By Ilektra Tsakalidou
Athens, 1984. In an interview, Manos Hatzidakis, famous music composer, leading figure of the anti-junta movement and Director of the Public Radio remarked “I would advocate for that (closing down ERT, the Greek public broadcasting service), however, the people cannot live without ERT. They will die if you do not give them something to protest against. ERT is precious, because it gives the opportunity to the Greek people to protest and say “ERT is such a disgrace”.” For years, this was the opinion held by the majority of Greeks about the public channel (with the exception of the radio stations that emitted classical music and poetry or literature readings). They were appalled by the quality of the programs and when payrolls became public, they were shocked to see how much the presenters and the management were getting paid. On the fight between quantity and quality, the former would triumph over the latter.
Athens, 11 June 2013. Simos Kedikoglou, spokesman for the government and former ERT journalist, announced that ERT would stop broadcasting at midnight and all employees would be fired. A wave of indignation swept across half of the population, while a simultaneous wave of support swept across the other half. As usual in Greece, people had very strong feelings and found themselves separated into two camps (as they tend to do for sports, politics, or even pronunciation issues); the pro-ERT and anti-ERT.
Imagine David Cameron’s spokesperson making the same announcement for the BBC, or Francois Hollande for France Television. Despite being a financial disaster, having an over-inflated roster, and being designated as the medium for government propaganda, ERT was a way for the Greek diaspora to stay connected to the ‘metropolis’ and for people to escape from the Turkish soap operas that private channels are transmitting for the most part of the day. Pulling the plug is indeed jeopardizing the liberty of the Press, in a country where the memories of he military junta from 1967 to 1974 are still very much present in the collective consciouness
If ERT was so problematic then why are people protesting? The way ERT operated and the way it got shut down are indicative of Greece’s structural problems. The 2 satellite channels, 3 television ones, and 5 radio stations were employing over 2907 employees with permanent status, in their majority overpaid. A restructuration plan was expected, but no plan had been presented to the Director or the National Parliament.
The evening the government announced the closure of ERT, no statement was made about the future of public broadcasting and no economically viable alternative was presented before the Greeks. People are not oblivious of the problems, nor do they fundamentally object to the reforms; however, they feel a lack of accountability and incompetency from their decision makers. No one would ever object to firing employees that committed fraud, overvalued their programs, or claimed benefits they did not deserve.
However, through Kedikoglou’s very poorly written and articulated speech, the catharsis never came. Instead of making the announcement months before and preparing the population in advance while presenting the employees with an exit strategy, he declared that by midnight the stations would stop transmitting. That was it. For an ex-media person, his strategic communication strategy turned out to be as unprepared as his speech.
Kedikoglou’s speech reflects some of the fundamental problems in Greek politics. Real politik dictates that performance evaluation is risky, as it might harm some of the privileged members of the ruling party’s electoral base. The ‘all or nothing strategy’ is convenient because it legitimizes firing your own political supporters. It also enables the government to mitigate the political costs and blame the ‘troika’ for all reforms; however, in the ERT case Commissioner Oli Rhen claimed that the European Commission never required that the powerful media outlet shuts down, but that an assessment be made and that 1000 poorly-performing employees be dismissed. Unfortunately, that seems an impossible move for the government as clientelist practices are endemic in public sector recruitment.
The events that followed the announcement also highlighted the weak balance within the tri-partite government. While Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, advocates that elections would once more destabilize the country and backs his decision to close down ERT, the two other leaders of the coalition, Evangelos Venizelos (PASOK) and Fotis Kouvelis (DIMAR), openly contest the decision in hope to strengthen their electoral base. The clash only benefits SYRIZA, which without coming forward with re-launch plan that would put an end to nepotism and would ensure that quality of information would trump over quantity, continues to claim that closing ERT was an act of authoritarianism. Needless to mention, that all the debate over potential elections initiated while the journalist union was on strike at the end of last week.
If only ERT journalists had always been as combative as they were in the last hours of the service and made their self-assessment, as every company does, then maybe things would be different today and public opinion would not, once again, end up more polarized. However, Greece is not seeing the end of the tunnel; its structural problems keep resurfacing and they look very much like the ones the Greek society in the 1980s was facing. Unfortunately, as Manos Hatzidakis and Nikos Gatsos very eloquently wrote in 1993, “Goodnight Kemal, this world will never change”…
Ilektra Tsakalidou is a 2nd year MA Candidate in International Relations and International Economics at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) in the United States. She has also worked for the Permanent Mission of Greece to the European Union in Brussels and served as a diplomatic advisor for the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations in New York City.Blogactiv Team