February 11, 2016
by George Pleios
The Greek media, the oligarchs and the new Media Law
Ιnterview of George Pleios to Nikolas Nenedakis and Magdalini Varoucha
Despite reactions from the main opposition parties, the Greek government is expected to deposit its long-awaited draft legislation for the new broadcasting license tenders with the aim of launching the channel licensing competition, after three consecutive unsuccessful meetings of the Conference of Parliament Presidents as regards the TV and radio regulator, ESR. According to the government’s proposal, to be discussed in Parliament on Thursday February 11, 4 private TV licenses are to be issued.
It is the first time such a procedure has been introduced in Greece since the beginning of private television broadcasting, as the country has maintained a regime of temporary licenses for 25 years.
In the run-up to the 2015 parliamentary elections (January and Sepetmeber), the vast majority of the Greek media outlets supported the Centre-Right parties, and vehemently campaigned against the eventual victor Syriza. In October 2015, the Greek Parliament approved a bill that with the aim to drastically reform the media landscape in the country. Since then, these the issue of its implementation has risen to the top of the political agenda, and the relevant public debate is continued.
George Pleios, Head of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at the National and Kapodestrian University of Athens and author many books and articles on the relation between mass media and society, spoke to AnalyzeGreece! about the Greek media oligarchs, the new Media Law and its drawbacks, as well as Greece’s public diplomacy and its institutional aspects.
Terms like “media oligarchs” and “triangle of power” are often used in the Greek public debate to describe the relations between politicians, media and business. In addition, you have repeatedly claimed that in the run-up to the January elections, the mainstream Greek media reported negatively about Syriza due to “purely economic interests”. Could you give us your account on the main characteristics of the media sector in Greece and how it could be progressively reformed?
Greece is one of those countries in southern Europe where there is a close relationship and interdependence between media and political power – economic as well as political- both on an institutional and an ideological level. The model describing the relationship between mass media, the state and political elites is that of vested interests as often described in the political discourse and scientific research. This practically means that mass media owners in Greece – also owners of other businesses (eg construction and shipping companies, new technologies and health services firms, etc.) tend to provide political support to political parties, especially those at power or likely to form a new government. On the other hand, the political parties in Greece tend to provide financial and administrative support to media owners and the companies owned by the so called “oligarchs”, in exchange for their political support. This is done through the assignment of public works (i.e roads and government buildings construction etc.) as well as government advertising, public property management, etc at scandalously profitable terms and in return for political support.
These practices have significant economic, cultural and ethical implications, as they make corruption prevail as the dominant example in the public sphere together with the state-controlled and non-competitive entrepreneurship, setting the paradigm of easy enrichment activities, parasitic consumerism etc.
The phenomenon of vested interests between political elites and the media in Greece is not new; it exacerbated after WW II and has culminated early 2000. With the onset of the crisis, in the 2010s, the nature of this relationship has changed. Austerity policies and reductions in public investments limited governments’ ability to funnel large sums of money to media companies or other firms owned by media owners. As a result, in recent years many media companies have gone bankrupt while others are not sustainable in the free market or able to comply with the law. Not only state resources are limited, but also advertising revenues are in sharp fall as a result of the contraction in consumption due to austerity policies. This practically means that media companies have become even more dependent to state funds today than they have ever been in the past.
At the same time, the economic survival of traditional media outlets combined with their support to pro-austerity governments was a vital tool in helping implement these policies. This gave birth to new forms of state support to the media owners during the crisis years: political elites stopped financing media companies from the state budget and started providing assurances to banks that would grant money to debt-ridden media. This money came from bank recapitalization funds given to Greece through EU support mechanisms (ESF and then ESM), and consequently weighed heavily on the public debt.
As a consequence, parasitic media outlets survived only thanks to the European Support Mechanism and the harsh austerity measures that Greece suffers from. The media has, therefore, every reason to support austerity policies. Content analysis of media programs in recent years has shown that the mainstream media in Greece were supporting pro-austerity measures more enthusiastically than the governments introducing the measures.
Summing up, during the crisis years, opportunistic ties between the state and the media: a) have taken on new dimensions b) have become even stronger and c) have clearly taken sides in support of pro-austerity governments: mainstream media instead of criticizing government policies, advocated the governmental stance, in the strongest possible ways.
After the January 2015 elections, mainstream media changed their attitude toward the anti-austerity government of Syriza-Anel. Yet one should not regard this as a “war” against the new government, on the contrary, this is the role that media should play vis-à-vis every government – only they had not done this before the January elections. One should also note that the months between the January and September parliamentary elections, media attitude toward SYRIZA changed to cautious criticism as media owners were anticipating the new government initiatives regarding media regulation: the so called media “oligarchs” were waiting to see if their interests would be safe guarded. This was more or less the case with the exception of the period before the July 5th referendum: the mainstream media supported en bloc the YES front and propagated openly against a NO vote, even on Saturday, one day before the referendum, against the law provisions. The stance the mainstream media took during these weeks resembled psychological operations more than reporting. As their campaign failed (the NO campaign got more than 60%), many said that this was also due to people’s reaction to “overdoses” of propaganda by the media.
