Letter from Thessaloniki

Patriotism about a booming economy with unprecedented achievements – at least compared to the PASOK era, as the current New Democracy government maintains – and bouncy stock markets are boons to present-day pundits. Stock markets move, and that is what counts. Despite this useful contribution to the gallantry of our finance minister, Giorgos Alogoskoufis, this national spirit is also due to past glories. These include days such as October 28, 1940, when the Greek general and dictator Ioannis Metaxas refused a humiliating ultimatum by another general and dictator, Benito Mussolini. In the years since that day, 31 to be exact, I have been personally – and officially – blamed of being short on patriotism. Sure enough, in the realm of national or nationalistic morals, all things take on a twilight shade. Here is the story: After the Greek seven-year itch and upon the proposal of Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, the former director-general of the BBC, I was assigned to the position of television program director of state television, EIRT. Until that time I was living outside of Greece. With the decline of the junta, Sir Hugh had been invited to Greece by the prime minister at the time, Constantine Karamanlis, to liberalize Greek TV and radio media. Once more, as he had so successfully done in good Olde England, Sir Hugh aimed to «open the windows and dissipate the ivory tower stuffiness which still clung to some parts of the BBC,» as he wrote in his 1969 book «The Third-Floor Front: A View of Broadcasting in the Sixties.» He also wanted «to encourage enterprise and the taking of risks. To make EIRT a place where talent of all sorts, however unconventional, was recognized and nurtured.» Marching to his steps and directions on October 28, 1975, I produced the first documentary on the anniversary insinuating that Greek resistance against the Nazis and the fascists was practiced from both the right and left sides. Never before had something of the sort been heard on the Greek state channel. And to illustrate this idea, the documentary showed photos of patriotic amateurs from both sides, that is of ELAS (the leftist National Popular Liberation Army) and of EDES (the rightist National Republican Greek League). Rebels from both sides wore beards and they also used the same old Bavarian march as an anthem, with different lyrics tailored to each side’s ideology. Therefore my Solomon’s solution, in following Sir Hugh’s modernism theory, was to play the tune without the words. Fair enough. It is hard now to convey the culture shock that these programs conveyed at the time. On October 30, 1975, the Greek press seemed split in their headlines. Front-page headlines deplored or approved of the anniversary programs. One conservative daily, Vradyni, was particularly against it and vehemently denounced it in one giant headline that read, «Battle songs of EAM (National Liberation Front) ELAS Played on Historic Anniversary,» and asked, «Who is responsible?» Well, of course I was responsible, being the program director, and so I was fired because I lacked patriotism on that glorious day. At least that’s what my dismissal papers said. Now defining what national spirit, or patriotism, is is not easy, but the board of directors at EIRT back then didn’t mind taking it on. Over the years, I have often thought that my lack of national spirit should instead be credited to one of the last giants of British broadcasting, a man of exemplary vision whom I consider as a valuable educator, and who has also helped reorganize West Germany’s broadcast services with better results than Greece. I still have Sir Hugh’s report, titled «On the organization and operation of the future National Broadcasting Service in Greece,» to the late Panayiotis Lambrias, a longtime New Democracy member who served for many years as party spokesman. Here are some excerpts from that report. «EIRT should increase its own program production, to cover all program categories, and reduce its use of outside production companies.» No one has followed this advice, even so many years later, because it seems much more profitable to do things the so-called «Greek way.» But one piece of his advice seems to have been heeded. «At a future date EIRT should originate programs outside the Athens area and some production facilities should be established in regional centers, beginning in Salonica.» However, with forethought Sir Hugh added that «solid improvement in television with potential to continue requires time…» It sure does. Obviously public attitudes have changed since those vigorous days. Yet should old mores about patriotism change as yesterday’s prejudices are replaced by those of today?

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