Why should we care about ERT and Greece?

Posted by Richard Sambrook

Why should we care about ERT and Greece? Richard Sambrook

What should we make of the Greek government’s abrupt closure of the national public broadcaster ERT? The decision was taken apparently with very little warning citing the need to save money and public sector jobs to meet the economic bail-out conditions imposed on Greece.

First, it should be acknowledged there were clearly problems with ERT. Its financial management has been widely criticised, its news coverage has also been criticised for lack of independence in reporting the country’s financial crisis. And clearly, relations with the government were not good which suggests the arrangements for governance and accountability had failed to manage what is always a delicate relationship for a public broadcaster.

The AP reported the Greek coalition’s arguments:

“A Finance Ministry statement said ERT has been formally disbanded, and authorities would “secure” the corporation’s facilities. Riot police deployed outside ERT buildings in several parts of Greece, but no clashes were reported. Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou — a former state TV journalist — described ERT as a “haven of waste” and said its 2,500 employees will be compensated.

“ERT is a typical example of a unique lack of transparency and incredible waste. And that ends today,” Kedikoglou said. “It costs three to seven times as much as other TV stations and four to six times the personnel — for a very small viewership, about half that of an average private station.”

Of course efficient use of funds matters – but public broadcasting cannot be measured by size of audience alone.

So does it matter? The thousands of people (not all of them disgruntled employees) who have protested outside the broadcaster’s headquarters clearly believe so.

The government says it intends to relaunch ERT as a smaller, leaner organisation.  In Greece’s economic circumstances it may well need to be smaller, leaner and more efficient. But a precipitous closure of this kind is dangerous.

Firstly, it makes public broadcasting appear to be purely at the behest of the government of the day rather than established with deep roots within, and responsibilities to, society.

Secondly, at a time of crisis, which Greece is undoubtedly experiencing, the public need a trusted channel, high quality information and a public space in which to debate the issues of the moment. That has been taken away.

Of course there are commercial channels – but Berlusconi’s media operations in Italy or even the  cosy relationship News Corporation developed with successive governments in the UK means we cannot assume their independence (recognising that of course most commercial channels around the world operate entirely independently of government influence).

Finally, it marks a dangerous precedent.  If Greece can disband its public broadcaster with simply a few protests – why shouldn’t other governments who want to save money or curtail criticism?

As Variety reports:

ERT was long seen as a bastion of quality programming in a media landscape dominated by commercial stations. But it was also used by successive governments to provide safe jobs for political favorites, and, while nominally independent, devoted considerable time and effort to showcasing administration policies.

Public broadcasting is a fragile idea even 80 years after it was born via the BBC. In countries like Hungary, there are regular assaults on the independence of the public broadcaster, direct state funding has undermined the strength of significant broadcasters like Canada’s CBC. It is an idea worth fighting and arguing for. These arguments were set out in a letter to the Greek government by the European Broadcasting Union’s President and Director General.

The PBS principles of universal access, high quality programmes, diversity and inclusivity of viewpoints, and editorial independence matter as much as ever today. Greece needs them in particular at the moment. The peremptory closure of ERT attacks those principles not just for Greece but for all public broadcasters and their audiences.

7 thoughts on “Why should we care about ERT and Greece?

  • June 12, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    “The peremptory closure of ERT attacks those principles not just for Greece but for all public broadcasters and their audiences.”

    The closure of ERT demonstrates the risk of depending on the state disproportionately as a source of income Especially when the state is bankrupt, as it is in Greece. ERT was notorious for wasting resources. Public service broadcasters – and academics, Richard – should take heed.

  • June 12, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks Steve. ERT was funded out of a tax on electricity bills, as I understand it, rather than direct state funding – a bit like a licence fee. You’re right, of course, financial prudence and accountability are essential in all public institutions including broadcasters (and universities). But I suppose either you believe in the virtues of public broadcasting or you don’t. Obviously, I do!

  • June 12, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    I agree a universal tax (whatever we may call it) carries great responsibilities.

    Surely a PSB is defined by as much by its statutory obligations, and other helpful regulations, than its funding mechanism? For example, a requirement that broadcasters commission or produce content at home avoids a race to the bottom, and fulfilling their PSB obligations by rebroadcasting cheap imports. My point is that a plurality of funding sources reduces a PSB’s risk and exposure, and increases its incentives on engaging the viewer, rather than pleasing a politician or a bureaucrat.

    • June 12, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      ERT had clearly been politicised by successive governments appointing senior editorial figures sympathetic to them. So one crucial issue is independence of governance. I think the financial model depends on the local market. We already have Channel 4 as a commercially funded public service channel of course.
      The BBC could still be a very successful broadcaster if it took advertising – but it would have a detrimental impact on other UK commercial broadcasters and the internal incentives for programme makers might move even further towards audience reach even within a framework of PS obligations. So it would end up being a very different kind of broadcaster.
      On the other hand there are plenty of good quality and successful PSBs in Europe with mixed public/commercial funding because the local market and political framework suits that – France being an obvious example, although they are now phasing out commercial funding, and ZDF in Germany.

  • June 12, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks for the reply Richard. I don’t think anyone wants to see the BBC carry advertising (even much of the advertising industry doesn’t, as it would drive down rates). But given the excellent output that has emerged from subscription TV channels (AMC, HBO), European PSBs should explore this as part of their funding mix. Especially since the UK license fee is a compulsory subscription scheme and increasingly hard to justify.

    I understand that the BBC Trust has said it wants to see stronger exports from WorldWide to offset its reliance on the license fee, but the BBC as a whole doesn’t try too hard: the incentives are aligned to maximising the compulsory revenue stream.

  • June 12, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Well an international subscription iPlayer or even a UK premium tier could go a long way. Meanwhile, even I am watching Netflix….!

    • June 13, 2013 at 10:32 am

      I know many people around the world who would LOVE to be able to subscribe to BBC iPlayer!

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