On 11 June, Greek PM Antonis Samaras pulled the plug on months of careful media management by his own government. Up until that point, Europeans were getting used to the idea that Greece could finally be on the mend.
A month ago, Greece seemed on its way to fixing its financial problems. The yield on Greek bonds fell to a multiyear low; there was talk that the country could start borrowing from foreign investors relatively soon. Samaras’ New Democracy maintained a narrow lead over leftist Syriza in the polls.
And then came one of the rashest and most famous blackouts in media history. When Samaras flicked the off switch at the state broadcaster in early June, he cast Greece back into the crisis days of 2012.
Samaras’ snap decision to shut down ERT has brought back the protestors to the streets of Athens. It has triggered an ongoing occupation by journalists of the broadcaster’s headquarters. Public broadcasters abroad, unions and NGOs have issued statements of support for ERT employees. Images of the corporation’s orchestra and choir performing for what may have been the last time went viral. Members of the orchestra performed Elgar’s “Nimrod” in tears.
For members of DIMAR, the third party in Samaras’ coalition, the decision to close ERT was too much to take. The party has walked out of the coalition. Even an apparent U-turn by the Greek PM, who is now planning to reopen a slightly slimmed-down broadcaster, couldn’t assuage DIMAR’s outrage.
“[Tensions] in the government had been seething,” wrote Switzerland’s Neue Züchner Zeitung over the weekend. “And then the decision by Samaras to shut ERT without consulting his coalition partners made things boil over.”
The Democratic Left’s decision to head for the opposition benches means Samaras maintains a majority of just three in the parliament.
And worse, for Samaras, DIMAR’s departure means his government is now comprised of the two old parties whom many Greeks blame for putting their country on the economic scrapheap: The prime minister’s New Democracy and PASOK.
“We’ll either see a rise (in the polls) if the government succeeds. Or we’re both going down,” a PASOK deputy told German magazine Der Spiegel’s website just after the DIMAR walkout.
Despite the ructions, few in Athens are calling for new elections, the weekly adds: “That would weaken the flagging economic even further.”
Meanwhile at ERT headquarters in Athens, journalists continue to occupy their former workplace. And even after the political ructions of last week, there is little sign that the government is willing to make further concessions. Over the weekend, the government ordered journalists out of their building.
“The Greek government calls on ERT staff to leave ERT headquarters so it can apply the decision of the Council of State (the supreme administrative court) regarding the restart of the public broadcaster’s radio and televisual programming,” a statement released this weekend declared. The court has ruled that Samaras’ plans to lay off staff and reopen the broadcaster – announced last week amid public anger – are legal. Though it also ruled that ERT should continue to provide programming while the plans are being worked out.
The specifics of the shutdown notwithstanding, there’s debate over why Samaras ordered the shutdown of the broadcaster in the first place. The Greek PM says the need to pare back government spending motivated his decision. Yet both supporters and opponents of the closure see other factors at play: Chiefly, the influence of broadcast unions at the state broadcaster.
On the right, media have pointed to waste and union corruption as the reason why ERT had to go: “The president of Prospert, the union of workers at the public broadcaster, and his partner – also an ERT employee – were condemned to prison for having received an added payment of 50,000 euros on top of their salaries, ” Italian daily Il Foglio reported, citing Greek media. “One Greek in three isn’t crying over the closure of the broadcaster,” says the conservative paper.
Conversely, European media further to the left has also speculated over union involvement in the closure. Some say Samaras closed the broadcaster because he was unhappy with the political views of union members there. “The decision didn’t merely come from Samaras’ office: It came from the director of the prime minister’s press office, George Mouroutis,” aggregator Press Europe quotes a Greek journalist as saying. “Sources told the journalist that, according to Mouroutis, ERT is controlled by a union, ESYEA … whose goal was to damage the image of the prime minister.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Greece’s decision to close its public broadcaster has triggered speculation that other indebted nations might follow its lead.
In Rome, Enrico Letta’s centre-left/right coalition government is poised to launch talks on the privatisation of Italy’s venerable RAI. The new prime minister set the hounds racing when he told media late last week that “while the question of the possible privatisation of RAI wasn’t in our government’s program, we’ll discuss it”.
RAI, whose programming ranges from trashy game shows to serious documentaries, could fetch around two billion euros according to one bank valuation. Still, the analysis by Mediobanca Securities underscores the risks of “social blowback” from any decision to privatise the public broadcaster says Il Fatto Quotidiano.
The attempted shutdown of ERT has provided a glimpse of the social blowback that can result from a decision to mothball the national broadcaster. ERT suffered abysmal ratings. But the government’s decision to close it has been a ratings bonanza for the broadcaster – online at least.
All the same, protests against its closure signal Greeks’ desire for more independent media, opines Greek director Angélique Kourounis in Le Monde. Until now, Kourounis says, the mainstream Greek media has been inept at holding the country’s government to account: “When a scandal flares … the television journalists interrogate the politicians, ramp up the analysis, maybe even do some reporting … The viewer has the impression that the press is doing its job,” the Greek director writes. “But nothing is really put in question. In fact, the television – public or private – encourages superficial TV catharsis,” she adds. “And then, after two or three weeks, they forget everything and move on to the next scandal.”
Perhaps, however, the current ERT scandal is an exception. After all, for now, ERT journalists cannot move on: They are occupying the broadcaster’s headquarters.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.