The inauspicious “thank you”
“Thank you for protecting me” were the words with which, two years ago, an ERT TV producer left me with no doubt about a new reign of terror that had descended upon our public broadcaster in the aftermath of Greece’s economic implosion a year earlier.
The night before she had phoned to invite me to appear on the news and current affairs television program she was producing. The invitation surprised me. For four months, back in 2011, ERT, Greece’s public radio and television broadcaster, had blacklisted me. Unofficially, of course, but at the behest of Mr. Petalotis, the then government’s Minister for Propaganda (or, formally, our Minister for the Press and Government Spokesperson), who, following an on-air exchange between us, did not hesitate to direct, in my presence, ERT’s producers never to invite me to a television panel again.
So, when the good producer punctuated the veil of prohibition with that telephone call months later, I replied that, while perfectly happy to accept her kind invitation, perhaps she should look into the ‘matter’ once more, mentioning my blacklisting. Her reaction was one of healthy incredulity. “The days of fascism at ERT are well and truly over,” she pronounced. “Be that as it may,” I retorted, “ask around and if you still want me to appear on your program tomorrow, give me a call and I shall be there.”
Two hours later, my phone rang again. In a subdued, coy voice came the sad admission: “I had been away on maternity leave and, as the ‘order’ was never written down, I did not know. I am ever so sorry. For us more than for you. Thank you for protecting me.”
She was not the only decent, defiant ERT producer. To their credit, ERT’s management defied the minister for at least two months, continuing to invite me. The organization’s CEO even wanted me to present my own nightly show, following the main news bulletin with an analysis of the economic crisis gripping the nation.
In one of our meetings at ERT’s headquarters, the CEO in fact informed me of the great pressures applied on them to keep me “off the premises,” which he was intent to resist. On that same evening, and prior to going on air, the main news bulletin’s anchor implored me, moments before the cameras started rolling, to, “desist from repeating that a Greek government debt restructure is inevitable, so that we can keep having you on the program.” Naturally, the first thing I said moments later, when she asked me for my on air assessment of Greece’s economic situation, was: “I am very much afraid that a debt restructure, tantamount to a Greek state bankruptcy, is both inevitable and, under our dire circumstances, desirable for Greece and for the whole of Europe.” With these words I sealed it as my last appearance on ERT. 1With one notable exception: Alexandros Triantafillidis, an ERT presenter and producer working for ERT’s Thessaloniki channel (ERT 3), continued gallantly to invite me and to pretend that he had never ‘heard’ from Athens that I was to be blacklisted.
Two years later I was to re-appear on ‘occupied ERT’, after ERT was closed down by government decree on 11 June 2013, with the building in the hands of its defiant personnel, and very possibly for the first time liberated from the clutches of our authoritarian state.
Supporters of ERT’s sudden closure cite its sordid history as an excuse for the stomach-churning blackening of our screens and the silencing of our public radio stations. There is very little doubt that, indeed, ERT is Greek fascism’s bastard. But, in an odd sense, so am I. And so are all the Greeks of my generation.
My parents’ formative years coincided with the fascist dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, an army officer who staged a coup in 1936 with the King’s blessings. Permanently enthralled by Mussolini and Hitler, Metaxas re-built the state apparatus emulating in every possible manner the institutions and policies of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In 1938, the regime created ERT (under its first acronym, EIR [Greek Radio Institute]) with regular radio transmissions that commenced on Greece’s national day. When, the following April, Joseph Goebbels visited Athens, ERT spent a whole day eulogizing Hitler’s despicable propaganda minister. Eighteen months later Metaxas was dumbfounded when, on 28 October 1940, the Axis unleashed a war of conquest against Greece. Why would his ‘mentors’, the hapless tin pot dictator wondered, invade a nation dominated by a true-blue fascist like himself?
When I was six, history repeated itself as tragedy with definite farcical undertones. On 21 April 1967, a group of fascist officers, aided and abetted by the CIA, suspended the constitution, arrested, tortured, or killed at will, and placed Greece in a straitjacket of totalitarianism that lasted until July 1974. During those interminable seven years, television came into being (turning EIR into EIRT, before the latter became ERT in 1980).
To say that those seven years were formative for my peers and myself would be an understatement. Our childhood was curtailed by the terror of a state gone berserk, by parents disappearing into the shadow prison system, by the fear of the secret police, but also by the excitement of feeling that we had a front seat in a fast unfolding historical drama.
