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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder