Kostas Vaxevanis: "The only way for the Greek people to know about their own country is through the foreign press"

The Greek journalist, who was instrumental in the publication of the "Lagarde list" of major tax evaders in October 2012, talks to the NS's Daniel Trilling.

Kostas Vaxevanis is a Greek journalist. As editor of the investigative magazine HotDoc, in October 2012 he published the leaked “Lagarde list” of major tax evaders – an act for which he has been pursued by the Greek authorities, raising questions about a crackdown on independent journalism. The New Statesman caught up with Vaxevanis during a recent trip to London to receive Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Award.

New Statesman: In your acceptance speech for the Index award, you raised the spectre of Greece’s dictatorship years. Is there any danger of a return to that kind of period?

Vaxevanis: It is worrying what is happening in Greece as I said in my speech. It is the first time since the last dictatorship that people can’t rely on the press to see what is happening in their own country. The Greek media for example didn’t cover the case while I was being prosecuted a few months ago.

Every day in Greece, we face the effects of the crisis and there are new measures that are being taken that goes against every right of the public. These new regulations don’t even go through parliament – there is actually a law where you can have a new decision signed by the president under emergency clauses and then rectify it later by the prime minister so they are basically governing the country under presidential decrees and statutes.

They basically pass new laws in whatever way possible to serve certain interests and parts of society and political systems. For example when the agricultural bank of Greece, was supposed to pay millions [in tax], a new law was passed that said they didn’t have to pay anything.

Many TV channels and newspapers are owned by business interests that might benefit from such laws. Has political interference in the media become more common as the crisis gets worse?

In Greece, like in many countries, there is a relationship where the media tries to hold government to account and government will try to hide things. It is ultimately a conflict of interest. Any kind of independent journalism is seen as a threat.

For many years they managed to manipulate the media: for example, you would have a journalist working in the government’s press office and public PR offices and for big businesses. Often these are big businesses that have links and dealings with the government.

During the crisis there has been a greater need for journalists to speak out, but then they automatically become an enemy of the government. I have just received a message from a friend and colleague where he congratulates me for my [Index ] award, but apologises that he can’t say anything about it this evening in his television programme.

The cross-over between journalism and politics is common in Britain and other countries, to a certain extent. What is different about Greece right now?

Of course this is happening everywhere, it’s of course not just a Greek problem, but it has gone to the next level where ministers have complete impunity and they have methods of acting really fast to serve their own interests. And of course this is amplified by the crisis.

For example one of the biggest scandals was with Proton Bank, where the owner bought ten to twenty per cent of twenty-two different media outlets, to make sure no one would write anything against him. And there is no law to prevent a business from spreading in such a way.

The existence of privately-owned, unregulated television channels goes back well before the financial crisis. What sort of long-term effect has this had on Greek society? The TV channels have been blamed for encouraging anti-immigration attitudes, for example.

They have a huge part of the responsibility for that culture of the last ten or twenty years; consumerism and people not being engaged in what is happening, and not caring about the impact of their political action.

With immigration, in the last few years since the bailout, the role of the media has been to create fear among the people. And the most obvious way of creating fear would be to amplify the danger of immigration in Greece. And we would often hear about [the far-right party] Golden Dawn in the news. They would try to create the view: “yes all of us who are in power might be corrupt, but if we stopped being in power and being in control then there is always that danger. So it is basically better to have this corrupt system than any government at all.”

So the media were exaggerating the threat of Golden Dawn?

Yes but it was a two-way thing. By exaggerating the threat of Golden Dawn they are giving them a voice and then it becomes bigger by appearing as a threat and it gives them a new way of communicating with the public.

What they are trying to do is presenting the “two opposites” view where Golden Dawn is one extreme and [the left-wing] Syriza is the other. They are trying to do what they are doing in Italy where they say “well you have these two polar opposites, all you have to do is come somewhere in the middle, where we are. We might be corrupt but you sure don’t want any of those two.”

What happens in the media outside of Greece can have quite a big effect on Greek politics. So for journalists and people outside of Greece what is the most important thing they could be doing?

The only way for the Greek people to know about their own country is through the foreign press. They played a significant role in my case. While this was going on, during the prosecution, we had BBC, Al-Jazeera, CNN treating it as breaking news while Greek media was being quiet about it. Ten days ago I was given another award in Spain, a Journalism Award and a Press Award – no one in Greece will ever hear anything about either those things.

This is really the place to fight that control, in this day and age the Greek people are not limited by the national boundaries and they just look on the internet and find other sources of information. And that kind of potential foreign media can have is very significant. The role of social media is very important, I tweeted something in a press conference earlier and that reached 300,000 people.

The risk of foreign media coverage is that you want to highlight the problems but you might end up making Greece look like a unique case. Is there anything journalists abroad should be wary of?

Obviously there are some very specific issues with journalism and freedom of expression in Greece, but it is potentially a problem in every country and it is something journalists have to deal with every day.

If there was a similar case like mine in the UK the rights of democracy would be raised by every media outlet instead of just one newspaper. In Greece that would never happen. We have to do something about it, demand answers. Every time someone tries to go against what has happened or try to write something about it they will be accused of all sort of horrible things, for example when I talked about the Greek banks there were all types of blogs that mentioned my name and claimed my involvement with the secret services.

When Reuters investigated the Greek banks, they were threatened with being sued, and so was the Guardian [when it reported on the police torture of protesters] . So it’s a multilevel issue where people need to know what is happening and what has happened. Journalists need to speak up and their voices have to be heard.

Kostas Vaxevanis (L) being escorted to the public prosecutor in Athens by plain-clothed police officers in October 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.