ERT: From test card to test case for Greece

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Having ploughed on through a number of sticky patches over the last 12 months, it would be more than careless of Greece’s coalition government to sink into the mire due to differences over how to deal with public broadcaster ERT. Yet, a year on from when a second election in June led to the formation of the three-party administration, its future seems less secure than ever.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s decision to announce on Tuesday the immediate closure of the state TV and radio service left his coalition partners, Evangelos Venizelos of PASOK and Fotis Kouvelis of Democratic Left, apoplectic and demanding a meeting, which will take place on Monday and could put the administration at risk if a compromise is not found. They had not consented to this move and there had been no debate about it in Parliament. A legislative act was signed only by the ministers from Samaras’s conservative New Democracy party and, after 75 years, the broadcaster went silent.

The problem for Samaras is that the backlash to his decision was rather noisy. ERT employees refused to comply with orders to abandon their posts and continued to broadcast with the help of volunteers who got the broadcaster’s main TV news channel, NET, back on air. Thousands of people gathered outside the service’s headquarters in northeastern Athens and opposition parties condemned the decision. Criticism soon began arriving from journalism federations outside Greece. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) also labelled the shutdown “a damning first in the history of European Broadcasting.” In a letter to Samaras, 50 director generals of Europe’s public broadcasters said his action was “undemocratic and unprofessional”.

Whether this decision adhered to democratic principles is a matter for debate – Samaras and his aides would argue that they had to take a clinical strike at ERT as part of public sector reform because previous piecemeal approaches had failed and anything less than a shutdown would have allowed unions to put the brakes on the planned changes. Consultation and discussion were kept to an absolute minimum but over the last three years, this has become par for the course in bailed out Greece. It may not be democracy for many but it is reality for all.

What is not debatable, though, is the how amateurly this has been handled. An indication of the slapdash approach is that in shutting down ERT’s signal, the government has also taken off air foreign digital TV channels like BBC World, Deutsche Welle and TV5. The broadcaster that will replace ERT later this summer will be called, at least initially, NERIT but it emerged on Thursday that the government had failed to register the domain, which was being used by activists to broadcast ERT’s banned signal. NET, meanwhile, has become a platform for incessant criticism of Samaras’s coalition, sometimes rather hypocritically from certain ERT journalists who had been unflinching in their professionally questionable support for governments over previous years.

Samaras spent the last few months travelling the world proclaiming that Greece has regained its stability, that recovery is on its way along with a record number of tourists during the summer and that his coalition government ensures there is steady hand at the tiller. Yet, by failing to reach a compromise with PASOK and Democratic Left and by shutting down ERT overnight, the prime minister has sparked the three-party government’s worst crisis since its formation, got the world talking about Greece as a basket case again, made tourists wonder what strikes they might face during the summer and suddenly handed SYRIZA, which had started stagnating in opinion polls, a cause around which to rally people. Those questioning the shutdown identify hypocrisy in the government’s allegations of corruption and lack of transparency at ERT, when it was political patronage that created it. They are incredulous about the government’s claim it is concerned about the burden of the relatively small license fee on taxpayers when there have been incessant and substantial tax rises over the last three years. Stoking a sentiment of common resistance while you continue to apply a brutal fiscal consolidation program does not seem the smartest of moves.

This resistance was unavoidable, the government would say. Any attempt to make incisions in the public sector would meet with strong opposition, Samaras would argue. Also, one should not underestimate that there is a sizeable section of Greek society that backs radical overhauls of public sector bodies like ERT. More than 850,000 jobs have been lost since Greece’s recession started and there are many in the private sector who feel they have been paying too high a price for the failure to reform the civil service. Samaras claims ERT had become bloated and the moment was ripe for him to show decisiveness in overhauling the public sector by sacrificing one of its sacred cows.

There is a desperate need for deep reforms in Greece’s civil service but the manner of ERT’s sudden closure speaks more of desperation than determination. It is the manifestation of the failure of Greece’s political system and the public administration it created to adapt to a new reality. Instead of weighing up the country’s needs, evaluating its resources and finding a way to match the two with whatever interventions are needed, the decision was taken to simply pull the plug and then start again. Having dragged its feet over closing public organizations of little use and firing civil servants who have been convicted of offenses, the government sought the 2,000 public sector job losses the troika is demanding in one fell swoop at ERT. Apart from leaving Greece as the only European country without a public broadcaster for the next few months, the decision means that the government has passed up an opportunity to set a hopeful example by rewarding the public servants who served the country honestly and admirably, while punishing those who cheated taxpayers.

