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Greece deprived of its public broadcasting service: More than a bad soap opera

Flawed it may have been, but ERT, Greece's public broadcaster, was one of the few things holding the country together during these difficult times.

Ilektra Tsakalidou
17 June 2013
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Employees and members of the public demonstrate outside the offices of ERT3. Demotix/Giorgos Kasapidis. All rights reserved.

Athens, 1984: In an interview, Manos Hatzidakis, famous music composer, leading figure of the anti-junta movement, and Director of the Public Radio remarked "I would advocate for that [closing down ERT], however the people cannot live without ERT. They will die if you do not give them something to protest against. ERT is precious, because it gives the opportunity to the Greek people to protest and say 'ERT is such a disgrace.'"

For years, this was what the majority of Greeks believed about the public channel (with the exception of the radio stations that emitted classical music and poetry or literature readings). They were appalled by the quality of the programs and when payrolls became public, they were all shocked by the thick salaries of presenters and management. On the fight between quantity and quality, the former would triumph over the latter.

Athens, 11 June 2013: Simos Kedikoglou, the spokesman for the government and a former ERT journalist, announced that at midnight ERT would stop broadcasting and all employees would be fired. Imagine David Cameron’s spokesperson making the same announcement for the BBC, or Francois Hollande’s for France Television. Viewers stared at their television screens in disbelief. A wave of either indignation or support washed over the Greek population. As is usual in Greece, people had very strong feelings and found themselves separated into two fronts (as they tend to do for sports, politics, or even pronunciation differences between the north and the south): the pro-ERT and the anti-ERT.

Pulling the plug is indeed jeopardizing the liberty of the press, in a country where images from the military junta from 1967 to 1974 are still very much present in the collective imagery. Despite being a financial disaster, having an over-inflated roster, and being designated as the medium for government propaganda, ERT was a way for Greek diaspora to stay connected to the ‘Metropolis’ and for people to escape from the ridiculous soap operas that private channels seem to broadcast on a seemingly neverending loop.

But, if ERT was so problematic, then why are people protesting? The way ERT operated and the way it got shut down are indicative of Greece’s structural problems. The 2 satellite channels, 3 television ones, and 5 radio stations were employing over 2907 employees with permanent status, most of them grossly overpaid. A restructuring plan was expected, but no plan had been presented to the Director or the National Parliament for consideration.

The evening the government announced the closure of ERT, no statement was made about the future of public broadcasting and no economically viable alternative was presented to the Greek people. People are not oblivious to the problems, nor fundamentally opposed to reforms, yet they feel incompetence and a lack of accountability from their decision makers. No one would ever object to firing employees that committed fraud, overvalued their programs, or claimed benefits they did not deserve.

However, through Kedikoglou’s very poorly written and articulated speech, the catharsis never came. Instead of making the announcement months in advance and preparing the population while presenting the employees with an exit strategy, he declared that by midnight the stations would stop transmitting. That was it; a modern Cinderella story of yet a little more Greek national capital. For an ex-media person, his strategic communication strategy was remarkably impotent. 

Kedikoglou’s speech reflects some of the fundamental problems in Greek politics. Realpolitik dictates that evaluation is risky, as it might harm some of the privileged members of the ruling party’s electoral base. The ‘all or nothing' strategy is convenient because it legitimizes firing your own political supporters. It also enables the government to mitigate the political costs and blame the ‘Troika’ for all reforms; however, in the ERT case Commissioner Olli Rehn claimed that the European Commission never required that the powerful media outlet be shut down, but that an assessment be made and that 1000 poorly-performing employees be dismissed. Unfortunately, that seems like an impossible move for the government as clientelist practices and public sector recruitment are two intertwined activities.

If only ERT journalists were always as combative as they were in the last hours of broadcast and made their self-assessment overtime, as every company does, maybe things would be different today and public opinion would not end up polarized once more. Greece has not seen the end of the tunnel, however; conundrums disappear for short periods of time, only to reappear.  The problems facing Greece today look very much like the ones Greek society was facing in the 1980s. As the famous song by Manos Hatzidakis and Nikos Gatsos goes, "Goodnight, Kemal, this world will never change..."

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