A state of emergency
Dr.in Rubina Möhring, Reporters without borders
What went on air on June 11, 2013 was not a recording mistakenly broadcast by the Greek TV broadcaster, as can sometimes be the case. It was a unilateral decision by the democratically voted Prime Minister Antonis Samaras that amounted to a Coup d’Etat against the Greek media. At precisely 22:00 the Greek public broadcaster ERT’s channel went dark. A governmental spokesman had announced the decision that ERT was to be closed down to public only a few hours earlier. Within a couple of hours 2700 employees lost their jobs and were left on the streets.
What happened on June 11, is unheard of in the history of democratic states. It is usually associated with revolutionary brigades and coups, but was initiated and executed by the democratically elected government itself. The last images broadcasted by ERT were those of helpless and baffled journalists in the newsroom. These events did not occur in what perceived ancient, dark and distant European history of the previous century but today, in the new millennium, in Greece, the cradle of democracy. Athens is the first democratic government with the intent of putting public-broadcasting, along with its public service, into question. Spain and Portugal had previously made the threat of privatising their broadcasters if the EU’s demands regarding austerity went too far, but that remained nothing but threats in order to keep the EU’s demands, as far as that was possible, at bay. The government in Athens on the other hand, did not hesitate to quickly and efficiently shut ERT down.
Greece could not receive public television broadcasts for a week. Eight days later the constitutional court declared it unconstitutional, and decreed that ERT had to continue, at the very least digitally, until an alternative, such as a slimmed down organisation, could be found. ERT’s future therefore continued to hang in the air. Not so that of its employees, they received formal terminations of their contracts on 18. June, with the offer of short-term contracts for approximately half of them.
Greece´s Prime Minister Samaras blames European austerity for his decision. The Euro-pean Commission refutes this, claiming that it requested a reduction of 3000 employees in the bloated public services, not in the public broadcaster.
The impression created is that the Greek government conveniently mistook the meaning of public services to equate public broadcasting in order to allow them to spare the well-connected public service employees. That the European Commission demanded that 3000 employees would be laid-off - the amount employed by ERT - added to the convenience. A less convenient side effect is the disassembly of Greek public broadcasting’s integrity.
The Greek government landed a coup that made public broadcasting cheaper in every sense and allowed them to get rid of critically minded journalists as ERT now also employs the “hire and fire” policy. This development does not only serve politicians who are currently in power however. It is equally useful for future governments of
all colours. According to the most recent polls, the Greek extreme right-wing party Golden Dawn is already the third strongest party. This is likely to increase without the analysis of the increase of racisms and anti-Semitism that Greece in experiencing that ERT undertook. In Brussels leading politicians are less concerned. Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for regional politics, stated that the closure was inacceptable, nevertheless “the freedom of expression is not threatened by the circumstances” since ERT only had a market-share of 13% and the measures were part of structural reforms.
The international NGO Reporters without Borders holds a different view: in particular public broadcasting services offer adequate plurality of information. Provided, of course, the influence of politics is kept at bay.
Public channels have the privilege of reporting about political parties and groups without the bias caused by being dependant on the advertising income that these groups partially provide to private channels. Directly receiving funds from one political faction is usually not permitted to public broadcasters, in order to maintain their independence and enable them to attempt to provide an objective alternative to the campaigning that the public is exposed to. It is exactly this independence that made it possible for them to be a central part of the fourth pillar of the state – the media. The public broadcasters originally conceived in the 20th century were meant to function as a service to the public that had the privilege of being independent of the financial pressures experienced by the private media. This was part of their design in order to allow them to inform, educate and entertain free of political-meddling. The BBC’s Charta remains a template for public broadcaster’s function in society:
“The BBC’s main object is the promotion of its Public Purposes…The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows— (a) sustaining citizenship and civil society; (b) promoting education and learning; (c) stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; (d) representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities; 2(e) bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK…The BBC shall be independent in all matters concerning the content of its output, the times and manner in which this is supplied, and in the management of its affairs.”
BBC Charta 2006
Returning to Brussels. It is astounding that politicians, who would usually denounce ratings as meaningless, use low viewer ratings to justify their actions. That leads to the question of what should be used to measure the worth of public broadcasting services? When are they worthy of preservation? What weighs more, the rating or content?