Perhaps there will be more cause for hope when the new ERT is created. Under the government’s plans, all of ERT’s 2,700 employees will lose their jobs and some 1,000 will be hired to man a new broadcaster that is to be set up by the end of August. There is no doubt that the current ERT had become unfit for current conditions. For instance, while some of its 19 regional radio stations performed a vital service, particularly in remote areas, they were simply too many for a country of Greece’s size. There is also nobody who will challenge the need to root out a number of political appointees, particularly those on ample salaries. This includes the top management, which was changed every time there was a new government, and “embedded” political correspondents that acted almost as propaganda tools for the parties they covered. Redefining the role of ERT’s unions, which often disrupted the broadcaster’s schedule with alarming ease, is also a matter that has to be addressed. Finally, there is a need to identify more clearly what service Greece’s national broadcaster should provide in a media environment in transition.

The government says the new ERT will cost 100 million euros a year to run, rather than the current 220 million. But for once during the crisis, this issue is not just about fiscal considerations. Indeed, the EBU has suggested that with an annual license fee of just over 50 euros per household and following public sector wage reductions, ERT is hardly an extravagance for Greece. “Naturally, all public funds must be spent with the greatest of care,” the union said in a letter to Samaras. “However in a comparison of household licence fees across Europe (2011) ERT ranks among the bottom third (just behind Serbia). Additionally, in August 2012, a quarter of its licence fee revenue was redistributed to finance other state needs – following on top of another reduction of 6.8 per cent in revenue in 2011.”

It is ironic that after three years of incessant cuts and continuous debates about austerity, the Greek government stands at the crossroads because of an issue which will have a relatively negligible impact on public finances. Perhaps, though, it is fitting that the coalition’s future should rest on this matter. To some extent, the future of ERT and the way in which it is handled by the government is about defining the Greece that emerges from the crisis.

Like Greece, ERT was less than the sum of its parts, torn by forces pulling in different directions as they pursued their own interests. Its weaknesses blighted its strengths. ERT was neither the independent world-class broadcaster that its supporters make out, nor was it the den of iniquity that its critics describe. Many of its programs were duds, a few were corkers. Some of its employees were shirkers and political appointees but a lot more worked with dedication for scant reward. Like ERT, Greece is also being asked to break from the past and present a new version of itself to the watching world. However, its decision makers seem devoid of ideas and it is not clear if an instinct for survival alone will be enough to ensure a positive conclusion. Stay tuned.

Nick Malkoutzis

This article first appeared on the Social Europe website.

18 responses to “ERT: From test card to test case for Greece

  1. I am sorry Nick but most Greeks seem to be in an alternate universe as to what is really happening.

    There is some simple arithmetic about ERT and some cold facts:

    1. Both coalition partners knew about this (ERT’s fate) since early May. Both Venizelos and Kouvelis were personally informed on the Plan B in case the DEPA sale failed. The fact that they objected then and now is irrelevant. You either have credible alternatives or you don’t. Obstructionism is not a n option here.

    2. When Samaras engaged in “boosterism” (as is the Syriza charge), he did it because DEPA had a single finalist (Gazprom). Not only Gazprom was the single finalist but it turned out to be a dog with fleas. When you have such a weak candidate, boosterism is a must.

    3. We now know that the DEPA sale failed due to strong signals from the EU that the Russian purchases would have been contested on strong anti-monopoly charges.

    4. The ERT temporary closing is a direct result of the failed DEPA sale. Nothing personal here, strictly business. Unless Greece solves the DEPA sale deficiency in less than 30 days, Greece can not get the next tranche and Greece must adopt additional measures to cover 50% of the lost revenue from the failed sale. None of this is debatable, it’s part of the memorandum that Greece has already signed.

    5. Finally the key player in all of this is Stournaras. This is not a Samaras decision or mishandling or potential political misstep as the issue is currently framed. Stournaras deals with Troika and he knows much more than anybody else on the subject. Plus Samaras strictly follows what Stournaras wants to do for the political reason that Stournaras is a ideological product of the Left. Plus he is very much qualified for the position as an Oxford masters and PHD holder.

    I am very disappointed on how little time is spent in Greece at explaining the core issues and practical negotiation steps which the state must (has no other option but) follow. Instead we spent all of our time spinning creative theories about this, that and the other on matters that constitute 10% of the total picture. Typical missing the forest from the trees stuff.

    In this regard Greeks can not blame their misery on to others but simply self-evaluate their own propensity for Byzantine misjudgment and mal-attribution. The Greek public seems totally misguided and decidedly on some fairytale (LaLa Land) interpretation of events.

    There was nothing amateurish about the closing of ERT. It was a 100% pro forma move. And those politicians pretending that they didn’t know such obvious fact are both hypocrites and grand demagogues.

