Vassilis K. Fouskas*
On Tuesday, 11 June 2013, Greek and international viewers of ERT, the Greek Broadcasting Corporation, found out that it will have to be closed down by the end of the day. Together, some 2,700 employees would become jobless. ERT and its channels are the only public media in Greece. The rest of the mass media market is dominated by private interests, and the Greeks should be lucky that no Greek Berlusconi has emerged so far. What is more astonishing is the way in which this act of statesmanship has taken place: without discussion in the parliament, and without prior approval by the Greek president, the decision to close down the Greek broadcaster was taken by the Economy Ministry, ran by an unelected person, and previously agreed by the Right-wing PM, Antonis Samaras. Thus, the legal instrument of closure was by means of a ministerial — not even presidential — decree. The current Greek government, a coalition formed by parties of the old regime (ND, PASOK and the reformist DIMAR party) and unable to deal with the issue of debt repayment, has for some time now begun going down a dangerous path, the path of dictatorial rule. For, each time the state coffers need to be replenished with cash from the ECB and other creditors, the tripartite government has to deepen austerity measures, a practice which is effectively used as collateral.
It is obvious that this can no longer continue. Thousands of people took down the streets of Athens to support the workers of ERT, who had in the meantime occupied the building and with the government hesitating to send over the police to evacuate it. This may be either because of the opposition Samaras has faced from his coalition partners, or because he felt that trying to oust the workers out of the building using police violence would cause such a national outrage that could jeopardise his rule. Samaras’s arguments are petty: ‘ERT employees are unproductive and live at the expense of the rest of society and the state; ERT has huge debts and the salaries are very high, whereas each Greek household pays an extra £4 a month for TV Licence; so it is high time now to get rid of this clientelistic and nepotistic state parasite’. But nothing of this is true, apart from the clientelistic aspect of the story, for which the ruling parties of the country since 1974, ie ND and PASOK, are solely responsible.
In May 2010, just before the “shock and awe” policy of the troika had taken root, ERT had a surplus of 41 million Euros, contributing up to 50 per cent to Greece’s budget. More than 50 per cent of the contribution each Greek household makes to ERT goes to Greece’s indebted Electricity grid, DEI. ERT employs 2,907 people, runs 3 national channels, 2 satellite, 5 radio stations, 19 regional radio stations, 35 broadcasters and has also music groups, an orchestra and choir. It does not run many commercials and advertisements and hosts high quality debates and programmes. And who are those who are highly paid, as Samaras claims? The privileged ERT employees are just 11 “special advisers” and another 16 people earning among themselves 1,4 million Euros per year, an average of 4,300 Euros per month before tax. I would not put the intelligence of the reader to the test to ask them who might have appointed those “advisers” who, after all, do not earn exorbitant amounts of money. Moreover, the grand majority of the employees, that is 2,870 people, earn something between 1,050 and 2,800 Euros per month before tax. All in all, none of the arguments of the Samaras government stands up.
More than 50 directors of public media corporations across Europe, which include the directors general of all of Europe’s most important public service media organizations, universally condemned the Greek government’s “undemocratic and unprofessional” course of action, which “undermines the existence of public service media in Greece”. Intellectuals across Europe and the Americas circulate petitions via e-mail and facebook. Syriza, Greece’s main opposition left party, stood by the workers of ERT, condemned the new authoritarian turn of the regime and re-opened politically the issue of fresh election. However, it stopped short of — perhaps wisely — asking for a vote of confidence in the parliament as this would have coiled up the ND its two coalition partners of PASOK and DIMAR. Samaras tried to calm down its coalition partners by presenting a new plan of re-opening a “re-structured” ERT in September and with fewer employees, but no-one seems to believe him. In this respect, what the Italians call “attentismo”, was the preferred course of action for Syriza. It should also be noted that both PASOK and DIMAR are going through a phase of severe crisis, with more and more of them looking towards Syriza, whereas other envision the creation of a new Centre-Left, as Syriza appears to be “too much on the left” for them.
As I write these lines, the presence of thousands of people inside and outside the building of ERT is gathering pace day after day. Artists and musicians have performed and rallies are taking place across Greece. On Monday 17 June, Syriza’s leader is giving a speech at Syntagma Square. This crisis, triggered by ERT, may well bring down the government, regardless of whether Samaras decides to use violence to evacuate ERT’s building. Thus, the Greeks will be saved from a new form of dictatorial rule; but they may also be saved from a possible emergence of a Greek Berlusconi, since with the axing of ERT the media market in Greece will be wholly dominated by a handful of rich families in cahoots with the coalition government.
* Vassilis K. Fouskas is Professor of International Politics & Economics at the Business School of the University of East London