ERT off air: Thought for the day

One of the great moments in global radio is BBC Four’s “Thought for the Day.” Greek state broadcaster ERT is one of many that have adopted the format, giving a couple of minutes of airtime on its Second Program to the great and good musing about faith, current affairs and life in general. One can only wonder, though, exactly what the government’s thought for the day was when it decided to shut down ERT and dismiss some 2,700 staff on Tuesday.

There was plenty wrong with ERT, which had long been treated like most other parts of the public sector by successive governments who felt they had supporters to take care of and money to burn. Its 19 regional radio stations speak of an excess that was simply unsustainable. Thessaloniki, a city with 800,000 inhabitants, had three radio stations when Inner London, which has a population of more than 3 million, has only one.

There was also a lot to cherish about ERT, though. It continued to make challenging documentaries when practically nobody else in Greece did. Its stations played music that nobody else would. Even its insistence on sticking with tinny 80s theme tunes for its news and sports shows had a naive charm about it. Most of all, though, it did the job that all national broadcasters should do by being a common reference point for millions. There are few more emotional experiences one can have listening to the radio than hearing Diaspora Greeks cast to the four corners of the earth calling in to a Saturday night show on the Second Program to request Greek songs and share their memories and feelings about the homeland they left behind.

There was certainly no such sentimentality in the government’s decision to announce ERT’s closure and pull the plug within a few hours. There was no debate in Parliament, no public discussion and no consent from New Democracy’s coalition partners, PASOK and Democratic Left. Instead, a legislative decree was passed to allow ministers to close public enterprises and government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou appeared on TV to inform the public that ERT had become a bottomless pit, absorbing 300 million euros a year in license fees and producing mismanagement and inefficiency rather than good TV and radio programs.

With an unstilted delivery any news anchor would have been proud of, Kedikoglou said all this without acknowledging that it was New Democracy and PASOK that had picked all of ERT’s directors in previous years and stuffed the organization as full of journalists and managers friendly to their particular causes as they could.

ERT is one of many illicit affairs that these two parties would like to sweep under the carpet. How better to do it than to execute the corporation’s closure at the same time as the troika is in Athens wondering what happened to the coalition’s promise to fire 2,000 civil servants this summer? Greece’s lenders, after all, were looking for a “game changer.” Which way will the game go though?

The decision to close ERT has apparently come from the top but in making this choice, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras also takes a huge risk. His decision for a “bold” move that would make up for the government’s inability to chip away at the civil service by firing offenders and non-performers has ample potential to backfire. It’s true that Samaras has stolen a march on his coalition partners, forcing them to put up or shut up in the government’s bid to meet troika targets. But is this the best way to ensure the coalition remains intact and functioning? It’s also true that Samaras’s move shoves SYRIZA center stage, where it will have to show if it possesses the wherewithal to harness whatever anger is created by ERT’s closure. But is it really wise to stoke the forces of protest and resistance when they appear to have abated? It’s likely that there are Greeks who will interpret shutting down ERT as an indication that the government is willing to confront its challenges head-on. There are others, though, who will feel uncomfortable, even angered, by riot police standing in front of the country’s public broadcaster – imagery that conjures up painful memories in a country that lived through a dictatorship in the not-too-distant past.

A lot could ride on whether Greeks genuinely believe this is an attempt to shake up the public sector and shake out its most negative elements. The government says that in the months to come, it will reopen ERT under a new name and with fewer employees. However, will people really trust the parties who created the unstable structure they built over the years to rebuild it as a fairer and more productive edifice? Can they really put their faith in New Democracy, which in 2011 opposed a PASOK plan to restructure ERT, saying the broadcaster should be safeguarded from such action? There’s a thought for the days ahead.

[Kathimerini English Edition]