After the Syriza government signed the new agreement (Memorandum of Understanding) in August 2015 and the party came back to office in September, mainstream media started following a new strategy, namely that of pressure: they constantly called for the government to implement the 3rd Memorandum to the letter. This is because media owners are well aware of the fact that without external financial support, the flow of public money to private media and other media owned companies will simply stop.
Greece has recently voted a new Media Law that, according to the government, “brings transparency and democracy and tackles corruption, meeting head-on a Berlusconi-type intertwining interests between politics and business”. You seem to have expressed a more critical view, referring to the pros and cons of the new Law. Could you summarize for Analyze Greece your main points of argument as regards the positive and negative aspects of the new law?
As I have said and written before, after decades of delay, Greece has finally drafted a new law that provides for the licenses of the private television channels. The new law defines the conditions to be respected in order for the private media to broadcast legally and pay for the use of the public frequencies as is the case in the rest of the EU and the western world. At the same time, the new legal framework enhances the control on money laundering through media owned businesses and puts obstacles to overexploitation of employees in the media sector.
Yet the new law has a number of flaws and gaps that could let the interweaving phenomenon go on in a more implicit way than it has been previously the case. The independent authority responsible for the media licenses (Greek National Radio and Television Council -ESR) has not yet been formally convened and it remains unknown when this will happen. Plus, the new law has no sufficient provisions to stop indebted media companies from taking more bank loans. Also –at least in theory- some companies can get a media broadcast license without having the necessary infrastructure, funds and personnel. Some other problematic areas regard the licenses’ procedures for the online TV stations, as well as the qualifications requirements for their personnel -although there is a provision for a minimum number of employees.
However, the biggest weakness of the new media law is that it gives excessive power to the competent minister of State: the decision on the number of media licenses as well as their prices lies in his competence. This means that the law cannot provide sufficient guarantees that the old or potential new “oligarchs” will not be receiving any favors by the minister of State. Finally, the legal provisions regarding DIGEA (the company-provider of the digital signal for the media program) can be annulled by judgment of the international or the Greek court, if there is a case.
Τhe Journalists’ Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA) often supports journalists’ employment in governmental offices, even within Greece’s diplomatic missions, as a means to tackle unemployment in the media sector. Do you see a possible conflict of interest and what, in your opinion, should a left government’s approach be?
The problem with journalists’ exercising parallel functions in the public sector is twofold. On the one hand, the problem is that the relevant employment is unevenly distributed. The situation is problematic, more so if the state (not the market) plays a role in it. Plus, a Left wing party now in power should be even more careful on issues such as equality and social protection policies in the labor market.
On the other hand, journalists’ parallel employment within the public sector creates major problems concerning media professionalism: handling of time, information sources, influence, confidentiality on state matters etc are some of the problematic areas. Note that the new Law provisions concern journalists employed in the Secretariat General of Information, the Public Television (ERT), as well as the public News Agency (APE-MPE), all three important institutions for the function of the state and the public interest.
The new Media Law includes a special section referring to Greece’s Public Diplomacy and its organizational aspects, introducing a “National Council for Communication Policy”. Given the widespread stereotypes in the international press on Greece’s “exceptionalism” as the main reason of its economic woes, what do you think that has gone wrong in Greece’s public diplomacy during the past years?
The new Law provisions concerning Greece’s Public Diplomacy are among the positive elements of this initiative and long overdue. Greece lags far behind in this area compared with other European countries and this has become very obvious during the years of the crisis. I believe that some European decisions regarding Greece could have been somewhat different (ie Germany’s stance) had the international media and public opinion been more positively disposed towards the Greeks -if for example narratives like that about Greek laziness, were less widespread. In my opinion, things could have been different had the international media focused their criticism more on the political aspects of the country’s pathologies by highlighting, for example, issues like the two party system, New Democracy and PASOK’s clientelistic practices for decades preceding the crisis.
Things could perhaps have been different had the international media also highlighted responsibilities of other western countries for the support they provided to clientelistic parties in Greece either for political reasons (during the cold war) or for business purposes after 1989, when Greece was seen as a gate to Southeastern Europe.
In short, we could have avoided serious economic woes if the country had strong public diplomacy policies. Furthermore, especially during 2010 and 2011, Athens could have communicated more effectively the contagion risk of the “Greek crisis” and perhaps influence the stance of the lenders. Instead of taking initiatives to this direction, the previous governments decided to further weaken the pertinent structures of the Greek Embassies (Press and Communication Offices) under the pretext of austerity.
Greece’s traditional political forces in general systematically overlooked the importance of public diplomacy as well as the role of international public opinion makers whom they ought to have properly and timely informed. Instead, in most of the cases, they continued to see the Embassies’ public diplomacy offices and their personnel as another prime area to exercise political favoritism and clientelism.
In light of these, Greece’s public diplomacy should be fully developed and enriched with new contents that go beyond the traditional ancient world glory image. Emphasis should be placed on areas such as promoting the public debate on the crisis ‘social consequences and highlighting the dangers that austerity policies pose for the Europe as a whole and not only Greece, especially if nationalist and racist ideologies keep rising.
George Pleios is Head of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at the National and Kapodestrian University of Athens.
The original text was first published on:Written for AnalyzeGreece!