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 www.nerit.gr 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.
This article first appeared on the Social Europe website.