Tide of tabloid poison engulfs 'Porno-Mimi'

Greek scandal: A colourful publisher has targeted the PM's wife - but why?

ANDREW GUMBEL

Athens

George Kouris, editor of Greece's most notorious tabloid newspaper, is a man who likes to tell stories, and tell them big. So when he decided earlier this year to reverse his long-standing allegiance to the Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, he made sure his campaign was lurid, dirty and unmissable.

Every other day for the past three months, naked pictures of Mr Papandreou's glamorous young wife, Mimi, have appeared in full colour on the front page of his flagship publication, Avriani, together with loud denunciations of her overweening political ambitions.

"She governs us!" screamed the headline above the most sensational picture to be published so far, in which the First Lady was shown apparently locked in a lesbian embrace. "Porno-Mimi is in control of everything!" thundered the paper last week, on the day that the 76-year-old Mr Papandreou was taken to hospital to be treated for pneumonia.

Mr Kouris's approach goes beyond even the usual dubious ethics of the Greek downmarket press. No accusation is too salty, no smear too libellous, for a man who describes Mr Papandreou's entourage as a cabal of "liars, schemers and incompetents" and denounces Mimi's friends as "magicians, astrologers, card-readers, fortune-tellers, priests, deviants and lesbians".

His tactics are working, in at least two ways. First, he has sharpened public debate on Mimi's role in public life and given her a graphic reason to step out of the limelight - the other 150 photos and videos he claims to have up his sleeve. Secondly, Avriani's circulation, which had been dwindling around the 6,000 mark, has shot up tenfold. On some days - depending on the front-cover photograph - the paper sells as many as 250,000 copies.

Many Greeks accuse Mr Kouris of sensationalist exploitation to boost sales. They also suspect the more salacious pictures to be montages. Mr Kouris himself, however, insists he is fighting a purely political battle, and says the principal motivation behind the naked photos of Mimi is to show up the hypocrisy of her much-vaunted adherence to the Greek Orthodox Church.

"I wasn't the one who took the photos. It's not my fault that as soon as she sees a man with a camera she takes her clothes off," he said in an interview in his offices on the southern outskirts of Athens. "Politicians should know they can't have a private life. The public has the right to know everything.

"When Mimi was just the Prime Minister's wife, I left her alone. But when I understood that she was trying to enter politics by the back door, and that she was effectively holding our Prime Minister hostage, I decided I had to act."

There is at least some truth in all this. Mimi undoubtedly plays a political role, and it is true that her entourage includes priests and astrologers. But one senses that Mr Kouris's campaign is fuelled more by emotion than by facts.

Thus he spreads uncorroborated tales that the secret services have been bugging his office, that Mimi has tried to bribe him into halting his photo campaign and that Mr Papandreou has been impotent for years. Like the Prime Minister, Mr Kouris is a populist; but now, whether for reasons of business or personal animosity, he has become a populist with a tongue of pure poison. Why would a man who was such good friends with Mr Papandreou - to the extent of defending him against corruption charges during the 1989 Koskotas banking scandal - turn so hostile now? Perhaps for the old- fashioned journalistic reason that it would be a great story, perhaps for his own political motives.

Like Mr Papandreou, Mr Kouris understands the importance of creating an image for himself. He claims to work 15 hours a day, breaking only to receive glamorous women in the bedroom annexe to his office. He says he never drinks or smokes, and has never taken a day off - not even to attend the funerals of his parents.

"My secrets for a fulfilling life are lots of work, lots of sex, an aspirin every morning and Nivea after-shave cream," he boasts. In the turbulent, lurid, personality-driven world of Greek public life, that is tantamount to a political manifesto.

nMr Papandreou, in hospital with pneumonia, took a turn for the worse yesterday and his health problems spread to his kidneys, a hospital spokesman said, Reuter reports. Mr Papandreou, who spent most of last week on a respirator, was hooked up to a dialysis machine, government sources said.

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