Why Greece matters: Values debate in sharp focus

Ingrid Deltenre, Director General of EBU

On 11 June 2013, the Greek government unceremoniously announced it would pull the plug on its public service broadcaster, triggering an international outcry that reverberated round the planet. Emergency powers granted to the Greek Finance Minister and the competent minister were used to abruptly stop ERT’s transmissions that same day at 2300hrs. At a stroke, 2,700 staff were laid off, and Greek citizens were left in front of black screens and silent radios

Our actions

Since then the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), has been at the forefront of an international push to have public service media returned to air in Greece. Within hours of the announcement, the EBU denounced the step by writing to the Greek Prime Minister, Mr Antonis Samaras, urging him to use his powers to immediately reverse the decision. Quickly, more than 50 Directors General of our members had roundly condemned

the Greek government’s undemocratic and unprofessional course of action. The EBU General Assembly – the EBU’s highest governing body – unanimously called for urgent action to set up interim services and reestablish public service programming in Greece, making use of existing facilities and staff.

But we went further than mere words. Resolute ERT staff dug in their heels and continued producing news programmes for news channel, NET, which we streamed on the EBU website. We also implemented a workaround to allow satellite subscribers worldwide to access NET on television. This action brought a wave of support from Greeks around the world. Disappointingly, public service media remained off air in Greece for several weeks, despite a court ruling ordering the Government to restore a public broadcast service as soon as possible. Eventually, on 10 July, an unsatisfactory interim service was launched, transmitting old films and documentaries from private studios.

Then on 24 July the Greek Parliament adopted a new media law, a step the EBU welcomes since the law appears to set the stage for building a new and independent public service broadcasting organisation. The EBU understands that it has always been the Greek Government‘s intention to form the new broadcasting organisation, NERIT, while operating an interim service with the resources at its disposal. For the EBU, this means that as soon as there is an interim service providing a news bulletin as part of the schedule, the EBU streaming and signal relay of NET will stop.

The EBU has repeatedly offered its assistance and expertise to the Greek Government to help build ERT’s successor, and to make sure that public service media in Greece has a secure and sustainable future. This offer still stands.

Our messages

Rather than a defence of ERT per se, what motivates the EBU in this case is the principle that a functioning public service broadcaster is a non-negotiable prerequisite in modern, democratic, European countries. The EBU will not deny that change was needed at ERT.

Rationalization is necessary if it engenders a more secure future for public service media. The EBU’s objection is to the undemocratic and unprofessional way this disproportionate measure was decided upon and executed. It was unnecessarily drastic to take ERT off

air completely at the flick of a switch. And it was an unbridled assault on media freedom and pluralism that leaves the Greek landscape distinctly worse off, since it is now entirely dominated by privately-owned media whose first consideration is to their shareholders, not the public interest.

In 2011, 91% of ERT’s 328m euro budget came from the license fee; 6% from advertising and 2% from the state budget through some specific agreements. ERT’s abolition meant that the licence fee was also eradicated, but the truth is that this change will bring no extra money to government coffers, since the burden was borne directly by Greek citizens. Moreover, the Greek government will have to meet all costs deriving from legal actions, redundancy payoffs and unmet contractual obligations to service providers and sports rights holders. The cost of this backlash will likely be very high – hundreds of millions

of euros. Another crucial point that has been consistently omitted from the ERT debate is that ERT was a profit-making organization with no accrued debts of note. ERT closed out 2012 with a 50m euro surplus to its name. What this means is that, paradoxically, the shelving of ERT flies in the face of the troika’s key objectives of reducing state spending and increasing efficiency.

Our values

It is likely the architects of ERT’s demise expected the move to go relatively unnoticed by an outside world absorbed in its own problems. Similarly, the depth of Greece’s financial woes is so well-known that perhaps they had hoped a measure this extreme would be dismissed as a necessary sacrifice. At any rate, they could not have envisaged the ensuing groundswell of support for the broadcaster, portrayed by its detractors as a mismanaged den of decadence reporting catastrophic audience figures. For those of us already persuaded of the benefits to democracy of public service media, the snap closure of ERT was profoundly alarming and unsettling. That this could happen at all is a troubling indicator of the extent to which severe and unrelenting financial pressure has warped European political thinking. We are witnessing values that remain a precondition for European Union membership being trampled underfoot. Values such as media freedom, pluralism and the unhindered access to information. In the context of the ongoing EBU-led conversation about values in public service media, ERT’s shutdown set a precedent that has turned lofty notions into tangible reality. We have been handed an indelible example of worst practice that will forever be remembered as such.

This was a failed experiment that proved the validity of the EBU’s position: that public service media is an indispensable component of free-thinking societies. But it also served as a warning to would-be copycat governments that free-thinking people do not take kindly to having their right to public service media bulldozed. This destructive misstep drew millions of people worldwide to ERT’s defence. Why? Because for all its practical shortcomings, ERT was an institutional symbol of the public’s right to a media company functioning on their behalf. Closing it down simply gave substance to the symbolism.

When in June 2012 the EBU membership, meeting in Strasbourg, unanimously agreed on a declaration on the Core Values of Public Service Media, they pledged to weave universality, independence, excellence, diversity, accountability, and innovation into the professional fabric of their organizations. But the Declaration was far more than mere words. In publicly committing to these professional virtues, PSM strive to set themselves apart and legitimize their position – which they recognize as privileged – especially when money is tight. But perhaps the most telling aspect of this story is that the dialogue in Greece that has emerged around ERT is not chiefly about the way the employees have been treated, nor is it even about the wisdom of shutting down the broadcaster at all, but it was mainly about values. Values such as freedom of speech and of the media, of having a voice in the democratic process and the inalienable right to choose which media we consume.

Values are the cement that holds societies PSM together; they are a practical construct with a strongly emotional quality. It is because fundamental values were at stake in Greece that there was such a powerful international mobilization in defence of ERT. The Greek example drives home how serious we should be about the importance of our role, and the kind of mass public support we can receive if we allow values to guide our choices. •

This article was published in TEXTE 9 - Why Greece matters (2013)

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