    Until we get Stournaras’ version of events on record, all we are doing is spinning variations of biased nonsense which gets us nothing but a guarantee of continued misery, impotence and a disturbing lack of comprehending reality.

  2. Dean please explain how shutting down ERT (an expensive business in the short term) will produce enough money to cover 50% of the DEPA sale cancellation, ie 1 bn euro. This need backing up with figures.

    Secondly I fail to see how Samaras’ claims for Greek stability is enhanced by the surprise padlock of a state broadcast corporation by decree. Without parliamentary agreement this extraordinary move evokes bad collective memories in a majority of EU countries. Strongarm? yes. Stable? no.

    These two stories are playing out side-by-side, but unless your figures pan out, how they connect is not yet clear.

    The one benefit to the government of ERT closedown were the 2000 firings promised for the eurogroup meeting last Thursday…a just-in-time delivery.

    Unless blacking out the Vouli channel for a week was also desired 🙂

    • Eleni:

      There is a concept called Net Present Value. I will explain in a second how this works.

      Obviously ERT alone may not be able to make up the 50% of say 1 Bil. euros, or 500 Mil. euros savings needed to plug the imputed loss from DEPA’s unrealized sale. There will be more closings, such as some defense industries with no clients and the like.

      Now back to NPV. Say, the present budget for ERT is 220 Mil. euros per year. And now say that you close ERT down and produce in its place you a leaner, cheaper and better ERT with a budget of (say) 100 Mil. euros per year.

      Therefore your savings are 120 Mil. euros per annum in this example. There is a precise formula that calculates these annual savings discounted back to present over many years. A much simpler formula, which roughly approximates the same results, is to treat these annual savings as an annuity (in other words an amount the benefit of which the state would receive year after year – theoretically in perpetuity).

      Then the formula of the annuity becomes NPV = Annual savings divided by interest = A/I = 120 Mil euros / 0.06 = 2,000 Mil. euros.

      In this example we used 6% interest but you could use either a higher or a lower interest based on prevailing market rates.

      Therefore, in this example the re-set ERT yields a benefit to the Greek state of 2 Bil. euros. Even after you pay the one time expenses for retirement packages, the state ends up some very significant savings. And this is what then becomes the negotiating point with Troika.

      Now the real savings form the new ERT could only be half of what I used in this example, therefore the NPV might end up closer to 1 Bil. euros.

      That’s why you need Stournaras in this discussion. He has the real figures and these are the issues we ought to be discussing. Not the emotional stuff about curbing of freedoms and green horses.

  3. So now what will happen if the courts decision goes against Samaras, I think this is more worrying than the attitude of his partners. Of course they were warned and one imagines that this is simply another case of their face saving.

    • Before governments take such actions, scores of attorneys are consulted on the constitutionality of said actions. I don’t see the higher court reversing it. Those who initiated such action had such challenge already in mind and have prepared for it.

      • Another_Greekboy

        I would say they will ignore the court’s decision if it goes against them in the same way they have ignored other rulings in the past.

      • AG:

        Perhaps. So what is the use of the appeal? Propaganda?

      • AG:

        Let’s cut the melodrama out. For that I have Chatzidakis and it sounds much better:

      • Another_Greekboy

        Interesting. I’m wondering what Hadjidakis would have thought of the political and cultural dwarfs who rule us today?

        You go to court so that the government doesn’t claim that what it does is legal. You put it on record even if it’s hopeless.

  4. Another_Greekboy

    That’s “dwarves.”

    • Well, Hadjidakis is a giant but to the best of my knowledge HE had suggested the closing of ERT himself, only he said that most Greeks would not be able to separate from such opium (or something to that effect).

  5. For those interested, here is a blogpost which I made about this issue.

    • Klaus:

      Not exactly correct on your assessment.

      Here are a few issues for you to ponder:

      1. The ERT temporary closing is not a matter of appearances (the “how” as you put it) but one of substance.

      2. Let’s be frank about it, ERT during the last election ( a year ago) became and continues to be a Syriza hornet’s nest. What you hear in the public debate at the moment are basically covert calls of distress by the Syriza colony enter intense fumigation.

