In the series on ABC television, Stuff the British Stole, presenter Marc Fennell and his producers made an active editorial decision to ignore the theft of the Parthenon Sculptures (also referred to as Parthenon Marbles) by the British in the 19th Century. The decision is not an accidental omission.
The television series is based on the 2021 podcast by Mr Fennell of the same name. When I saw the promotions of the podcast in 2021, Stuff the British Stole, I was excited.
Naturally I thought that the campaign to repatriate the Parthenon Sculptures stolen by Lord Elgin, would be a part of the series. I contacted Mr Fennell directly and was surprised that he was unaware of the issue. This is a producer of a program on the British theft of others’ cultural heritages.
The campaign to bring the Sculptures back to the Parthenon, as I made Mr Fennell aware, started in 1981, by the socialist PASOK government, and was spearheaded by actor, then minister of culture the late Melina Merkouri.
Mr Fennell heard me, and I was very pleased he showed interest and included the theft of the Parthenon Sculptures in his second podcast series of Stuff the British Stole. In fact, I facilitated with links which assisted him, and his producers, to construct a good podcast episode.
Now, the podcast will be presented as a television series on ABC TV beginning November. So, I messaged Mr Fennell, through Twitter, and asked “when the Parthenon Marbles will be on, so we can promote it” in Neos Kosmos. As one of Australia’s biggest multicultural media mastheads, we would assist Mr Fennell’s and the ABC‘s work on an issue at the core of Hellenic identity. Mr Fennell did not respond.
In a public tweet by Mr Fennell about his upcoming television series, I took the opportunity to ask about the Sculptures. Mr Fennell replied, “Not in his series. But we have covered it in this episode of the podcast” and provided a link to the podcast in the tweet.
It was odd that he referred me to the podcast episode on the Sculptures, which came about because of my advocacy on the issue. The response did little to assuage my annoyance, and I am sure the anger of Greek Australians. The ABC made an active decision to cancel, or ignore, the principal, and oldest repatriation campaign of artefacts stolen by the Brits while the seventh most spoken language in Australia and fourth in Victoria is Greek.
The Parthenon Sculptures – until recently the ‘Elgin Marbles’ after Lord Elgin, the thief – is a section from a marble freeze dating to 450BC by sculptor Phidias set around the holy temple of Parthenon. Lord Elgin paid the Ottoman colonial occupiers of Greece to steal the Sculptures. He hacked and sawed a section off the freeze, cut it up again, loaded into ships and took them back to England.
When Elgin fell into debt, he sold the Sculptures to the British Museum. Former British prime minister Boris Johnson, in March 2021, in the year that Stuff the British Stole podcast aired, said the UK government stood firm that the sculptures “were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time.” Mr Johnson no longer occupies the prime ministership of Britain, and the Sculptures still take up space in the British Museum. One hopes that the new prime minister of Britain Rishi Sunak, of Indian diaspora descent, will have greater empathy towards the Greeks particularly as Indian and Greek relations, and Indo-Hellenic syncretism can be traced back thousands of years.
The former chair of the ABC, David Hill AO and former Executive Director of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles and now chair the Australian committee Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures in 2021 called for international legal action against Britain to get the Marbles back. He said that “the Greek government ought to litigate or to sue” as the strategy employed since Melina Mercouri of “cultural diplomacy,” has produced “no results.”
“In Australia, America, Britain, if you can’t agree on an important issue, seeking the decision of an independent court or tribunal… is considered a civilised thing to do,” Mr Hill said in 2021.
Mr Fennell, his producers, in the ABC, have exhibited no knowledge of their former chairperson’s position nor the cultural and psychological impact of the Parthenon Sculptures on Hellenes. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews last week called for the repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures in front of 50,000 Greeks at the Antipodes Festival. In March 2022, Labor called on the British Museum to return the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece.
The then Shadow Minister for the Arts, Tony Burke, now minister for the arts, tabled an official motion in the parliament calling for the ancient Athenian sculptures to be returned to their rightful home.
That motion was seconded by Greek-Australian Labor MPs Maria Vamvakinou and Steve Georganas and called on the Australian government to join the growing number of nations that are now supporting this campaign.
Mr Fennell and the ABC ignore all that. ABC’s cancelling of the issue, as our national broadcaster, undermines all efforts to repatriate the stolen heritage from First Nations people, and those cultures under jurisdictions or influence of nineteenth century colonial powers, be they British, French, German, or Ottoman. The ABC and Mr Fennell have acted in a culturally insensitive, and patronising way towards the theft of the Parthenon Sculptures and its impact on Hellenes, I suspect because Mr Fennell considers Greeks ‘European’, a very new concept historically.
Neos Kosmos will be seeking responses from the ABC, from the Minister for the Arts Mr Burke, and the Minister for Communications.