Tag Archives: BBC

On AIR

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

As far as walks to work go, it was pretty inspiring: exiting the train station to see the Acropolis in the predawn darkness, like a faint chalk outline on a blackboard, before heading along the cobbled street that runs past the ancient Kerameikos cemetery, where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration in 431 BC.

After that early morning blast of history, arriving at the headquarters of Athens International Radio (AIR) 104.4 FM at the old gasworks in Gazi often felt like an anti-climax. But I came across much that was inspiring during the year I spent at AIR, where a small and determined team countered limited resources and bureaucratic obstacles with humor and hard work to produce programs that were at times as rough as a lump of quartz but often as refined as the quartz movement of a quality timepiece.

AIR was established by the City of Athens ahead of the 2004 Olympics to provide visitors with information and entertainment in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Its success gave it a lease on life beyond the confines of the Games and a steady stream of languages were added to the programming schedule, reaching a total of 16, from Urdu to Tagalog, this year. No longer just a point of reference for tourists, the station had become a vital source of news for the patchwork of foreigners for whom Athens is home, not just a stop on their vacation. AIR was also the local broadcaster for Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, China Radio International and the BBC World Service – the best that world radio has to offer.

But all this stopped on September 16 when a prosecutor unexpectedly shut down AIR’s transmitter. Two weeks on, the station is still only available via the Internet as the legal wrangle continues. It remains unclear what prompted the prosecutor’s action but at the heart of the problem lies the fact that AIR was only granted a temporary license in 2004, which it continued to use to broadcast over the next six years.

It may seem perfectly natural that a station without a proper license should be shut down but things are not that straightforward in the world of Greek radio. The first commercial radio licenses were issued in the late 1980s and over the next decade governments handed out permits with complete abandon, creating such bedlam on the airwaves that you needed the dexterity of a safe cracker to tune your dial to the station of your choice. In 1999, the then PASOK government, and its Media Minister Dimitris Reppas (now the transport minister), decided it would corral the rapidly rising number of stations by refusing to issue any more licenses. But the stations that already had permits were allowed to continue broadcasting until the creation of an evaluation procedure to decide whether they could remain on air. Eleven years later, that procedure still does not exist.

In fact, there have been only two attempts to place any kind of limitations on broadcasters. The first was in the runup to Athens International Airport opening in March 2001, when authorities wanted to keep the airwaves free from interference. Stations in Attica were issued with licenses that would have to be renewed every four years. Since then, no review has taken place and the radio stations are operating with the same licenses. The previous New Democracy government drew up a so-called “frequency map” detailing which frequencies could be used. Its initiative was passed into law but the legislation has never been applied.

The end result of this sorry tale is that Greece now has more than 900 commercial, municipal, church and student radio stations operating in a quasi-legal status. That’s an inordinate number for a country of some 11 million people: in the UK, which has a population roughly six times as large, there is less than half that number of stations. Athens has twice as many commercial stations (41), as London. Even the Hania Prefecture on Crete, home to about 150,000 people, has more stations (30) than London. The island of Chios, with just over 50,000 permanent residents, has a little way to go to catch up: it has just 17 stations – one for every 3,000 residents.

Rather than an example of Greece’s refreshing liberty and polyphony, these ridiculous numbers hide something more sinister. The failure since the late 1980s to regulate this industry is a symptom of Greece’s patron-client relationship. Governments did not want to close down stations or refuse licenses for fear of losing influential friends, while radio served as a useful pulpit for politicians to spread their word. Then, there is the issue raised this week by Athens mayoral candidate Giorgos Kaminis, who accused Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis of employing big-name journalists at the city’s municipal radio station, Athina 984, in order to guarantee their acquiescence. Kaklamanis denies this is the case but if it’s not happening in Athens, then it surely is in other parts of the country, where municipal stations are an easy way to put family and friends on the local government payroll.

So, in the midst of this feeding frenzy, AIR – a station that is run on a shoestring budget and has maintained a dignified independence on national and local political issues – seems like an unworthy scapegoat. With the city’s population becoming more diverse and when there are already so many stations that do little else but play Lady Gaga’s latest hit seven times a day, surely we can find room for a station that updates myriad nationalities about events. At a time when racial disunity and ethnic disharmony are increasing threats in the Greek capital, there must be a place on the city’s airwaves for a station that is both in the community and of the community.

In the UK, authorities realized at the start of the last decade that strict licensing laws meant some communities felt their voices were not being heard. The response was the Community Radio licensing system, under which applicants must demonstrate that their proposed nonprofit station will meet the needs of a specific, underserved section of the population. The area in which the stations can broadcast is limited and they are not allowed to raise more than 50 percent of their operating costs from one source, nor can they compete for advertising with commercial stations.

The scheme has proved a successful way of empowering communities and filling the void that the national broadcaster, the BBC, and commercial stations could not. It’s time that Greece looked at a similar scheme as part of a wider effort to regulate its airwaves, especially if it means that stations like AIR are allowed to provide their listeners with a vital public service and even occasional moments of inspiration.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 1, 2010.

