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!

Summer in the city

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In the glare of the midday sun, a small disorderly chorus of human voices can be heard chanting a rhyming slogan. The video is shaky, the images blurred and distant. The audio is muffled, but one familiar sound cuts through the hubub and renders the chanting barely audible: the dry, rhythmical vibration of cicadas. The self-styled anarchist collective Rouvikonas (Rubicon) are staging a protest outside the Greek parliament, in their customary style, leafletting against the detention of prisoners who they consider political, the prison system, and society in general, which is (in their telling) one big prison. The video is repeated on a loop on every news bulletin, the timeless lullaby of the cicadas subtly undermining the revolutionary message and scuppering the carefully cultivated outrage of the presenters, reminding us that it is, after all, midsummer in Athens. Soon, even the anarchists will pack their bags and head to one of the lesser known islands, and the city will be deserted.

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(it is the male cicada that makes the noise)

Already, people have started to drift away, if not physically then mentally. It is getting harder to get hold of friends and co-workers, longer to get anything accomplished. Social media timelines are filling up with photos of beaches, sunsets and meals in seaside tavernas. Ιn the absence of an unfolding political drama, banking crisis or cliffhanger negotiations, it feels like people are starting to let go.

In the last few weeks, a number of loose ends have been tied on the political scene. Greece finally concluded the dreaded second programme review – a mandatory progress assessment by the country’s creditors – which had been extended by about eighteen months of painful negotiations with the inevitable suspense, recriminations, and further austerity measures, banked (and almost immediately disbursed) the loan instalment that had been contingent on its completion, received a credit upgrade by Standard & Poors, and topped it all by issuing a new bond. Homework duly handed in and graded, school is most definitely out for the country’s leadership, even if most peoples’ reality is somewhat less celebratory.

It seemed a bit touch and go for a while, and the silly season appeared to kick of early, when the Greek press started publishing translated extracts from Adults in the Room, the tell-all memoir of Yanis Varoufakis’s turbulent love affair with Syriza which culminated in his traumatic six-month tenure as Finance Minister and chief bailout negotiator. Although the disclosures were not quite as risqué as the title might suggest, it soon became apparent that public discourse was about to turn into a very public karaoke face-off, Varoufakis kicking off with his favourite refrain, A Lover Spurned, Tsipras belting out a defiant My Way (“I have made mistakes… big mistakes”), Varoufakis retaliating with some vintage Gloria Gaynor. Musical accompaniment has been provided by the opposition, calling for a special investigation into the events of two summers ago when Greece came perilously close to exiting the Euro. The memoirs offer little new in terms of hard evidence, but the tune is catchy. After the 2015 debacle, Varoufakis no longer enjoys the kind of rock star reception in Greece that still greets him in other parts of Europe (one Greek recently wrote to entreat the Financial Times not to “promote” his views) but everyone snaps to attention at the slightest whiff of dirty laundry,

On a slightly more serious note, the government seems to have opened up another battle front, this time with the judiciary. Tsipras himself, and several of his ministers issuing Trumpian denunciations of any court decisions that run counter government policy or pet political causes (I use that epithet descriptively, even though the US president was rather late to the populist party compared to our guys or some of the less scrupulous European leaders). In his most recent TV interview, the prime minister rather pompously intoned that “separation of powers is one thing, and powers of separation is another” – demonstrating that he hasn’t outgrown the kind of nonsensical word game that scores top grades in the stilted style of essay-writing that is drilled into us in Greek high school. But that wasn’t as bad as his interviewer, who at one point, addressing the question Turkish violations of Greek airspace, tripped himself up on another Tsipras metaphor with surreal results: “So this dog comes into our garden and approaches our plants, to put this allegorically, this dog comes into the Aegean, flies over our islands, this dog overflies inhabited islands…” The threat of Turkish canine airborne divisions trained to micturate on our gardenias may not have occurred to anyone previously, but some will be sleeping more uneasily this summer.

