The Digger gives us a welcome to Athens

What a welcome to Athens. At the airport one of the Oz veterans of journalism, Brian “Digger” Williams, is there to greet us and drives us to our hotel which is a few hundred metres from the Parliament, the Presidential Palace and the venue for all the big political rallies. It is the first time I’ve met Williams but his name has been brandished in my direction for the past 30 or 40 years. He hails from Babinda in far North Queensland and, like me, went to Townsville State High School (so did a young chap called Julian Assange but that’s in another generation).

“Digger” joined the Brisbane Telegraph as a cadet and was on deck in the very early hours of the morning of November 22, 1963, when the telex machine chattered into life saying: “United States President John F Kennedy has been assassinated.” He called the editor at home and the paper swung into action producing half a dozen special editions which took Brisbane’s citizens by storm.

Ted Bray (later Sir Theodor), then editor-in-chief of the Courier-Mail, the flagship paper in the group, was furious that the upstart Telly had stolen a march on the story. The result was that Williams, aka The Baron, was “bitten”. He went on the road and never looked back. He covered the Vietnam war for one of the news agencies where he teamed up with Tony Clifton, Peter O’Loughlin and many of the other great Aussie journos who worked in Saigon. Since then he’s travelled the world from Buenos Aires to Bonn and built a sturdy reputation as one of the great all-rounders.

Speaking of cricket terminology, he also covered the noble game for Reuters, including Test matches in Australia and England and Kerry Packer’s bold World Cricket Series. Once again, he made great friends including Mike Coward who wrote about the bat and ball with affection, insight and sophistication. Williams and his partner, Aliki, took us on a walk through the streets of the city followed by a fine dinner complete with local white wine. For many years Aliki was a senior political correspondent at the Greek Parliament and her knowledge of the political scene is brutally astute. We have fixed another dinner next week – our shout this time – when we will resume the discussion.


Our second night found us at the home of Katarina and Savvas, two of our oldest friends, for a balcony dinner which was typically Greek – four slow hours of eating delicious plates of food which came in a relay of courses from their kitchen. We calculated we had not seen each other for 26 years so there much territory to cover. I knew it was going to be a long night when I asked about the nature of the Greek state – which is a mystery to most locals and observers – and Savvas replied that Marx had referred to Greece as having a “ghost” state. There is a state, of course, but it remains enigmatic, largely disguised and meaning something different to every Greek depending on their class, wealth and social position.

Savvas is in recovery from a violent attack of cancer yet his physical and mental strength is inspirational. He travels all over Europe and the Balkans delivering papers on Marxism while Katarina pursues her career as a hospital psychologist conducting ground-breaking programmes for the rehabilitation of young people addicted to drugs. Incredible evening. I was almost in tears when we said good night.


The Greek Finance Ministry has stirred from a long slumber and started to measure tax rorting. The initial findings are instructive.

It appears that 731 Greeks moved one billion Euros to Swiss banks in 2010, but only declared the transfer of 2.5 million euros.

There are no figures for the previous four years when the country first fell into recession and debt, but reports in the Athens media say the flight of capital to foreign banks has been “massive”.

So much for the Australian media commentary that the reason Greece has fallen into a debt crisis is because “Greeks don’t pay tax”. As the debt contagion spreads we are presumably asked to believe that Spanish people don’t pay their taxes either, or Italians or the Irish or the Portuguese. (Will someone please tell the presenters on Radio Australia so the disinformation can end?)

Meanwhile, very belatedly, the Greek Finance Ministry has resubmitted its request for an agreement with Swiss banking authorities that would allow deposits made by wealthy Greeks to be disclosed and taxed.

What a joke! The Swiss banking system has grown super-rich by providing secret accounts to foreigners wanting to hide their cash, gold, diamonds and jewellery.

Like plucky little Sweden, Switzerland declared its neutrality in World War Two. This allowed the Swiss to continue their lives in suburban peace while the rest of Europe went up in flames.

Its “neutrality” was essentially bogus. It allowed the Nazis to use Swiss banks to store cash and stolen treasure (seized from the Jewish community) and to conduct normal banking activities when their own had been disrupted by Allied sanctions.

When is hiding money on behalf of drug dealers, the Mafia, embezzlers, con artists, dictators, corporate thieves, war lords and MPs going to be declared an international crime?  The idea of chucking a few Gnomes of Zurich into the slammer for money laundering is highly appealing. 

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