After Greece’s leftist-led government launched an auction for TV licenses in 2016, I wrote the following commentary regarding the serious perils of having a government try to lay hands on the news media:
Politicians are extremely insecure people as a rule. Historians and psychoanalysts explain that their thirst for recognition and acceptance propels them into politics. Where they mess up though – it always happens, and in many different countries – is when they try to control the media landscape to protect themselves from criticism. In democratic countries, these attempts almost always end in failure or tragedy.
Why is that? First of all because the entrepreneurs who agree to play that game are neither saints nor famed for their reliability. They are extremely flexible and good at interpreting political sentiment. One moment they are best friends, the next they are pursuing new friendships and alliances. They are also insatiable. They ask for something, politician X does it for them, then they demand something else. If the fifth favor they seek is refused, they turn nasty. In most cases, these are people who move in murky environments.
In Greece over the past few decades certain media owners have used their power to peddle protection and blackmail. The situation started gradually with a handful of fringe publications after the fall of Greece’s junta and spread rapidly – and the money rolled in. Blackmail was the order of the day. There was a lot of creativity too as with the publisher who blackmailed a top state official with revelations about the latter’s personal life. When he called him to his office asking him “Do you want something?” the blackmailer answered “You’ve got to be kidding” while holding out a piece of paper reading “I want a million [drachmas].” In journalists’ circles, we laugh about such stories but have never dealt seriously with the phenomenon. And that’s a shame. Some people even admire the chutzpah of those who got rich in this way.
One would have hoped that the crisis could have purged the sector. I don’t see that happening though. Insecurity is pushing the government down dark roads from which it will struggle to emerge unscathed. It’s one thing setting out clear rules for everyone and quite another to lay the groundwork for a new web of entangled interests.
Never mind the fact that the all-powerful invisible web that nobody refers to by name has followed the wise advice of a deceased entrepreneur: “Never get involved with or buy media organizations, it’s easier to rent them.” This is yet another market which does not – from what one hears – issue receipts and leaves no trail.