Petros-IosifidisMany inside and outside of Greece were shocked not long ago when the country’s public service broadcaster, ERT, was shut down suddenly in the name of austerity. In advance of the upcoming event on PSB in the era of austerity, City University’s Petros Iosifidis talks about what is at stake and why such shut downs are not the right decision.

On 11 June 2013 the Greek government decided to close down the public broadcaster ERT and make its 2,650 employees redundant as part of the latest public spending cuts imposed to meet the terms of the country’s bailout deal.  The rationale behind this unprecedented move was that ERT was overstaffed and inefficient. Simos Kedikoglou, spokesman and deputy-minister responsible for the media, characterised ERT as a “typical example of unique lack of transparency” and “haven of waste” and announced the setting up (at an unspecified time) of a new more efficient public service broadcaster. At 23:00h, all three national channels of ERT went black and seven national radio channels were turned off. On 17 June the Council of State suspended the decision to interrupt the transmission of radio and television signals and the operations of websites owned by ERT and ruled for the immediate enactment of all frequencies until a new PSB is established. However, this has been ignored by the government and it is likely that the new body will be established in autumn 2013, thereby leaving the country without a PSB service and its employees facing an uncertain future. The Democratic Left, a partner of the fragile governing coalition, resisted the move and has since left the government.

Was the government right in closing down ERT? The short answer is no. Undoubtedly, both traditional political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, have long given jobs at ERT as prizes to loyal supporters (but also other public sector posts, totalling 970,000 in 2009, when the civil service constituted nearly a third of Greece’s workforce). Meanwhile, some ERT journalists, top presenters, managers and ‘senior executives’ were being paid fat salaries and scandalous bonuses which did not up ERT’s ratings but contributed to its financial bloodshed. In addition, ERT has for many decades been a ‘state’ broadcaster, close to the government of the day, rather than a politically independent ‘public service’ broadcaster. But this changed in more recent years and the organisation has become more impartial, whereas its programming is leaning more toward information (than entertainment) and, in contrast to the main commercial broadcasters that feed Greeks the relentless diet of infotainment, soap operas and game shows, it offers a great deal of cultural and educational programming and it also supports two symphony orchestras.

ERT’s role as an impartial PSB is important especially today given the rise in social tension and the rise of the far right in Greece. It is not acceptable to close down a public broadcaster without consultation and sack its employees, just to justify the wishes of the ‘troika’ (IMF/EC/ECB) for redundancies in the public sector. The closure of ERT is an attack on free speech and public space by the Greek government. True, ERT requires restructuring and an array of reforms, including the reduction in the number of high-level directors, the removal of duplicate services, and more autonomy among different divisions, but this should be done under a strategic plan and certainly after consultation with interested parties. However it is a dangerous precedent to close down PSB entirely or even to link PSB reform to austerity. Greece is not the only country undergoing austerity measures and looking to cut public spending; and while probably some slimming of budgets is unavoidable, we need to consider carefully the position of PSB in these conditions and prevent such arbitrary axing becoming a trend.

This issue will be further discussed at the upcoming event organised by the Department of Sociology at City University London entitled: PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING IN THE ERA OF AUSTERITY on 11 July 2013. Registration is free.

The post gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.