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Heads up!

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Perhaps the only surprise when a statuette of a cathedral struck Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the side of the face on Sunday was that the man who launched it into the crisp Milan air had a history of mental problems and was not one of the millions of perfectly sane Italians who detest their premier.

Few democratic leaders have bred such strong contempt in a large section of their population as Berlusconi has in Italy. A banner at a protest against the Iraq War in Rome in 2003 was indicative of the hatred that has burned for the media-mogul-turned-politician throughout this decade: “Iraq, we’ll have Saddam if you take Berlusconi,” it read.

The physical attack on the 73-year-old prime minister resulted in a few scars that a bit more plastic surgery can fix but it also symbolized the dead-end to which this incessant rage against him has led. Despite opportunities to provide a credible alternative to his governments, the country’s center-left has failed to find the answers to Italy’s problems, many of which are similar to those of Greece, such as the need for widespread structural reforms. Despite the poor state of the economy, his embroilment with more women of questionable repute than Hugh Hefner and accusations of numerous corruption scandals, Berlusconi’s popularity rating remains just above 50 percent and many experts are predicting that sympathy after Sunday’s attack will help it to rise.

Although Italy is no stranger to violence being inflicted on its politicians, it has worked hard to eradicate this element from the country’s political life – the last assassination of a senior politician was in 1978. Berlusconi’s opponents are now caught between a rock and a hard alabaster souvenir as they have to continue chipping away at his surgically enhanced facade without letting their efforts be driven just by hate.

“This clearly shows the degradation of the political clash in Italy,” said Ezio Mauro, editor-in-chief of Rome’s La Repubblica, of Sunday’s attack on Berlusconi. The daily newspaper has been one of the few media outlets critical of the prime minister’s tenure in office. And herein lies the problem for Berlusconi’s opponents: His iron grip on the media hardly allows them the chance to get a word in.

The premier owns the largest Italian publishing house, Mondadori, and three private Mediaset TV channels. He also exercises influence over state TV Rai as most of the broadcaster’s executives are political appointees – the 73-year-old has actually said that it is “unacceptable” for Rai to criticize the government. All this has resulted in the independent watchdog Freedom House ranking Italy 73rd for press freedom along with Tonga (Greece is ranked 63rd) out of 195 countries worldwide.

Although Berlusconi’s colorful antics sometimes make him appear like the villain in an Austin Powers movie (Dr Feelgood perhaps), his supremacy is very real in Italy and absolutely relevant beyond the country’s borders.

A mere glance around the world confirms that the dividing lines between the media and politics are becoming increasingly blurred. While Berlusconi was getting whacked in the face, center-right candidate Sebastian Pinera was winning the first round of Chile’s presidential election. Pinera is a successful businessman who owns Chile’s fourth most popular TV channel, Chilevision, which serves up a visual diet of mostly gossip shows, soap operas and news. In Britain, the Conservative Party has come under attack for an alleged secret agreement it has struck with The Sun newspaper, the UK’s most-read daily. In return for the paper’s support in the runup to next year’s general election, the Conservatives have allegedly agreed to reduce state funding for the BBC and slash regulation of private broadcasters.

In Greece, the bonds between the media and the people who run the country are there for all to see – literally – as they have often resulted in the awarding of public works contracts. Now, Prime Minister George Papandreou says he wants the two sides to stand further apart and for there to be more transparency in their dealings.

During his time in opposition as PASOK leader, he often resisted pressure from the media until opinion polls began to swing in his favor and those that had wanted to hand the reins of the party over to someone else wasted no time in jumping on the Papandreou bandwagon. But showing the same fortitude in government will be a different story, especially when events take a turn for the worse and the last thing he’ll need is extra pressure from newspapers and TV channels.

As such, it was interesting to note that the issue of media influence was not among the topics discussed at a groundbreaking meeting on corruption and transparency between parliamentary party leaders on Tuesday. Perhaps it was just an oversight – for Greece’s sake, we should hope so because, as Berlusconi has shown in Italy, when the media and the political system fuse into one, it results in something more painful for the country than just a bloody nose.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on December 18, 2009.

That’s democracy

Poltergeist

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A rambunctious protest and widespread criticism of the BBC were just some of the consequences of the British broadcaster’s decision last week to allow Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP) to take part in a televised debate.

Since Greece is a much more mature democracy, we do not experience such consternation. We put the leader and members of our own ultra-right wing nationalist party on TV almost on a daily basis, ask them soft questions, let them say what they like and nobody bats an eyelid. After all, that’s democracy.

Of course, the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), Giorgos Karatzaferis, would reject any accusation of extremism, racism or fascism, allegations that have been leveled against Griffin and BNP.

Over the years, Karatzaferis has diligently tried to erase his party’s uncomfortable past. He now presents himself as the nationalist with the friendly face, the caring populist. But all the airbrushing in the world will not cover up the skeletons in LAOS’s closet, such as the fact that one of the party’s most prominent MPs, Makis Voridis, had previously been the leader of the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), an ugly little anti-immigration, pro-death-penalty party that was officially affiliated with the BNP.

