By George Gilson
During Cyprus’ struggle for liberation from British colonial rule in the 1950’s , a five-year-old Greek-Cypriot boy had the insane audacity, accompanied by some friends, to take a pocket knife and cut off a British flag from its school flagpole. Had he been a bit older, it was the kind of action that could easily have gotten even a minor hanged by colonial authorities. The diminutive little boy was interrogated by a Turkish policeman and eventually set free.
The bold audacity that journalist Nikos Hasapopoulos exhibited back then served him well in his future profession of journalism, which he has served with consummate professionalism and honesty for over four decades, and still does today at Greece’s newspaper of record, To Vima.
In his new book, The Anguish of a Reporter: Unkown Historical Vignettes (1975-2017), [Metaixmio Editions, 2017] Hasapopoulos recounts unknown or little known aspects of the great political and national issues that confronted Greece in the last nearly half century.
Eyewitness to half a century of history
The beginning of his career coincided with the restoration of democracy, after a seven-year military junta, and marched through all the events of contemporary Greek history, from the entry of Greece into the European Community in 1980, to the sweeping ascent to power with the sacred mantra of Allagi of socialist Andreas Papandreou, to the toppling of his government with the corruption trials of 1989, to the 1996 Imia crisis, and beyond, the veteran political reporter had the fortune not only to view political events from a front-row seat, but to develop a personal rapport with the some of the most important politicians of his time.
Like an artist or good director, Hasapopoulos, with his keen power of observation, was able in his reminiscences to use small incidents or entertaining anecdotes to provide incisive insights into political events and the character of the major figures with whom he came into contact, often with humour.
Karamanlis and the ballot box
Covering for ERT state television the general elections many years ago, Hasapopoulos was sent to the Marsleio School, a marvelous neo-classical building in Kolonaki, where the late statesman Constantine Karamanlis (PM and later President), who was known for his laconic but pithy quips, always used to vote. As the Hasapopoulos’ TV crew looked on, everyone realised that Karamanlis was having a bit of trouble slipping the ballot in the box. Seeing that the onlookers had noticed, he turned around and quipped wryly that, “The slit was too tight.”
The tight embrace of journalism and politics
In those days, the Lambrakis Press, led by the legendary Christos Lambrakis, about whom many, ever conspiracy-minded Greeks said that he can make and break governments, was the most powerful news outlet in the land. It traced its origins to the era of Eleftherios Venizelos, a friend of Lambrakis’ father and To Vima founder, Dimitrios, in the 1920’s, and it always was viewed (and saw itself as) a progressive, democratic (essentially centre-left) newspaper, which after 1981 meant support for the socialist governments of Andreas Papandreou.
Lambrakis’ huge political and social influence swung open the corridors of power for his journalists, who had the most valuable luxury that a reporter can have: access.
Hasapopoulos used that access responsibly and prudently throughout his long career, and he thus gained the trust and even friendship of a number of the major players of his era.
In a refreshingly disarming manner, Hasapopoulos does not shy away from exposing the often hugely detrimental bear hug between political power and the media, which are supposed to check it. That includes the proverbial “rousfeti” or political favour, with which many Greek journalists over the years have been all too familiar, which may explain in part the current crisis.
The publisher, the violinist, and the ministerIn one vignette, Hasapopoulos relates how this occurred at the highest level, and that one honest minister dared to refuse a favour to mighty Christos Lambrakis.
Lambrakis, who may be said to have lived for art and was the motive force behind the creation of the Megaron Mousikis (Athens Concert Hall), wanted to secure an improper exemption from military service for the virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos. It is common knowledge that the very well connected could arrange to show up for a couple of days and then “disappeared”.
The mission was assigned to Hasapopoulos, who was sent to pass on the request to Defence Minister Gerasimos Arsenis from Lambrakis, which many a minister would have happily executed as an order. Not Arsenis. He refused repeatedly, and so Lambrakis had to wait for his successor, Akis Tsochadzopoulos, to do his bidding.
Constantine Mitsotakis and eternityOnce, many years before his recent death, former prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis called in Hasapopoulos to his office, where he produced two airline tickets to Crete, one for himself and one for the reporter. He refused to reveal the purpose of the journey, but the reporter had no reason to turn down the towering (in height and accomplishment) politician.
Once there, he took the reporter on an uphill drive to the village of Aρgoulides, to show him the gravesite where he and his wife would be interred, noting the incredible mountaintop view of the sea, and the proximity of the grave of Eleftherios Venizelos.
Hasapopoulos recounts countless such stories that provide valuable but also entertaining insights into contemporary Greek political and social history.
• Nikos Hasapopoulos’ book presentation will be held on Wednesday, 31 January, at Public Café in Syntagma Square, with speakers including former prime minister Antonis Samaras, former SYRIZA leader Alekos Alavanos, and Pasok MP Andreas Loverdos.