The price to pay

Mag. Ernst Gelegs, foreign correspondent for Eastern Europe, ORF

The financial crisis in Greece has already had far-reaching consequences for many people and companies, but now it is claiming a new casualty – the state broadcaster ERT. In a surprise move, the conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras ordered the closure of ERT last month, firing all 2,700 employees and shutting off the signal. The closure caused a nationwide and international outcry as well as political turmoil in the country as the Democratic Left known as DIMAR, the junior partner in the three party coalition, pulled out of the government in protest, leaving Samaras with a three-vote majority in the 300-seat parliament. The Prime Minister could avoid a collapse of his government and early elections because Greece´s high court ruled that while the government was entitled to replace ERT with a more efficient broadcaster, it should not have shut off the public TV signal. The top administrative court appeared to vindicate Samaras‘s stance that a leaner, cheaper public broadcaster must be set up but also allowed for ERT‘s immediate reopening as his two coalition partners had demanded, offering all three a way out of an impasse that had raised the spectre of an early election. All parties claimed victory from the ruling which failed to specify whether ERT must restart with programming as before or only partially resume operations until its relaunch. The conservative Samaras has refused in a flurry of speeches to turn the “sinful” ERT back on, vowing to fight to modernize a country he says had become a “Jurassic Park” of inefficiency and corruption.

There is no need to talk about the necessity of a public broadcaster in a democratic country. But what to do if a public broadcaster has turned into a fat, bloated, lethargic monster over the last decades? According to a government spokesman, ERT became such a monster, unwilling or unable to reform. The Greeks spend more than 300 Million euros a year for a rather unpopular program. Just around 4 percent of the population watches the main news broadcast of ERT. The annual budget of ERT is threefold higher than that of every other TV station in Greece.

Most of the people in Greece complain about biased political news coverage and characterize ERT as a propaganda channel of each government. So far, every government placed their intimates in strategic positions at state TV or radio in order to influence the program. After every change of government, these people usually stay employed and get paid princely sums without having something to do. Nepotism seems to be quite common. Expensive TV productions have often been outsourced to companies owned by family members and friends of ERT employees. Some of these cases are currently under investigation. The department of public prosecution has already launched legal proceedings.

Fierce debates surrounded the daughter of a former minister of the ruling Nea Dimokratia Party who became a well-paid anchor of a TV magazine without having any TV experience. In recent years ERT paid millions of extra salaries and overtime to employees who were not even present. To go on strike was very popular. In 2012, ERT was on strike over half the year, yet employees’ employees salaries were paid in full.

Prime Minister Samaras has often urged management to reform ERT, but without any results. Any move to make the public broadcaster leaner and more efficient came to grief by mighty unions eagerly trying to maintain the status quo.

Polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of the population agree on the need for massive layoffs in the public administration as claimed by the so called Troika (EU, IMF, European Central Bank). Until the end of the year 4.000 civil servants will have to be sacked. Another 12.500 workers have to be put into a „mobility pool” by September, giving them eight months to find work in another department or get fired. Samaras has been forced to launch the cuts in order to continue receiving rescue loans from the IMF and EU, therefore his decision to shut down ERT didn’t actually come out of the blue. It was just badly prepared and communicated, but economically a necessary step to bring Greece back on track.

The necessity of reforming a public broadcaster has been seen by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as well. Similar to ERT, Hungarian TV - called MTV (Magyar Televízíó) - was overstaffed. 3,000 employees produced the programs of 3 TV channels (M1, M2

and Duna TV) as well as 3 nationwide radio stations. With more than 1,5 billion euros, the annual costs were enormous but the number of viewers was minimal. Just 5 percent watch the programs on MTV. But Orbán used the necessity of a reform not only to get a leaner and more efficient public broadcaster, but rather to get MTV completely under the control of his government. Under the pretext of cost-cutting measures, the Hungarian Prime Minister fired more than 1000 workers and merged the three TV channels, the three radio stations, as well as the Hungarian News Agency MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda) under one umbrella called MTVA. Orbán annihilated all news departments and created one single editorial office. This office produces news for every TV and radio station of MTVA, the same for everyone. The costs have been more than halved. The price paid is the loss of pluralism and diversity of opinion in the news programs of the public broadcaster in Hungary. Viktor Orbán has intentionally killed the last remains of independence because critical coverage of the Orbán government´s policy by a public broadcaster is undesirable in Hungary. The one who pays the piper calls the tune. The news about home affairs now reflect the opinions and attitudes of Viktor Orbán and his government.

In contrary to the Hungarians, the Greek population has a good chance at the moment to get a politically independent, efficient, and strong public TV and radio service. The parliament in Athens just passed the law for a new public broadcaster called NERIT (Néa Ellinikí Radiofonía, Internet, Tileórasi) meaning new Greek radio, internet and television. Still unanswered is the question of when NERIT will go on the air – hopefully soon. •

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