On the side of a buzzing Athens highway, a group of middle-aged men huddle in the dark beside a tarpaulin-covered van, outside the offices of one of Greece’s wealthiest families. Smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap wine, these TV veterans with a combined century of work experience are among the remnants of Mega Channel, once Greece’s most influential station. Like hundreds of journalists, technicians and administrative staff hit by a new purge of Greece’s long-suffering media sector, they have not been paid for more than a year. The latest jobs cull has come during a handover of power in three of the country’s top media groups after a decision by under-pressure banks to pull the plug on a long history of bad loans.
“We are unpaid by a business that is still operating – and earning income that more than covers the payroll. And this makes us mad,” says 56-year-old head cinematographer Grigoris Farmakas, who has worked at Mega for nearly three decades. The men are taking shifts to keep the protest going beneath the offices of Motor Oil, one of the country’s two refineries, owned by the family of John Vardinoyannis, part owner of Mega. A parliamentary investigation in 2017 found that Greek media owe nearly 1.3 billion euros ($1.6 billion) to banks, part of a corrupt triangle of influence that had benefited politicians, media owners and bankers for decades.
The families of Vardinoyannis, Bobolas and Psycharis were all shareholders in Mega channel. The Bobolas family, which owns one of Greece’s top construction firms, also controlled national newspaper Ethnos. But in 2010, the economic crisis hit Greece, and the banks nearly went bust. Then in 2015, the leftist government of Alexis Tsipras came to power, pledging to break the “economic oligarchs”. Mega was the first to go under. The banks in early 2017 froze its accounts and called in the loans, after the shareholders failed to pump in new capital. The station also lacked the money to apply for a new TV licence issued by the government. Ex-staff kept the station alive with reruns of Mega comedies and soaps, some of the most acclaimed ever produced in Greece. But authorities will now decide in May whether to take the channel off-air.