Thankfully, everyone loves sporting success, and when the national junior basketball team won the European cup (or, “the who won the what?” as most people would have asked just a few days ago), politicians lined up hoping that some of that magical victory dust would rub off on them. But here’s a hint to politicians: standing next to a whole team of basketball players is virtually guaranteed to make you look like a midget with bad posture. Tsipras went all out by putting on a team jersey over his shirt, and then fumbling the autographed ball.

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Somewhere, a little boy named after a mythical bard and an iconic Marxist guerrilla cringed as he anticipated the fresh bullying possibilities his dad had just exposed him to. Meanwhile, the man who would be PM, ND’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, managed an even more embarrassing attempt at sports banter (he is notorious for jinxing the teams he supports), despite bringing along the token retired basketball player in his shadow cabinet.

A reminder that to win, it is not enough for the other guys to fail in defence, you also need to be able to score. If you don’t have a shot at winning and are not averse to looking like a cougar, perhaps it’s best to emulate PASOK leader Fofi Gennimata and strike a poolside pose with the water polo team.

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Meanwhile, several major news outlets reported that the government was rushing through legislation to introduce a rubber stamp bonus for civil servants. One editor apologised for reproducing the hoax, which originated in a publication which advertises its own content as “quality political disinformation since 1867”, blaming the heat.

PHOTOS: Slim Aarons/Getty photo of the Canellopoulos penthouse pool, 1961, via guardian.co.uk, Robert E. Snodgrass cicada via Smithsoniankathimerini.gr, iefimerida.gr

 

 

Summer in the city

Drink and women – it’s a culture thang

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Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is facing calls to resign after making what will perhaps come to be his most memorable statement, if not his political epitaph. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he had the following to say on the subject of the EU’s response to the financial crisis in the southern European member states: “You cannot spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.” Representatives of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even Bulgaria were quick to object. And although there has been no official response from Greece, there has been plenty of unofficial commentary, ranging from bemusement to outrage. It is fair to say that up until this point, Dijsselbloem has run a pretty close second to his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble as a hate figure in Greece, where he is seen as representing the hard line against any sympathetic treatment of Greece’s debt. But the statement wasn’t just a sexist, xenophobic and financially illiterate brain fart – it was also strikingly culturally inappropriate for a high level official serving in an international institution. By this I mean not so much politically incorrect (although it is that too), but way off-target, as any connoisseur of cultural stereotypes will tell you.

Why, only last week our own Finance Minister responded to opposition criticism of his negotiating prowess by confessing to his own, much more genteel, drink-and-women fantasy: “Mitsotakis said that he wants a primary surplus target of 2%. I, too, would like to go for cocktails with Scarlett Johansson, but…”, his point being that you can’t always get what you want. Euclid Tsakalotos, privately educated in the UK, foreign resident for most of his life and with heavily accented and halting Greek, is not your archetypal modern Hellene, and thus his comment was greeted with much hilarity by his fellow countrymen.

So what would be a more appropriate cultural stereotype to deploy against the Greeks, one that would actually make them feel the sting of reproach? It’s not that we are strangers to the evils of boozing and whoring. There is indeed a strain of popular song that laments how “cigarettes, drinks and late nights have closed the best homes”. It’s just that by being sung in the very disreputable establishments that it purports to deride, this self-reproach by definition ironic. So where did we blow our kitty? We undoubtedly spent some of it on status symbols like cars, with a particular penchant for German marques – though not as many, and not as luxurious as the tabloid myth would have it (that catchy line about “more Porsche Cayenne owners than taxpayers” proved fairly easy to debunk but harder to kill off, like most of the persistent myths of the Greek crisis). Some of us spent it on holidays and designer bling and even more of us on unwittingly inflating a real estate bubble. Much of it was financed by loans from European banks, ultimately paying interest to northern European savers.