When, in 1969, I saw a flickering television screen for the first time, ripples of excitement rose through my body; especially so in view of the contents of the very first program I witnessed: The Apollo 11 moon landing! A year later when I could watch Pele score at the Mexico World Cup, all the fear and loathing of the rest of the fascist programming, paled into insignificance.
“You are listening to still free Athens. Greeks: The German invaders are on the outskirts of Athens! Brothers: Retain well within your souls the spirit of the frontline! The invader is entering, taking all precautions, a city deserted, with its houses locked and bolted. Greeks: Keep your hearts high! Attention: Athens’ radio station will shortly not be Greek anymore. It will be German! And it will be broadcasting lies. Greeks: Do not listen to this station! Our war continues. And will continue until the final victory.”
With these words, uttered on 27 April 1941 on ERT’s Athenian radio station, Greece was to descend into the hell of Occupation and ERT was to distance itself, ever so briefly, from its fascist roots. A station set up by fascists imploring its audience to switch off, to not listen to it anymore, as it was about to taken over by the ‘original’ fascists it had only recently eulogized, had become a radical anti-fascist station. The fact that this anti-fascist defiance lasted only a few seconds does not in the slightest diminish its significance. Indeed, it was to prove the avant-garde of many such moments.
ERT’s signal did not drop out when the Nazis took it over. (That was to happen seventy-five years later, under our troika-led regime.) The stream of Nazi propaganda in German, Italian, and Greek continued to be broadcast into Greek homes and was treated with the contempt it deserved. Why did the Greeks continue to listen? Our parents and grandparents tuned in to ERT for clues of the mindset of their occupiers, relying at the same time on the BBC and Radio Moscow broadcasts for more reliable news from the front. There was also another reason for listening in: Despite the censorship and the abhorrent propaganda, some moments of quality radio managed to sneak into the programming. For example, Theia [Auntie] Lena, a children’s program dedicated to nursery rhymes and children’s tales, often succeeded in punctuating the Nazi propaganda with a heart-warming covert story of Greek resistance.
Propaganda and subversion continued to co-exist after the war’s end, well into the 1950s and 1960s. While ERT’s news coverage always parroted comically the government’s ‘official line’, other programs were allowed to run riot with creativity and a surprising degree of expressive freedom. Odysseas Elytis, the Nobel laureate, directed literature and poetry readings in the 1950s, radio theatre brought quality drama to the last island or mountain top, and, later, Manos Hatzidakis, our splendidly sensitive composer, became the director of a new radio station (ERT 3) redolent with elegant music, seditious humor, and opulent intellectuality.
Even during the 1967–1974 fascist dictatorship, also known as the Junta, ERT was a delicious paradox spanning the whole gamut from the obscene to the splendid. While democrats treated ERT with the same apprehension as Athens’ population had treated it during the Nazi occupation, we were sometimes surprised with the authorities’ inability to prevent sudden subversive moments from appearing on our screens or from invading the radio frequencies. Indeed, perusing that era from the safe distance of the present, the contradictions were mindboggling.
On the one hand, we had programs like the one presented by the dictators’ favorite entertainer Nikos Mastorakis (the man who brought to the Junta-era television screens US-style game shows) two days after the army’s 17 November 1973 bloody crushing of the Athens Polytechnic student uprising; a three day rebellion in the city center of Athens that had rocked the regime irreparably (as it turned out). Mastorakis appeared on screen surrounded by student prisoners, some of them with visible signs of torture on their faces, transmitting live from within a notorious torture centre. Mastorakis opened the program with a statement that the army had promised him “personally” that his ‘guests’ could speak freely without any fear of “repercussions.” Alas, as we now know, the students who refused to denounce the student uprising on air were, immediately after the camera was switched off, dragged into the adjacent rooms and beaten up until they lost consciousness.
And yet, in that same dark period, ERT screened remarkable programs like Ekeinos ki Ekeinos [He and Him]; a surreal theatrical series written by Kostas Mourselas featuring two remarkable actors (Vassilis Diamadopooulos and Yiorgos Michalakopoulos) that imbued the audience with anti-totalitarian ideas of a caliber and radicalism that was probably unseen even in the civilized democracies of Northern Europe.
This enchanting contradiction continued to the bitter end of ERT’s life. Even during the more recent era, and while the relevant government minister felt free to blacklist this dissident economist or, more prevalently, to dictate the toxic ‘official line’ to be presented in the news and current affairs programs as undisputed fact, ERT continued to pump out decent shows and investigative reports on the arts, music, history, etc.
So, when ERT was silenced and blackened, the greatest victim was its redemptive side. For the sickening propaganda of Greece’s authoritarian cleptocracy continued unabated. Where? On the commercial television and radio stations that mushroomed after ERT had lost its monopoly in 1989.
