BBC’s Greek Service bows out, ending long tradition of getting world news to Greek-language speakers

Knew one had to pass a test to get a job at the BBC, but this went way beyond anything I had imagined. A BBC actor played the part of a temperamental colleague and I was graded on my reactions to him. In Greece, irrespective of one’s qualifications, one has to know the editor in chief or at least a senior editor, in order to get a job as a journalist. Here, one has to know the population of Japan, the name of the most senior minister in the British government and be able to write five news items in a few minutes, before being asked questions such as: «What would you do if you lost contact with the Afghanistan correspondent?» or «What do you know about the political situation in the Basque country?» or «How would you react if you received a fax from Osama bin Laden threatening to blow up half of London?» «Why would he send the fax to me?» I wondered and tried to answer as convincingly as possible. It was November 2001. There was a lot of work after the events of September 11 and the BBC’s Greek Service was recruiting a new batch of journalists – its last, as it turned out. There was no indication at that time that within four years the Foreign Office would decide to close down this historic service. Outside imposing Bush House, where the BBC World Service foreign-language programs are broadcast, it was drizzling as it only can in London. A group of demonstrators were calling for the abolition of the metric system and the return of the British imperial system of weights and measures. The real culture shock, however, came inside Bush House. Even after passing the exam, there were two weeks of intensive seminars before going on air: «London calling!» The first worry was how to manage the huge volume of information available at the BBC, the texts and images from around the world flitting across one’s computer screen. A call to the right office would let you know the right way to pronounce the capital of Burkina Faso or to get the phone number of [historian] Eric Hobsbaum. And of course there was the enormous reservoir of correspondents’ reports: from Daratos in Brussels, Avgerinos in Moscow, Haritos in Jerusalem and many more. At first glance, the news differed little from that broadcast by other stations – in fact it often went out with a brief delay. However, you were sure that you had done everything possible to verify even the last word. If you managed to survive all that, there was the final «beer test» in the BBC’s underground pub. Generations of Greek journalists acquired their first beer belly there along with the ability to down three pints in less than an hour. High-risk training At the BBC, training never came to an end. Nearly two years later, there were the seminars for war correspondents. Cloistered for a week on an old army base, there were lessons in how to act if you were abducted, how to avoid snipers and mines, what to do in case of an accident. The base included a reconstruction of a town for special forces to train in. All the buildings looked like those in Belfast or another town in Northern Ireland. In the first few hours of training, you felt as if you were in the wrong camp, but the course was obligatory for anyone wanting a posting to high-risk countries. In my case the first major missions were not long in coming: Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, among others. Then, after all that, came the sudden closure of the BBC Greek Service. Most colleagues could look back to the days of the wartime occupation of Greece, the 1967-74 dictatorship, the poet George Seferis and the late George Papandreou. Those sorts of memories didn’t really interest me, perhaps because I hadn’t lived through those years, but mostly because I had other «heroic» times on my mind. Objectivity Take, for example, the afternoon shift of April 9, 2003. The American tanks were in the center of Baghdad, Saddam’s statue was being torn down and we had just finished an interview with Tarik Ali – one of the protagonists in the British anti-war movement. I was interrupted by a phone call from a journalist from a Greek newspaper. «At today’s editorial meeting,» he said, «we were under pressure to tone down the anti-Americanism, but we heard some news from you about what the Americans were doing to civilians (in Iraq) and told them, ‘Look, the BBC said so!’» It seemed unreal; Britain was at war and journalists who were paid by the Foreign Office were being praised for their objectivity by anti-war Greeks. In the end, perhaps heroism among journalists is not only pitting yourself against dictators and talking into a microphone to the background noise of anti-air missiles and tanks, but against those who are paying your salary. And the BBC’s Greek Service, for all its faults and idiosyncrasies, did that to the very end.