When it comes to consumables, though, blowing it on drink is not such a southern European thing. On old professor of mine, an expert in the history of booze (among other substances) often observed that Europe is divided into north and south by distinct cultures of intoxication rooted in our prehistory – the grape in the south, the grain in the north, originally the function of geography and climate which in turn determined access to different sources of plant sugar. It is the grain-fermenting northerners who have traditionally binge-drunk themselves to oblivion, and it is them that felt the teetotal backlash of the protestant reformation, whereas the Mediterranean world used their fermented grape juice more sparingly and even made it “taboo” by ghoulishly turning it into blood in the Christian sacrament. It is said that you can still observe this divide by walking down the main street of any Mediterranean town hosting a Club 18-30 resort in high tourist season. Some might say, therefore, that Jeroen is merely projecting his own cultural inclinations. They don’t call it Dutch courage for nothing.

No, when it comes to consumables, another famous one-line aetiology of the Greek crisis comes to mind: “We ate it together” (“μαζί τα φάγαμε”,”Mazí ta fágame”), is what PASOK grandee Theodoros Pangalos poffered in 2010 in response to the question “where did the money go?”. A succinct description of the workings of clientelism, delivered by a true master of the art. The saying survives and thrives, in large part because it had a grotesque, evocative appeal in light of the speaker’s own well-fed physique, an apparent embodiment of gluttony openly admitting to the sin and beckoning us to join him at the trough. In the popular imagination it conjured up images of the Greek political class, bloated with greed both physical and metaphorical, sharing a well-furnished table with their clients, the ordinary voters. And although we, too, like to accuse our elites of eating Marie Antoinette’s cake and caviar (or perhaps the Greek pre-crisis equivalent, lobster spaghetti), the most appropriate fare loading down the table would be a cholesterol feast, most likely at Baïraktaris, the legendary Athens kebab house and political hangout. Not the starched white tablecloths of Washington’s Palm Grill, London’s private clubs, or the Michelin-starred chateaux of Gallic political intrigue, but oilcloth and stacks of paper napkins, the great equaliser, where we do indeed tuck in together in large, boisterous groups. You may recall Baïraktaris as the scene of another famous apophthegm, by another regular, former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, to the effect that “five pimps run this country”. And that is as far as I will go with the “women” element. Yes, we all ate a lot of souvlaki, most of it made with imported European meat, topped with yoghurt, more than likely made with European milk. And in the background, all this internal consumption was underwritten by state largesse in the form of public sector salaries and pensions, financed by public debt owned by our fellow European governments and institutions happy to pretend that Greece was Germany for the sake of a few extra basis points of yield.

You see, even the culturally appropriate stereotypes of southern loucheness contain an element of northern complicity. But Dijsselbloem may have more in common with Pangalos than he would like to acknowledge. Politically, Dijsselbloem was already a “dead man walking” before he shot his mouth off so spectacularly. In last week’s elections in the Netherlands, the Labour Party of which he is a member and by whose election he serves as Finance Minister at home and President of the EU’s informal but influential group of Finance Ministers, suffered what has come to be termed “Pasokification”: the term used to describe the annihilation of once powerful centre-left parties in European national politics. His days in office (both offices) are numbered, the timing of his departure determined only by the uncertainties around Dutch coalition forming. Ironically, had he released his populist bon mot a few days earlier, it may have won him a few more votes at home – now it is as irrelevant as it is embarrassing.

One final thought though, for those in Greece who are eager to see the back of the smug, hair-gelled wonder. Be careful what you wish for. In the horse-trading the follows his departure, the front-runner to succeed him is Slovakia’s Peter Kažimír, a man routinely described as “one of the most hawkish ministers on the Greek crisis”. After a particularly gruelling round of negotiations in July 2015, he had this to tweet: “#Greece compromise we reached this morning is tough for Athens because it’s the results of their ‘Greek Spring’ #eurozone”. If his prior record is any indication, there will be plenty more inflammatory statements (if not more grave outcomes) to look forward to.

 

 

 

 

Drink and women – it’s a culture thang