license was awarded to Ioannis Kalogritsas, a government-friendly public works contractor, who supported his bid with a highly favourable loan from a government-friendly bank, guaranteed on a piece of vastly overvalued real estate – thus squaring the “triangle of corruption” that the governing coalition had vowed to shatter, and illustrating precisely how short the new licensing regime fell of the political hype that had surrounded it. Kalogritas was forced to pull out only when the borrowed money failed to materialise by the deadline, and his license passed to the next runner-up.

Born in Russia of Pontic Greek descent, Ivan Savvidis is a relatively recent transplant on the local political scene: a minor oligarch who made his fortune in the de-nationalised tobacco industry, erstwhile friend of Vladimir Putin and former MP with his United Russia party, he is best known in Greece as the owner of PAOK FC (a purchase sweetened by a not insignificant tax write-off passed by the current government). Savvidis is held dear by the Russophile wings on both sides of the political spectrum in Greece as a back-channel to Moscow. He has since made the connection more overt by comparing prime minister Tsipras favourably to Putin, while he is also behind one of the rag-tag consortium of bidders who recently won the tender for the de-nationalised Thessaloniki Port Authority, a key piece of national infrastructure.

The final license of the original four was awarded to Evangelos Marinakis, a shipowner, also well-known to Greek football fans as the owner of Piraeus team Olympiakos FC, and now to English footie fans as well through his recent purchase of a majority stake in Nottingham Forest. He has been tried and acquitted in one major match-fixing case, and remains accused in another case which is still ongoing, while his name has been linked to a major drug-smuggling case with potential political implications. All of which has not stopped him from leveraging his football-based popularity to gain election to the Piraeus city council, where his newly formed party including the new mayor opposed the privatisation of the port – unsuccessfully as it turned out.

Despite being on the same side of that particular battle, a senior SYRIZA candidate and opponent of privatisation (now a senior member of the cabinet closely connected to the privatisation agenda) commented at the time with a straight face that, “This is a new kind of fruit in our politics and it’s a very dangerous one.” The battle lines between Marinakis and SYRIZA remain drawn, as do the ones between Marinakis and Yiannis Alafouzos, owner of Skai TV and traditional football rival Panathinaikos FC (are we spotting a pattern here?), who at one time was his business partner – on any given day, Skai TV can be trusted to run a regular bulletin on Marinakis’s court room battles and alleged criminal entanglements.

All in all, the state stood to make €246 million from the licenses; but the euphoria in government circles was short-lived. After banking the first instalment, the Council of State, Greece’s top administrative court, declared the auction unconstitutional. This prompted the then government spokesperson to accuse the court of depriving 15,000 children of primary school places and the health system of 4,000 sorely needed new staff. Neither claim stood up to serious scrutiny, but the message was crystal clear – the courts were taking public funds away from the young and the infirm and using them to pad the bank accounts of a bunch of rich guys.

The rhetorical kids and hospital patients were not the only casualties of the aborted auction. For snatching defeat out of the jaws of a much-vaunted PR victory, Minister of State Nikos Pappas who had fronted the whole initiative was demoted to the custom-made Ministry of Digital Policy, where he is subjected to jokes about “the Greek NASA” for celebrating the launch of a commercial satellite, while he plots his return to the frontline.

Government spokesperson Olga Gerovasili, to whom the previous statement belongs, was banished to the Ministry of Administrative Reform where she is in charge of the unenviable task of forcing unpopular reforms in the teeth of recalcitrant civil servants.

There were further attempts to shatter the “triangle.” A special parliamentary committee launched to investigate bad bank loans to media companies and political parties gave plenty of occasion for show-boating over its nine months of hearings. The outcome, however, was so equivocal as to allow both government and opposition to claim victory, yielding not a hint of impropriety on the part of politicians, and no incriminating evidence on bankers or media magnates. A small step towards transparency was taken when a SYRIZA lawmaker got a law passed requiring banks to file quarterly reports on their advertising and sponsorship budget.

So far, so disappointing on the TV front. At a recent meeting of the SYRIZA central committee, Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos is reported to have said that “given the outcome, it would have been better if the whole story hadn’t been started.”

Greek television remains as bad as ever, if not worse. The whole nation soon began to receive a nightly injection of opioids through the eyeballs in the form of a new series of “Survivor,” which buried most public discourse under a tidal wave of celebrity six-packs and self-absorbption.

Meanwhile, having acquired a taste for the media business, the also-rans of the license auction have been trying other routes. The dead tree press was an obvious play for anyone concerned with profile but unconcerned with financial viability – and the pickings here have been rich. So what if sales have halved since the start of the crisis and newspapers are trusted less than any news source, in a country already low in newspaper readership? Everyone scans the font pages as they are strung outside the kiosks like dirty laundry hung out to dry, even if they don’t fork out for a copy. For the proprietor, owning a masthead still confers a veneer of old-fashioned respectability. And, unlike TV stations which broadcast on a regulated public frequency, no government agency or regulator has a say (even theoretically) in who gets to print a paper.

Within months, Kalogritsas launched Documento, a new pro-government weekly, while continuing to bid successfully for government contracts – despite a terrible record of delivery and a long series of complaints from unpaid employees.

But there was bigger game to be had out there. Like exhausted wildebeest around a dry watering hole, two of the country’s biggest news organisations, the Lambrakis Group and Pegasus, owners of prestigious titles including Ta Nea, To Vima and Ethnos, have been slowly collapsing under the weight of bad loans, political pressure and inter-oligarchical strife. Within the last few weeks, the distressed carcass of the former has been acquired at auction by Marinakis, and the latter by Savvidis. Through those same routes, both have acquired stakes in Mega TV, and Savvidis has also bought Epsilon TV, giving prominent public platforms to two highly partisan interests.

On their relaunch Ta Nea and To Vima, historically venerable bastions of the centre-left, carried a message from the new proprietor, in which Marinakis pledged to uphold the values of “Democracy, Freedom and Social Justice” (sic) that made the Lambrakis titles great, and to meet the readers’ demand for “authoritative, independent information with historical weight, opinion and proposition.”

A couple of days later, Ta Nea went to press with an eye-catching front page, featuring the unmistakable silhouette of Uncle Joe with his trademark moustache under the headline “Stalinism in Power.” There is, of course, a back story, but in terms of nailing the new owner’s colours to the mast there couldn’t be a clearer signal of the editorial line.

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Ta Nea returns with “timely” coverage of the Prague Spring.

No doubt Ethnos, when it returns to the kiosks, will respond in kind.

[to be continued, no doubt]

IMAGES: AP via telegraph.co.uk; Ta Nea.

 

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Oh, what a lovely media war!