More than a slip

The incident has already been made public. Prime Minister Costas Simitis last week was at the Social Security Foundation’s (IKA) new call center in Kallithea in a promotional visit aimed at underscoring the government’s efforts to improve people’s living standards. The prime minister’s presence itself was hyperbolic, but such appearances are nothing new in campaign periods. What was unseen and unacceptable, however, were the events that followed: Simitis manned a hotline at the center and appeared to be answering the queries of the first callers who, baffled and embarrassed, found themselves asking for information from the premier himself – except that the callers were neither baffled nor confused. In fact, they were not even ordinary citizens but IKA workers who had been enlisted to pose as members of the public seeking a doctor’s appointment. The whole fiasco made a mockery of everyone – a comedy sketch with the prime minister as an actor, and the employees who posed as callers in an attempt to take the viewing public for a ride. This, of course, was not the first such publicity stunt in bad taste. US President George W. Bush recently flew to Iraq and served turkey to his troops – all for a photo-op. A few years ago we watched a former prime minister on an ostensibly spontaneous trolley-bus ride, along with a dozen television cameras. Prosaic as such events may be, they are nevertheless staged, and constitute an insult to the public’s intelligence, as they betray the true priorities of our leaders and their idea of the public. What was going on in the minds of the spinmeisters who suggested this public relations fiasco? And if his advisers are wrongheaded, why did Simitis agree to play this role – he whose public profile is (or used to be) a stranger to such one-act plays? What does this trivial inspiration demonstrate other than the subordination of essence to communication tactics and, worse, the belief that communication tricks can – and therefore must – be used to bamboozle the public? Last week’s incident reflects a double contempt of the citizen: he is treated, on the one hand, as gullible and, on the other, as a subject whose vote must be stolen by any means, fraud, machination or show. The turkey at the IKA call center was not just a slip of the prime minister and his spin doctors, but a sign of arrogance and contempt toward the electorate. A democratically elected premier cannot possibly have such mentality.