      3. The debate is framed on the wrong basis. No one disputes the cultural contribution of high quality public programming. We need to have it in Greece as elsewhere in the civilized world. The issue here is the hypocritical cry that “they are killing ERT and are destroying the archives of our cultural heritage” when in fact this is nothing more than a manipulative call to preserve the ERT status quo because it confers maximum political advantage to minority parties (which in turn they use ERT to pollute the airwaves with their incomprehensible nonsense). When last year I watched almost every debate imaginable on ERT (in an attempt to understand the grass roots concerns of people plus to find out if they understood the root causes of the crisis correctly) I was appalled at the level of ignorance coming out of the Greek Left. These were parliamentarians exhibiting a disturbing lack of education, complete unsophistication in economics and a rather irritating monotone of irrelevant nonsense with anachronistic references completely off the mark. Now, this applies to the entire political spectrum in Greece but the manifestation of this same problem in the Left was impossible to miss. These were basically illiterate folk masking as representatives of the people. The reason they like ERT is because as a public venue ERT is obligated to give equal representation to all voices. The net effect of such ERT policy was the manifestation for all to see of an abysmal lack of prerequisites for the job by members of the Parliament. ERT became a victim of appearances also, because any attempt by ERT to frame the issues correctly would have been construed as political meddling and interference. A classic situation of “analysis of paralysis”. Therefore ERT has failed the big test of informing the Greek people correctly and to be the guardians of intelligent debate. Instead ERT became a prostitute of convenience obsessed with appearances (as you put it).

      4. Finally ERT exposes a generational gap. Whereas ERT continues to broadcast and exist in full glory on the Internet, the old generation expects delivery through an old and antiquated medium. To some degree a debate about ERT falls under the largest debate of the role of journalism in modern society. How are newspapers to survive if they are no longer read by the young generation? Therefore to me the debate about ERT transcends the falsehood of whether we ought to preserve ERT or not. If we are to have a genuine debate it should be about what is the role of ERT in the world of new media reality and rapidly evolving technology. Is ERT to deliver a product for some antiquated TV sets in remote locations or is ERT a participant in the iphone and perpetually switched on Internet societies of tomorrow?

  6. Thanks for all the facts about the ‘what’ which obviously I have to take at face value because I am not familiar with ERT. Ideally, the ‘what’ should always matter more than the ‘how’ but there are situations where the ‘how’ can jeopardize the relevance of the ‘what’.

    Whether it is the default of a country or the shutdown of a public broadcaster, one likes to see that there is an orderly process. Otherwise, there is a risk of things getting out of control. I am not sure yet that things will not get out of control because of ERT.

    In the more conservative quarters of the Austrian media, there is now jubilation about Greece. You would not believe the accolades! (below is one example, albeit in German). I might add that they are also suggesting that the Austrian government should do the same thing with our public broadcaster (ORF), for very similar reasons.

    But the jubilation of conservative Austrian media will have exactly zero influence over what happens on the streets of Athens going forward and, in the final analysis, the streets of Athens may eventually decide everything.

    • Klaus:

      The jubilation of conservative Austrian media means nothing to me. I have undertaken numerous attacks on Merkel and her conservative Germany to the point that some people thought that I had a leftist orientation, which I don’t.

      I am a 100% pro Greece person and I like politics of absolute center (not an iota of deviation to the left or to the right).

      When the Left behaves like idiots I have no problem calling them such. When the right behaves like morons (case in point the destruction of the Greek banking system for nothing, aka total Greek sovereign debt at 350 Bil euros and mounting) I have no problem calling the right unsophisticated baboons of the worst kind. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on where you stand) there is a thick layer of ignorance in everyday Greek affairs enough to sink in your teeth in totally juicy and delicious bites.

      When I find a good idea (regardless of political orientation) I am prepared to use it.

      What I don’t want as a Greek is to fall into these traps of irrelevance (such as the ERT matter today and the Lagarde list (many Greeks pronounce it La-N-garde for some unknown reason of ignorance) which took up 3 months of public debate while Germany was destroying Greece with a second PSI). To date, the La-N-gard matter has produced zippo, zero, nothing. So, is the ERT matter because it is a distraction from the real debate.

      Now, about the order thing that you mentioned. It must be a Germanic thing because nothing is Greece so far has been orderly nor you should expect it to be orderly.

      If reform is the objective for Greece, then reform passes through main central of Syriza interests. The one losing from reform the most is the Left because in their minds it has taken generations to accumulate certain gains which now they pretty much consider as de facto privileges under threat to be taken away. You can’t make omelette without breaking any eggs. And all the eggs to be broken have Syriza written on them. The main reason why the process of further reform would not be orderly is that this leftist clan knows that is under attack and is prepared to obfuscate, cajole, and otherwise evade the real issues by fabricating causes which suit their purpose of self-preservation. This ERT case is a classic. While they correctly realize that there is a full attack against them to surrender some of their privileges (which they shouldn’t have had in the first place) they are framing the debate as them being the guardians of public freedoms. One has to be willfully misdirected to accept such obvious wrong Syriza framing. These guys are fighting for their political lives because correctly they realize that their political enemies are going for the jugular. But instead of calling things by their true names they want to invent issues showing them as champions of freedom when in fact they are doing the typical dirty job of any political party under attack.

  7. Pingback: Media, le ultime sulla tv greca | Le idi di marzo

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