In 1977 the leader of the opposition complained that ERT, the perfect broadcasting monopoly, utterly ignored opposition views, speeches, manifestos, etc., and operated exclusively as the mouthpiece of the party in government. The Prime Minister came up with a startling response: “Only the government produces policies and only ministers act. The opposition just talks.”
In sharp contrast to the propagandist monoculture of the state broadcaster, Greece’s privately owned press was an orgy of diversity. Even left-wing Greeks, usually suspicious of laissez-faire, dreamt of the day when the electronic media would be liberalized, allowing a plurality of television and radio channels to compete with ERT.
It was not until 1989 that the media Big Bang hit our screens and radios. The first blow was struck when a newly elected mayor of Athens set up a quasi-illegal municipal radio station, one that was controlled neither by the central government nor by ERT. For the first time, news bulletins un-vetted by some government appointee were heard on the airwaves. After a tense few months, the state monopoly came tumbling down almost like the Berlin Wall had done further north. Every municipality rushed to set up its own independent radio station while, in dark smoke-filled rooms, industrialists, newspaper moguls, and ship owners were getting together to distribute between them the spoils of the soon to be launched private television stations.
The new television channels, using municipal radio stations as their stalking horses, multiplied almost exponentially once the government granted them provisional licenses in the absence of any specifications or regulation. To this day, private channels are frequency squatters, never having paid market rate for the frequency they use. As for their ‘regulation’, the broadcasting authority (ERS) that was eventually pieced together by successive governments is no more than a fig leaf for the radical absence of any effective regulation.
By 1991 Athens sported fifty channels, most of them no more than skeleton stations relaying tired movies or third-rate video clips—with porn taking over after midnight. Four or five of these broadcasters succeeded in stealing a lead from ERT, with fresher and louder news bulletins and, more importantly, sparkling entertainment packages revolving around the new concept of ‘lifestyle’ which invaded Greece on the back of our private television jamboree.
Within five years of ‘lifestyle’ television, all hope that liberalization would have contributed to political and cultural electronic media pluralism had vanished. Lowest common denominator shows, the dictum that “no one can lose money by underestimating the audience’s intelligence,” the irresistible lure of vulgarity, plus the exceedingly cozy relationship between media owners, developers, bankers, and government officials, had created wall-to-wall banality, irrepressible inanity, and race-to-the-bottom journalism of unprecedented crassness. Tellingly, Nikos Mastorakis made a triumphant comeback, producing many new ugly talk and game shows, basking in this wave of vulgarity. It was a media-scape that made many of us cry out: “Sinful, propagandist ERT, come back. All is forgiven!”
It was thus that parts of ERT, for all its faults, and despite the common knowledge of the corrupt appointment system determining its human geography, became a tele-audio sanctuary. Until, that is, 11 June of this year, when its screens were blacked out and its radio frequencies silenced.
Having grown up in the Greece of the neo-fascist colonels, nothing can stir up painful memories in me like a television program’s interruption. I vividly recall the moment, on 18 November 1973, when ERT’s program was suspended, the screen filled with army crests, and our radio blasted military marches in an endless loop. It was clear that the dictatorial government had collapsed under the strain of the students’ protests that were crushed the previous night in Athens’ city centre. When, at last, the military music ended, and an announcer in military uniform appeared on the screen reading out a series of ‘directives to the citizenry’ (which began with the inimitable words, “We have decided and we decree that…”), we knew that a new, more brutal dictator had overthrown the devilish one we had been living with hitherto.
So, when the television screen froze almost forty years later, on 11 June 2013, an hour before midnight, it felt as if some sinister power from beyond had pressed a hideous ‘reverse’ button, catapulting me back to 1973. For a few hours the screen just froze; with journalists still appearing tantalizingly close to finishing their sentences. At least the fascist colonels had the good sense to paste a picture of the Greek flag, accompanied by that disconcerting military music. Perhaps sensing this, a day or so later, the frozen picture turned into a black screen. Punching numbers 1, 2, or 3 on our remote controls (corresponding to ERT’s three channels that most Greeks habitually programmed into the first three buttons of their remote control) produced a sea of black.
Once ERT’s three channels had frozen on our screens, and after I had overcome the initial nausea, I turned to the commercial ones assuming that this major piece of news would be recorded and commented upon by them. Not a word. Soaps, second-rate movies, and informationals. That was all we got. As if ERT’s instant demise was not worth a mention by its commercial competitors. Soon after the phone rang. It was a journalist friend instructing me in no uncertain terms: “Come to ERT now. Thousands are gathering. It will be a long night.” And so I did.
