Greek government chooses wrong target in closing down state broadcaster ERT

Melina Mercouri holding court in Never on a Sunday
Melina Mercouri holding court in Never on a Sunday

Greeks like to talk. So much so that it is possible to have ten or 15 Greeks sitting around a table in a kafeneion all talking, no one listening. The volume levels rise along with the temperature as the desire to get a point across is met with the frustration of realising that no one is taking a blind bit of notice.

Finally, one of the group puffs out his chest, slams his fist down on the table and shouts his views to a silenced audience. Or she does, if you happen to be Melina Mercouri.

Such is the nature of politics in Greece. Plenty of talk, no real discussion, a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. And such is the nature of business.

On Tuesday the New Democracy (conservative) Greek government played an extreme and sinister version of the bellicose bully in the kafeneion by suspending the state broadcaster ERT.

Yes, the much-derided troika (which last week admitted that it may have made a mistake on pushing Greece into the severe austerity measures which have crippled its infrastructure) has been demanding another 2,000 civil servants to be cut from the payroll and yes there is certainly waste at ERT.

But closing ERT down – that is three television stations and 19 regional radio stations – and throwing another 2,500 people on to the unemployment register is not necessarily the way forward. it smacks less of economic hard-headedness as political muddle-headedness. It also throws up ugly visions of tanks rolling up the streets of Athens – the US-backed military coup of 1967 suddenly doesn’t seem so long ago. Taking over the media is a key early step in any revolution.

In social network talk this morning, it has been pointed out to me with some justification that as I left Greece in 2009, I am not fully conversant with the build-up to such a decision. However, having worked on the inside of the Greek state-run media for five years prior to that, perhaps I can still claim a small corner at the kafeneion table.

The Greek government has called ERT a “haven of waste” – a criticism that might equally be applied to the government itself. It is true that the ERT payroll has been bloated by political favours from both New Democracy and PASOK (socialist) parties over the years, individuals given a job title and salary simply because they are either related to a minister or because they have offered support in the past.

Technopolis in Athens – home of 984 and Athens International Radio

I saw this up close when I was working at Athens International Radio, the foreign-language sister of Athina 984, a public broadcaster funded by the municipality of Athens.

The president of 984 was appointed not because he had any experience of radio, nor even the media but because he was on close terms with the then Mayor of Athens Dora Bakoyiannis. His background was actually in hospital management.

A vacancy came up on my own production team. Interviews were done and I recommended a diligent, top quality journalist with fluent English. This was overruled and I was handed a young woman who had no great aptitude for the job, no great desire to bust a sweat and who couldn’t speak English, the language that we worked in. But she was related to the mayor and that was good enough.

She did very little for a few months but, as my more experienced and hard-working colleagues sweated away on a series of short-term contracts with zero benefits, she was then handed the big prize of a permanent contract with 984. Did she roll up her sleeves there? I don’t know but at least she spoke the right language.

At various stages other colleagues also secured permanent positions by using their connections.

It stank as a system but these were not the main problem. At least not the ones who responded by actually working.

The real drain on AIR’s resources, and I suspect this is the same at ERT, was the vast army of “employees” who never actually turned up to the station and never did any work. None at all. Never even came to the station.

Most of these leaches, some of whom were ministry employees drawing a second cheque, were better paid than the journalists and production staff, some of who were battling by on 300 euros a month.

It is this canker that the government needs to carve out of public life in Greece, not the large body of workers who do an honest day’s work.

At ERT, the high-earners, the upper management will be fine. Shed no tears for them.

Many, if not all of them, will have at least two salaries on the go. I recall our station manager at AIR was a guy called Ioannis Politis. He earned about 5k a month for his work at the radio – and another 8k a month for hosting a programme on, erm, ERT. People like him will be fine. They have connections and when one door closes another one opens elsewhere.

It is those who rely on their jobs for any income that are going to face the real problems. Many have already had a 25 percent paycut, others haven’t been paid since November. It is they that will suffer.

Of course, as the analyst Nick Malkoutzis points out there was plenty wrong with ERT.

Striking unemployed workers demonstrate outside the ERT studios in Athens

The journalists certainly haven’t helped themselves in this argument. It appears that when the government tried to negotiate over cutbacks over the last two years, they were rebuffed by a journalists union which could not see the broader picture.

Unfortunately, the unions in Greece have the collected brains trust of an amoeba. The decision to hold a strike as a protest against the closure at ERT should suit the government very nicely. How to bury bad news? Get the journalists to go on strike.

The proper response would surely be to tell the story and keep telling the story and dig your teeth into the government’s trouser leg.

The bean-counters from Brussels may well be patting Mr Samaras, the prime minister, on the back now, ticking off the boxes in the Things to Cut/Sell column. The annual budget for a new state broadcaster is expected to be around 100 million euros instead of the current figure of 300 million but the cost of closing down the state broadcaster is massive.

Not just in terms of the employees who will now be unemployed but on the Greek people.

As with the other BBC and other public broadcasters, people love to sledge ERT. And yet, as private business interests are served by the private stations, each with their political agenda, it is unfailingly to ERT that people turn in times of crisis for the news. It is a reassuring voice of community

It also produces programming – so creating a second layer of supplier employment – that is not touched by the private stations who buy in most of their programming or rely on cheap “sofa” entertainment or reality shows.

How will the people and ERT itself respond to Samaras and his ND cohorts if and when it ever comes back on air? Nobody likes losing their voice, especially the Greeks. From that aspect it is politically extremely delicate and could well cost him at the ballot box.

Yes, there are plenty of people who live in Greece who will applaud the shutdown as a rational answer to the need to fulfill certain criteria laid down by foreign powers but I doubt that there are too many Greeks among that number. No matter how loud they shout.

Barney Spender 2013

Note: From 2004 to 2009, Barney presented a daily evening news programme for Athens International Radio.