Voridis, one of several LAOS members with a dark past, also developed close ties with the leader of France’s far-right Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen. Shortly before the Hellenic Front was incorporated into LAOS, Voridis paraded Le Pen as a guest at his wedding.

Griffin and Karatzaferis can only dream of emulating the kind of success that saw Le Pen, the godfather of Europe’s far right, poll second in the French presidential elections of 2002. But Le Pen’s rise is absolutely relevant to the issue of how much coverage, if any, politicians like Griffin and Karatazferis should be given.

By Le Pen’s admission, “the hour that changed everything” for him was in 1984 when he took part in “L’heure de Verite,” a similar political program to “Question Time,” the show Griffin participated in last Thursday. The FN leader had been shunned by the media before then but following his appearance, the party increased its share of the vote in the subsequent European elections from 3.5 percent to 11 percent.

“Small fish become big so long as God gives them life,” said Le Pen. In 21st-century politics, this god is television. That’s why there’s been so much soul searching in Britain about whether Griffin should have been allowed to take part in a discussion involving mainstream politicians.

“When you put the BNP into the mainstream like that, they drag people onto their agenda,” said the Labour MP and first black female deputy to appear on “Question Time,” Diane Abbott. “The program has given Griffin unnecessary exposure, unnecessary credibility, and giving more credibility to a fascist party in the middle of a recession is a very dangerous thing.”

Abbot’s argument is powerful. Television gives politicians and parties a legitimacy they cannot get by handing out leaflets outside train stations or speaking at small gatherings in rural backwaters. If you’re on political talk shows with representatives of other parties then, in the eye of the viewer, you must be their equal. If you’re on TV, you’re part of the establishment. If you’re part of the establishment, then you can attract financing that can help you grow.

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So, if Griffin can draw all this from one appearance on the BBC, what kind of boost is Karatzaferis getting from being the darling of morning shows on Greek television? The LAOS leader worked out some time ago that TV can help him present his party as a legitimate voice in Greek politics. His regular appearances have made him a figure of fun for many but LAOS performances in this year’s European elections and general elections show that some viewers have been tuning in to his populist message.

Even the BNP claimed that more than 3,000 people joined the party immediately after Griffin’s appearance – although given that more than 8 million people watched the program, it’s not really a figure to boast about.

In fact, momentary popularity seems a small price to pay to uphold one of the principles that underpins our democracy: the freedom of speech. After all, the BNP won two seats in June’s European elections and not allowing an elected party fair representation would be dicing with accepted democratic principles. “The true gift to the extreme right is to give them the opportunity to claim that they are being gagged while allowing them to carry on operating and incubating in the shadows,” said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer weekly.

“Ultimately, the BBC was right about all this,” writes AA Gill in The Sunday Times. “It was a question of free speech and free speech is non-negotiable. It doesn’t come with caveats or committees or right-minded souls. It isn’t open only to reasonable people who hold a clubbable set of values. It can’t be taken from the mouths of those want to steal it from the mouths of others.

“Look at the list of the maligned dictators and murderous nutters who get to speak at the United Nations: Everyone has a right to a microphone.”

However, there’s a key difference between what British viewers saw last week and the Karatzaferis experience in Greece. Griffin was challenged by his fellow panelists, whose aim, as Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent put it “was to pry this limpet of strategic blandness from the rock and expose the unsightly muscle beneath.” Most importantly, though, Griffin had to face questions from the audience.

This produced the most telling moment of the night, when Griffin was confronted about the BNP’s policy of repatriation by a man born in Britain to Asian parents. “This is my country, where do you want me to go?” he asked, before suggesting that members of the audience collect money to buy Griffin a one-way ticket to the South Pole. “That’s a colorless landscape, it would suit you fine,” he told the BNP leader.

Greek politicians do not face this type of confrontation. Debates on Greek TV are usually sanitized coffee-house discussions, where the same old faces gather to spout the same old gibberish at the prompting of a very accommodating host. The presence of an audience that can show irreverence toward these inflated egos remains a foreign concept.

It’s here though, that the crux of the issue lies – although free speech should be cherished and defended, so should the right to challenge what is said. Monologues have no place in democracies and only play into the hands of those who direct their words at a specific audience.

Any publicity that Griffin gained from his appearance on “Question Time” was undone by his inability to rise to the challenges of the audience and his fellow panelists. “I have not been convicted of Holocaust denial,” was his response to a question about past comments that suggested the Holocaust was a myth. When asked about his 2000 meeting with David Duke, a Ku Klux Klan leader, Griffin responded by claiming that the KKK is “an almost totally nonviolent” organization.

The BNP leader’s floundering confirmed one of free speech’s most edifying features – although it provides you with the oxygen of publicity, it also gives you enough rope to choke yourself.

Griffin’s appearance was a two-fold victory for democracy because the freedom of speech was upheld but mostly because the principle that everyone, especially politicians, should be held directly accountable for what they say was immeasurably strengthened. Now, that’s democracy.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 30, 2009.