Christos Lambrakis: Press baron who used his empire to wield influence in Greece for more than half a century
Monday 04 January 2010
Christos Lambrakis was invariably known as the Citizen Kane of Greece, the Patriarch of Greek media, the dark centre of diaploki (interwoven interests) and as a champion of democracy and patron of the arts. For over half a century he had eyes and ears throughout Greek society and was credited with making and breaking governments, yet hardly anything was written about him. He inspired fear, deference and admiration in equal measure. Until his death, a Google search under his name provided only a handful of superficial results. The only work about him published in Athens, in 1982, disappeared from bookshops the following day and its editor was advised not to pursue the matter. He complied but kept a single copy in his run-down office.
Christos Lambrakis was born in 1934 in Athens to a rising media empire, the Lambrakis Media Group or DOL, founded in 1922 by his father, Dimitri. In the 1950s he studied in London at the London School of Economics and throughout his life regularly returned out of passion for the city's theatre and opera.
In 1957, his father died and Christos took over the Group, namely the respected dailies Ta Nea and To Vima. By the time he was 30 he had established himself as the rainmaker of Greek politics. Eventually he commanded 20 per cent of the Greek readership, with three top-selling dailies, 24 weeklies and monthlies ranging from financial and political journals to family, sports and wedding magazines, and he also held influential stakes in television and publishing.
Like many democratic figures in Greece he suffered imprisonment in 1968 as a potentially hostile editor against the ruling military Junta. Unlike some other newspapers, such as Kathimerini, which closed shop in protest at the censorship laws, he kept publishing and the Group received loans from the Junta for the construction and housing of a new printing plant. In 1999 he went into electronic media, followed by e-commerce. The company went public in 1998 with Lambrakis retaining overall control.
It was recognised that once you worked for his Group you were tied for life because in a country that functions through connections this was the best in town. Over the years, many DOL journalists and editors went into politics. Three became Prime Ministers and dozens became ministers, often walking out of DOL straight into the ministry. More became MPs or MEPs. By chance or foresight, DOL men walked into ministries when lucrative government contracts were at hand; confidential state documents seemed easily accessible to him or to his chosen journalists. He kept an exclusive circle of leading figures from the most powerful party in Greece, PASOK, and of tried and tested editors and political commentators of Ta Nea and To Vima. On the eve of every general election they met to chat about forthcoming events. But unlike most of them, he was legendary for walking to work unprotected and driving his Volkswagen Beetle.
The number and quality of his titles could hardly be justified by usually average sales; the explanation lies in political connections. His travel agency, Travel Plan, had offices inside the Foreign Ministry; it was responsible for all the ministry's travel arrangements. Nothing went unnoticed. In this respect, DOL's self-description was apt: "the largest and most influential Company Group in Greece".
In 1994 his name was floated as a potential presidential candidate. This might have turned him into a Greek Berlusconi, but he never shared the Italian's appetite for publicity. He knew that international exposure implied international scrutiny.
His greatest love was music. It took a man of his stature to sweep aside petty political squabbles and rally round him big wallets to provide Athens with a world class Concert Hall, the Megaro Mousikis. He did the same in Thessaloniki, as well as supporting smaller projects in other parts of Greece.
As with the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, his death may herald the division and demise of his own. But his impact will survive, if only through his non-profit Lambrakis Research Foundation. He never married.
Christos Lambrakis, businessman: born Athens 24 February 1934; died Athens 21 December 2009.
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