ORF programmes such as “Die Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur” vulgo “Bachmann prize” or the “Graz music protocols”, are unable to achieve the ratings of a “Dancing Stars.” Programmes produced in foreign languages cannot keep up to the “Karlich-Show.” If we rely on the rating as the sole measure of success, any demand for educational or cultural programmes become a contradiction in themselves. Only using content is just as pointless since public broadcasters need to stay relevant in order to fulfil their role. This requires them to be able to rely on strong financial as well as legislative backing in order to continue to be able to provide the public with relevant, informative and high quality content, which includes entertainment.
Thoughtful and high quality infotainment is hardly a new maxim. It relies on the not particularly difficult realization that both ratings and content should serve as the measures of public broadcasting’s success.
Maintaining a public broadcaster’s credibility is certainly important, and the lack of pressure by not entirely being exposed to the market may lead to organisations becoming top-heavy. An increasing number of influential, affluent but functionally near-useless managers at the top can lead to a decrease of motivated and inspired content-makers at the bottom. Comparable constellations in public broadcasters are hardly a rarity and eat away at their ability to create high quality television. Sadly, ERT was no exception to this development. A predictable coincidence: on the day of the Greek covert operation, an Austrian far-right politician demanded the privatisation of the ORF. Mentioning the ORF is always an attention-grabber. As is the word privatisation. However, at least making an attempt of broadening one’s horizons by paying attention to what happens beyond Austria’s beautiful alps and lakes may also yield benefits.
Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy serves as an instructive example of what can happen when public broadcasting is marginalized through a monopoly of private channels. Berlusconi, whose original intent was simply to maximize ratings through the broadcasting of showgirls at every possible occasion, now dominates the Italian media landscape. Italy has reached a full circle: after years of focusing TV programmes on pert tits
and buttocks in the name of ratings, content has made its reappearance: white-wash documentaries about Berlusconi’s innocence in the constant stream of court-cases he is embroiled in. By contrast, the Turkish national broadcaster TRT suffers under excessive government control, broadcasting a moving documentary on the life and survival of penguins while protests raged across the country. Private channels informed the public of current political events instead.
Hungary’s government pragmatically used austerity measures to fuse national television, radio and the national news agency into one easily controlled unit that is now staffed with loyal party members. A currently debated topic is that political parties may in future only advertise in the government controlled public channels in order to weaken private broadcasting and the plurality of, at times critical, views it represents. A democratic society therefore needs both public and private broadcasting in order to maintain a delicate balance between education, information and entertainment. Democracies follow the principle of striving towards equality by continuously pitting a large number of interest groups against each other. A democratic media landscape follows similar principles by doing the same with the underlying objectives of maximising ratings, delivering high quality content and serving the interests of the powerful.
National media markets are large enough to support both public and private media. Further, viewers in affluent societies are informed enough to make the alternatives unacceptable and unsustainable over long. Even the Chinese government, which has rather questionable democratic credentials, is carefully and against all authoritarian instincts loosening its hold on the media because its increasingly prosperous population will not accept otherwise in the long-term. The Greek government recently decided what it wants. In July it presented the concept for the state-controlled channel
Nerit – New Hellenic Radio Internet and TV – which will be under the direct control of parliament, with a board composed of ministers of finance, culture and a newly appointed minister of media. ERT is now definitely dead and with it a part of Greece’s democratic tradition and identity will also be a thing of the past. The passing of ERT will lead to the slow deletion of the collective memory of the slow and painful process of democratisation that the country recently went through. ERT was a symbol of the Greek national identity – citizens went on the streets for it and cried for it when its musicians played their last concert – it is now replaced by a faceless and voiceless by-product of austerity.
What has and is happening in Greece is bitter. A traditional public television channel was shut-down against the will of the majority. Possibly by coincidence, the rights
to digital broadcasting frequencies were being negotiated at the same time. ERT is dismantled and Nerit will be tightly controlled. It seems like the winner of what has happened will be a private media corporation, owned by one of the country’s richest businessmen, who happens to have close ties to the premier. Public broadcaster should take note. •
This article was published in "TEXTE 9 - Why Greece matters" (2013)