Not surviving in the Greek Media
In my curriculum vitae there is an intriguing statement: “He is a notorious lover of cats and independence. He has had to resign eleven times from different media because he always speaks his mind.”
Eleven times? How is that possible? Let me explain:
History repeats itself with an amazing regularity. Everything starts with an invitation and an offer. (I have never solicited a job.) I am given all kinds of assurances that I will be absolutely free to express my opinions -- be they as daring and as unorthodox as possible.
The column (or talk show, or radio show) is launched and, after a few months, one has the feeling it is rather successful. Mail starts coming in, feedback of different sorts is positive. In some cases (like my column in the newspaper “To Vima”, 1983-1987) I can prove, with readership statistics, that mine was the most read editorial in the whole Sunday press. And yet I was again forced to resign.
The obvious conclusion would be that something is wrong with me. Ten times is a bad record. But I have the insolence to maintain that it is not my fault -- but that the whole media system in Greece cannot support really free speech.
If this is true, then the real importance of my case exceeds the realm of a personal story. And it may generate some thoughts on the whole mentality of the Greek media and Greek society.
Let me enumerate the facts:
1979. I resign from the moderation of a talk show (“A film - a debate” - Μια ταινία - μία συζήτηση) on Greek State TV. (ERT 1). The reason: I have invited the (world famous) Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis for his first appearance on Greek TV. The fact was well known, had been officially announced by the ERT press office, had even created some headlines. But Mikis was then a staunch supporter of the left. The live show was cut in mid-air -- or actually it never started. We sit in the studio, floodlights and all, awaiting the cue, which does not come. After some time I realize that the station, without any announcement, is broadcasting a taped show. Finally, our program was shown two hours later… Next day I write a letter of protest to the press and walk out.
1982. For three years, I have a very successful column in the magazine “Epikaira”. (Readers’ mail covered usually more than eight pages.) Twice within the three years I have encountered problems of censorship. Some of my editorials annoy the right wing New Democracy party. The third intervention is lethal. I write an article on the new family law, maintaining that any acceptance of the church’s proposal to make church marriage equivalent to the (newly introduced) civil marriage, will really abolish the latter. (Which was exactly what happened.) The article is not published -- I resign. A week after the announcement of my resignation, the magazine’s circulation is halved. Six months, later “Epikaira” closes.
1985. For two years, I have a column in “To Vima”. After the 1985 elections there is a strong pressure of PASOK dignitaries and supporters to curtail critical texts. My first post-election article is not printed and I am advised to write about general subjects and to avoid political issues. I resign. Three months later I am called back, given all kinds of promises and a substantial raise. I resume.
1987. This is a year of two walk-outs. I start a new talk show on the second channel of the State TV (ERT 2) called “Dialogues”. It is the first face to face show on Greek television. The guests are prominent thinkers, artists, scientists -- starting with the philosopher and former president of the Greek Republic Constantine Tsatsos, in his first (and last) television interview. The first six programs meet with success and the producer’s contract is extended for another twelve shows. But, there is a change in the channel’s management. The new president wants to have a word in the selection of the guests. Having prepared four out of the twelve shows, I quit.
1987. I resign from “To Vima” because a text of mine was censored. It had an allusion (in its title) to the (then) almighty minister to the Prime Minister, the late Coutsogiorgas. (A year later he was jailed because of the Coscotas scandal.)
1989. Together with many other collaborators I walk out of the first non-state radio station -- the now historic “9,84 FM”, created in 1987 by Miltiadis Evert (then Mayor of Athens, later president of the New Democracy Party and Chief of the Opposition). After Evert left the office -- the new Mayor dismissed the director -- and creator -- of the station, Yannis Tzanetakos, because (according to his views) the program was “leaning to the left”. For the two first years my Sunday talk show had one of the first ratings -- a since unheard of 35% of Athenians.
1989. I follow Tzanetakos to the Flash 961 radio station -- and follow him again, three months later, on the way out. You can guess why.
1990. I hold a column for six months in the Sunday edition of Kathimerini. In the mean time the paper changes three editors in chief. The third one sends me a message that my column is now superfluous.
1992. This time, my new talk-show (“Adventures in Ideas”, ET 1) lived for one year. It generated a lot of good publicity. At a given moment it became the target of a newspaper editor whom I refused to invite. (Adding insult to injury, I invited his archenemy.) Under constant attack, the director of the channel called me and gave me some interesting advice: “You have a good show, but if you want to stay, you must drum up some political help. I can’t keep you there just on the basis of good reviews and ratings!” I refuse to play the party game and…
1995. “Kathimerini” again. I start a column in October 1994. I should have known better than believing the publisher when he assured me that they wanted me exactly because my ideas and my style generate reactions. At first I refused. We had two meetings. “You have a rather conservative public”, I protested. ”As a matter of fact” he said, “We want you to be as provocative as possible -- even downright insulting!” Ten months later, an article of mine leads to an unheard of reaction. The publisher publishes a three column attack against me, for a text of mine he himself published in his newspaper. The subject of my column? A recent poll in Greece which had shown that Greeks trust the army and the church more than any other institution in the country. My opinion? That a country where unproductive and authoritarian institutions are trusted ten times more than creative and democratic ones (like parties, media, businessmen, etc.) is a country oriented not towards life -- but towards death.
Irrespectively of the contents -- my article expressed some opinions. They may have been wrong -- but I had the right to state them. This right was negated by the publisher who believed that some subjects (like the Army and the Church) should be beyond criticism. “Every collaborator of this newspaper” he wrote “is free to express his opinion… as long as he accepts the principles of the paper -- with a simple ‘yes’ or a simple ‘no’!”
Of course this led to my tenth resignation. The eleventh (from the magazine RAM) was more for personal reasons.
Let me here say a few words about myself. I am not a journalist -- although I have been a regular contributor to the media for over 33 years. By profession I am a free lance writer. In sixty years (my first book was published 1953) I have written over sixty books, some of which have become best sellers. By training I am a philosopher -- or to be more precise I have studied philosophy. I have never been associated with any of the major political parties. I have published books criticizing both PASOK and New Democracy - and have been censored by both. At the time all Greek intellectuals belonged to the left, I was, probably, the only non-left thinker in the country. A brief but successful career in advertising, has given me the means to be financially independent.
This last point is very important. A professional journalist cannot afford to do what I have done -- he would starve. Even if he is a star, should he be included in the black list, he will not easily find another job. I know. When I left "To Vima" I naively thought that the competitors would line up in front of my door. Statistics proved that my column had top readership. Well, my telephone did not ring for two years. Even the laws of free market competition do not apply in this country.
Finally, the only places where one can express himself freely, are specialized magazines, the Free press and, of course the Internet. As for the former, I have been a regular contributor for years - as I am interested in computers, cars, photography -- and nobody has ever censored my writings.
There is another important point. My first resignations were caused by political pressures and interventions. Not so the tenth one. It was an act of ideological censorship. I am afraid Greek society has become less tolerant and more dogmatic in the last years. Texts that would pass unnoticed a few years ago now create strong reactions. The wave of Balkan nationalism swept through Greece, leaving strong after-effects.
I think that an intellectual must use the media -- in the same way Socrates used the Agora. The difference between a high-brow and an intellectual is that the intellectual cares. He is not just a professor, an artist or a poet, enclosed in a laboratory, a studio, or an ivory tower. He researches, creates -- but, at the same time, he is active, he voices his opinions, he participates in social events. I am afraid in this country he will not go very far. Freedom of speech is still a utopian dream for the Greek media.
As for me, I can only say that I am tired of trying -- I do not think there will be an twelfth resignation in my CV.