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Greece’s public broadcaster: another death foretold

tv by the side of the road
ERT is a victim of a ‘special executive order’ allowing ministers to shut down public sector organizations
Therealdigitalkiwi, under a CC License

Apparently the writing was on the wall. On 11 June 2013 the Greek coalition government filed a ‘special executive order’ allowing ministers to shut down public sector organizations at will, as a matter of urgency.

Greece is increasingly governed by such orders, which effectively bypass parliament as they require only the President’s signature and have immediate effect 1. These orders still need to be ratified, preferably in 40 days, but often it takes up to three months. In the case of order A139, three months is plenty of time to wind down an organization, sack its employees and transfer its assets elsewhere. When the order was filed, many people already knew that its first, if not intended, victim would be the Greek public broadcaster, ERT, with over 60 years of history.

Greece is currently governed by a tripartite coalition led by Antonis Samaras of New Democracy (the right wing), Eleftherios Venizelos of PASOK (the remnants of the ‘socialist’ party) and Fotis Kouvelis of DIMAR (one of the many spinoffs of the ‘reformative left’). This ‘mini-troika’ is in place to guarantee that the demands of the big Troika (A committee of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF) will be enforced on Greece and transformed into law and sell-offs. They are necessary because only a coalition of the three can keep Syriza, the opposition party which vehemently opposes Troika's demands, out of government.

New Democracy’s view on ERT was predictable. The businessman Samaras instinctively disliked ERT as a public broadcaster. The views of the other two are slightly less clear. In the current wave of cuts, fire sale of state assets, wage and pension reductions, it was clear that the 2,500 plus employees of ERT would have to accept reform, reductions, even department closures. But the two parties are adamant that they do not agree with the order, nor will they ratify it in three months, when a new, smaller broadcaster will already be in place (and the audience gone).

ERT, just like all Greek state agencies, was a listed company only in name. Its director and other executives were always appointed by the government. Consequently, recruitment was mostly based on party loyalty. The fact that ERT managed to produce high quality material, archive thousands of hours of traditional Greek music and broadcast some superb radio over the years is testimony to a permanent feature of modern Greece: that a few people work like dogs to feed the many and that these can perform miracles. Yet it is those few who are first in line to lose their jobs.

ERT, like everything in Greece, was governed by cronyism, and the papers are full of this. At the same time, Greeks are fed up with everything, including the TV license fee paid through their electricity bill 2 and, having now become cynical and almost anaesthetized to reality, many of them simply accept the closure as inevitable.

But, it is common knowledge that jobs in the public and semi-public sector are allocated using the 4-2-1 system, i.e. four jobs to New Democracy voters, two to PASOK and one to DIMAR. Is this not the same system that generated and promoted the kind of cronyism cited as the chief reason for the dismantling of the Greek public broadcaster?

The mini-troika is presiding over a destructive process, not a reformative one. The Greeks managed to sell their Lotto company to the sole bidder for almost €100 million ($133 million) less than they wanted; they passed the extraction rights to a gold mine in northern Greece, projected to generate €10 to€20 billion ($13 to $27 billion) profit, for the royal sum of €11 million ($14.7 million). They have managed to lock the main port in a contract with the Chinese that at first glance seems rather unfavourable to Greece. To top this all, the day before the special executive order was issued, Greece had just failed to sell off its public gas company to Gazprom, a sale which was projected to contribute almost half this year’s privatisation money. Yet, Samaras, just a few weeks ago, told the Chinese in Beijing that Greece’s is a ‘success story’. No it’s not.

So why now? And what does it mean? Is Samaras crazy, a bully, a moron, or just a calculating juggler? It is worth remembering that he temporarily left New Democracy some years ago to form a new right-wing party, ‘Political Spring’ (Politiki Anixi). That party was mainly about fomenting, and benefiting from, rising nationalism.

Samaras now feels powerful. He doesn’t appear to know – or perhaps care – that things are really bad. All he knows is that his ‘success story’ appears to be the dominant one in the local media 3. He has clearly sold the story that the gas deal fell through for reasons beyond and greater than Greece (i.e. the geopolitical chess game between EU-USA-Russia). In fact, he was naïve enough to ask the Troika to reduce the projected privatisation target by the amount of the deal lost, only to receive a resounding no. Not even the recent downgrade of the Greek stock exchange to that of an emerging economy has been able to ground him. I think the man is all of the above. Samaras will take the entire nation hostage to elections and finally materialise his childhood dream of being the only chief. Or will he?

What will the other two do? I am not sure. They are both insignificant. PASOK pretty much died the day Papandreou handed Greece over to the IMF and the European Commission. Each of the two parties would receive about 5 per cent of the vote, half that of the neo-Nazis, should elections be held right now. According to the last polls, Syriza is only 1.8 per cent behind New Democracy. The greatest mystery of all is what the exhausted and numb Greek voter will do should Samaras carry out his threat.

In all this ERT doesn’t matter. Not only does it not matter, but it is one less sober  – and to a degree impartial  – voice. The great danger, of course, in view of the fact that things increasingly don’t matter anymore in Greece, is that it will turn into a nation of nihilists. After all, it is one thing to say something needs to be done with ERT, but another thing altogether for a politician to shut down 60 years of history with an executive order, just because he wants to be ‘calife a la place du calife’.

This is an edited version of a post published on Petros Diveris’ website.

[1] They are quite popular for bypassing environmental law, pension reductions, selling off state property and so on.
[2] It means that every Greek paid license fees regardless of whether they watched ERT or not, or even had a television. In terms of communication tactics this is only slightly devious on Samaras’ behalf since the electricity bill has already been used as a means to collect extraordinary house property taxes, so any reduction in those extra fees will make a good impression on some (hopefully few) idiots. 
[3] It appears that the Greek prime minister doesn’t read the foreign press.

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