Witnessing the collapse of the edifice

If a building’s foundations have rotted, the occupants have two choices – either to demolish and rebuild or patch it temporarily and wait for it to collapse. Recently, we have been witness to the second option. All it took was a DVD and a suicide attempt by a mid-level state official for the entire – already unsteady – political and media edifice to be shaken to its foundations. Accumulated rot and decades of chronic problems have led to savage competition among the media, along with blackmail and a fruitless political conflict. The Zachopoulos case has encapsulated nearly all the problems of the post-dictatorship era in Greece, one that not only seems never-ending but capable of troubling us for some time to come. The investigation of the case has not yet revealed any major economic scandal behind the Zachopoulos affair. The former Culture Ministry general secretary may have continued the long tradition of funding various minor groups and organizations but nothing more. So why did he try to kill himself? What most likely happened is that a mediocre person rose too high; the main criterion in choosing him was a past friendship with the prime minister. Zachopoulos received a sudden phone call from the prime minister’s office asking him if he had done anything sinful in the ministry; he had lost the personal trust on which he had built his power, was under pressure from his family over his personal peccadilloes, not to mention the media snapping at his heels. But the question remains as to why someone who was generally perceived to be a mediocre person was able to accumulate so much power simply because of the «trust» he enjoyed, and how he allowed himself, without anyone realizing it, to be surrounded by a dubious crowd of advisers and lawyers with such sinister pasts and fringe political connections. Zachopoulos’s almost fatal embrace by a group of blackmailers was the product of his own weakness but also of the absence of any control. The first problem, therefore, was the choice of mediocre but «trustworthy» people who do nothing to solve the major problem of corruption. A second problem is the type of sinister characters acting on the sidelines, protected by their links to unions. It is worth looking at the fact that a lawyer who has an official relationship with the former leadership of the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE) was parading around the television studios and political bureaus presenting himself as a mediator in a blackmail case. It is also worth asking whether he was acting alone or on behalf of some sinister partisan element looking to dish out a bit more dirt. The media That brings us to the biggest problem of all, the way the media works. During the dictatorship, the very successful model of the blackmailing media baron was born. No one remembers exactly how, although it was raised to new heights by the only one of them who was brought to trial when a sector of the Greek business establishment decided it had had enough of him. During the 1980s, other personalities emerged, ranging from the extremely absurd, who made no secret of how they made their money, to major players who made it clear that no large job could be done without first passing through their own tollgates. Politicians tolerated and encouraged the system. Wherever they could have enforced the law, they avoided doing to so as not to incur the political cost. Within that system there was a balance between terror and an unofficial omerta. When the system got out of control, there were always the Don Corleones on the sidelines ready to take the culprits aside and explain cynically that an on-going fight would blow them all sky-high. The reasoning was simple: «We are all equally vulnerable to blackmail, so it’s best for no one to try anything.» In recent years, the system became much more explosive. Initially, a sector of private television gave into scandal-mongering and sensationalism, soon followed by the more «serious» channels. However, we are now at the point where one program dictates events without providing any convincing evidence, and turns politics into a hysterical public relations exercise. Then came the turn of the print media, dragging journalism into a new phase of excesses. One could say that sensationalism is not restricted to Greece, but there are two differences. One is that in the Greek version, many media in this category and others do not depend on the sales and ratings earned by sensationalism but on state subsidies doled out with a singular lack of transparency, and by «injections» from business owners seeking immunity for some transaction or another, the annihilation of a rival, or even just for fun. The second difference lies in the fact that the phenomenon is a headache for politicians and business owners, who prefer to compromise by paying the ransom rather than reform the system. There are grounds for suspecting that something of this sinister nature lies behind the Zachopoulos affair. Someone tried to strike a deal in order to hush up a shady transaction and, in the process, unraveled the thread that was holding the political landscape together. What has not yet become clear is whether and how far the government chose to get involved. The current prime minister was elected on the basis of his promise to fight corruption and confront the media establishment. He has paid heavily for that promise. It remains to be seen whether the government’s good intentions have remained firm in this most recent affair, particularly given the recent escalation of the debate as to whether some people are trying to manipulate the main opposition party. One thing is certain: No political leader can make the mistake of depending on any sector of the media to strike at a rival, since there are no permanent or stable alliances. Both the major political parties are suffering to the same degree because of the media. The situation has been exacerbated by the entry of new players acting like snipers. A typical example is LAOS party president Giorgos Karadzaferis, initially ignored by the «serious» media as a political leper, but then made use of to weaken the New Democracy party. Now he is a major player in the media stakes, injecting all sorts of conspiracy theories and insinuations into the public debate that are seized upon by the masses who feel despair over the economic situation and lack of political vision. Given these problems, many people are asking why all this has come about at this particular time. First of all, why does the system no longer have any reference points? The gradual withdrawal of the old-time media barons from the scene, those who knew how to play the game and to stop before reaching the brink has come at a considerable cost. Meanwhile, conditions have thrown up political leaders who have the guts to face up to these interests but not enough political gravitas or skill to give them the upper hand. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis is paying for his decision to restrict himself to a narrow circle of people in the belief that they will protect the government’s moral core. So far he has not shown he has enough skill for the darker side of political transactions, where gaffes are obvious, but neither has he managed to establish institutional mechanisms to control the power centers. PASOK leader George Papandreou is trying to take a stand against interests manipulating politics for their own gain, but his inherent failings detract from his arguments, however well-founded. Meanwhile, his endless criticism of scandals, to the detriment of any other debate, has not persuaded the crucial centrist block of voters he needs. Most likely the government will weather the storm, but if it wants to avoid a shipwreck next time, its members will have to think seriously and to agree with the opposition as to how this country is to re-establish its institutions and its reference points so that legality regains the upper hand.