No signal

Hans Laroes, Chair of the Task Force that created the EBU Charta ”EMPOWERING SOCIETY“

For me it was the most frightful picture of what just had happened in Athens. It was the well-known colorbar. ‘No signal’, it said. And someone had written ‘Democracy ???’ on it. In Greece, the State and the government had just intervened and killed the signal of ERT on TV and radio, and also closed the websites. It was the only way, they said, to end an over-bureaucratic institution that spent too much money and was resisting change.

So, the Greek government killed ERT-programming. And more specifically: it killed journalism. It prevented ERT journalists and programme-makers to perform the most important task they have: bringing the stories home to their audiences. Telling what was happening in Greece that day, and in the rest of the world. I have been an editor-in-chief for almost 10 years, with NOS News in the Netherlands. Of course, at times, you wonder about all the different possibilities politicians have to influence our news-gathering. There are lots of ways to put the pressure on. Spindoctors are permanently trying to influence the political desk. They praise and complain, they promote some stories while hiding others. There is a permanent ‘state-of-war’ between spindoctors and journalists.

And of course, politicians sometimes use the money, your yearly budget, to express their lack of appreciation for the stories journalists produce. They will always deny it –in times of crisis, austerity measures also have an impact on the budgets of public broadcasters and every budget cut is being labelled as ‘austerity’- but nevertheless,

they do know how to use this weapon. You have to defend yourself. Or better, show the world who you are and why you matter by producing fine journalism, guided by the desire to tell the stories that are relevant. Publish and be damned –never mind who is in government.

Sometimes you have to be explicit: ‘Any minister that will give me a call to complain about a story, will find him- or herself back again in the 8 O’clock-bulletin that night’, I used to say. It helped. No one did use the phone. But what happend in Greece was beyond imagination. Greece is in financial trouble, sadly, of course. This brings harsh measures. But Greece is a democracy, not a state with a totalitarian government. ERT is a public broadcaster, no a state broadcaster. Not a broadcaster only there to serve the government as a puppet moving the ways its master wants–and because of that not to be trusted. ERT serves society.

But the State did not give a damn. Behind the color bar that said ‘no signal’, an invisible black hand pulled the switches.I could not have dreamt of a scenario like this. It is too crazy to be true, too ‘off limits’. But it happened. For me it is impossible to judge if ERT itself is an old fashioned burocracy, absorbing too much money. Perhaps it is. Perhaps not. Perhaps ERT needs to be reinvented. Any government has a lot of other possibilities to make its point. It can negotiate, put the pressure on, strike deals, change legislation. This should be subject of an open debate. In parliament, but above all in society.

For me, it is simple. It is not a government or a state which owns public service media. It is the public. They are the real owners. Public service media play an important role in society, not driven by the necessity to make a profit and satisfy some shareholders, but to produce stories that are of importance for society in the 21st century. They should embody continuity, a long-term guarantee that serious journalism, on a national level and abroad, will not cease to exist. That the money will be spent to perform slow journalism, research journalism, journalism from abroad, and journalism that confronts. That is the major task. No government should interfere with that.

ERT, like NOS (my former employer), ORF in Austria, ARD and ZDF, BBC, TVE in Spain and many other broadcasters in lots of other countries are part of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Broadcasting in the new digital age is different than it was, let’s say, 10 years ago. It needs other words, and even more to the point, different behaviour and actions. Last year all menbers of the EBU published ‘Empowering Society’, a declaration on the core values of public service media. It is not just a declaration, it means business. ‘This is our pledge’, EBU says: ,,We (…) belong to the citiziens we serve’’.

Six core values are identified by EBU: universality, independence, excellence, diversity, accountability and innovation. The six values together really make the difference.

For me as a journalist ‘independence’ is the ultimate value. This is what we promise: “We want to be trusted programmemakers, trustworthy in all fictional and non-fictional programming, in all genres and formats, from news to entertainment, from science to sport, from culture to education. We make our choices only in the interest of our audiences. We strive to be completely impartial and independent from political, commercial and other influences and ideologies. Free to challenge the powerful, test prevailing assumptions, and contribute to an informed citizinship. We want to be autonomous in all aspects within our remit such as programming, editorial decision-making, staffing.’’

I do not know if ERT is good enough, or if it performs bright and shining journalism. That is for the ERT-journalists to discuss in all openness. It should be debated between the audience and ERT. But it is not up to the government, any government, to intervene. It is not up to the government, any government, to switch off the signal, and send in the police to prevent journalists from doing their jobs. From a journalistic point of view this is unacceptable. Every journalist, every public service media organization, should be able to challenge the powerful. Because, in the end, we belong to the citizens we serve. It’s the citizens that own the switches, not the government. The ‘no signal’ was the most stupid signal any government could give. •

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