Indeed, thousands had gathered. The dual carriageway in front of the building was closed to traffic as the crowds gathered in ERT’s headquarters. Inside the building all the staff were there, despite a police order to vacate the facility. All studios were running, all systems were ‘go’. Only, of course, the signal was not reaching the outside world, cut off by technicians working for other parts of government. Still, ERT’s people managed to upload a signal onto a disused analogue transmitter and at least some Athenians had reception that night. Soon after, various media outlets, including the European Broadcasting Union, began relaying ERT’s output over their transmitters and websites.
Some of the ERT employees who recognized me ushered me into the studio, a few telling me excitedly that, “at last the blacklisting is over.” Once there, in the same studio from which I was banned from for having uttered the forbidden words “debt re-structure,” I was interviewed by anchors in full make up, as if nothing had changed. My words to them, recorded for posterity on YouTube, were:
“I feel I have the moral authority to be here in support of your cause; to castigate ERT’s barbaric closure. I say this because, as you know, your government bosses have had me blacklisted from this station ever since I refused to keep quite about Greece’s bankruptcy. That minor act of totalitarianism was a prelude to what we are experiencing tonight. Clearly, I am not the person to say that ERT was a splendid organization unblemished by censorship, political interference, or corruption. But I think I yield sufficient moral authority, courtesy of that ‘blacklisting’, to stand here tonight and state that, despite all its ills, the totalitarian manner in which ERT was closed down was a blow against all civilized people the world over. No doubt public schools and hospitals, even the public system of justice and the courts, and our public media can be awful. This is no reason summarily to disband them. Public broadcasters offer us (like public schools, courts, and hospitals) a shot at civilizing our world. Without them, we are at the mercy of the Rupert Murdochs of the planet who, having heard of the Greek government’s decision, are surely getting nasty ideas on how the Greek model can be exported to Britain (BBC beware!), to Australia (ABC you are next!), to everywhere there is money to be made and power to be wrestled from dismantling public media.”
For many days and nights, several weeks in fact, large crowds gathered outside of ERT’s buildings all over Greece, in solidarity with its fired employees. Greece’s High Court ordered the government to resume ERT’s broadcasts until parliament passed a new bill determining the future of public broadcasting. To no avail. Our screens remained black for months. Until new embarrassingly awful programs, produced in a manner that violates multiple laws of the Greek state, began to be broadcast from unspecified studios using ‘contractors’ whose ‘contracts’ stretch to… two months. The state had resolved to create a… pirate station of its own.
And so it was that our black ERT screens were suddenly lit up with shows aesthetically identical to the worst of the military broadcasts of the early 1970s. A sort of black-on-black retro extravaganza that works brilliantly as a sarcastic comment on our variously bankrupt Greece.
The banality of evil revisited
I have studiously avoided any analysis of why the Greek government chose to close down ERT. Our Propaganda Minister’s reasons do not even warrant a rebuttal, except to note the scrumptious paradox they contain: a). an extraordinary argument, coming from the Government Spokesperson, that ERT was stuffed with… government cronies; juxtaposed against b). the even more incredible announcement that a new public broadcaster would be staffed by the government in order to preclude… government bias.
My theory of why ERT was tossed into history’s dustbin, after seventy five years laden with a tragic but also inspiring history, was (and is) that the prime minister took a purposely totalitarian decision to force his minor (center-left) coalition parties to deny him a parliamentary vote of confidence and, thus, trigger an election—without himself taking the blame (especially in Berlin) for having caused a Greek election a month or so prior to the German federal elections.
Of course, this is just my theory. But whatever the precise reasons for tearing ERT down, one thing sticks out as beyond dispute: A country whose private and public sectors are insolvent but chooses (or is forced) to pretend that it can overcome bankruptcy through a combination of huge new loans and savage cutbacks, inevitably finds itself in a rut. To maintain this impossible course, the government of the day is, in a sense, forced to rely on increasingly authoritarian methods and tricks. ERT was sacrificed on this altar of accelerating, self-reinforcing feedback between catastrophic macro-economic policies and spiraling totalitarianism. An evil deed almost beautifully projected against the banality of the officialdom who embraced it.
It is perhaps the epitome of irony that Greek fascism’s bastard should be felled by a resurgence of totalitarianism at the time when the streets of Athens are patrolled by Golden Dawn’s Nazis. And, it is the mark of tragedy that our now deceased bastard is missed by those of us who loathed its origins and were blacklisted by its masters.