We are all Greeks

published in TEXTE  ‘We are all Greeks‘:
Texte 9, ORF Public Value, 4-6.

‘We are all Greeks’
a European state of emergency for public service media

Katharine Sarikakis, University of Vienna

June 11, 2013 will be documented as a historical day for many jurisdictions in Europe. Indeed, a day like this demonstrates how connected and interwoven our histories, lives and ultimately institutions are. For Greece’s modern post-dictatorial era, the act of closure of ERT was, to many, an act of aggression against the people and against a history committed to struggles for Democracy. It brought back memories of darker times. Citizens of all walks of life, intellectuals, educationalists and artists, some politicians and organised civil society helped keep ERT Occupied by its own employees and provided the moral and physical support to keep continuous, round the clock  broadcasting alive for over five weeks, as of the time of writing. The EBU is transmitting ERT and, via internet facilities from a variety of organisations, ERT is reaching within and outside the country even those who did not belong to its audience: an unintended, consequence of its official closure.

The day also signaled to the European family of PSBs that brute force against a European institution, what the public service broadcasters are, according to the PSB Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam, as inconceivable as it may have sounded, was ultimately silently supported and tolerated by core European circles. A political decision, which would otherwise seem a political suicide and which have brought widespread international condemnation, beyond the borders of Europe, it also enjoyed the supporting phone-call of the German Chancellor, arguably the de facto head of European Union in this era, and a ‘Pontius Pilatus’ approach of the European Commission.  The abrupt closure of ERT was a blow to democracy primarily. For the history of European integration, this day was also historical: its 24 hours encompassed as in tour de force the reactions, representations and conflicts that ridden European integration especially in the past three decades. These are the conflicting visions of what Europe should be, a transnational market or a political and social union of nations; the tensions of who governs Europe and where is national sovereignty and solidarity in these times of crisis; the question of democratic deficit and the place of citizenship in Europe. It also raised to the surface in one swift axe a brewing conflict of interests and hostility against public institutions and public assets, in particular the role of public media in European societies.  All these issues, the politics of integration, media privatisation and globalisation intersected on the unlikely symbol of Europe, ERT.

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The chronicles of ERT are ridden with irony: a public service corporation became effectively a pirate, self-governed organisation and attracted back to politics those who became too fatigued and disconnected. As per the original governmental announcement, ERT had to be shut down because it was too sick to heal. A week after its closure, the announcement for the competition of distributing digital broadcasting signal to the country’s households was made. By June 30, 2013, the competition was completed. DIGEA, a consortium company of the six largest media companies in the country holds the monopoly of controlling –ultimately- digital broadcasting. It is currently transmitting the first broadcasts of the new public broadcaster. During the last month, it interrupted the retransmission of ERT through the communist party’s television frequency. The irony is that not much is known about the process through which Digea was established and about the conditions of its future operation. Not much is known about the future of the new public broadcaster or how transparency and independence will prevail. Finally, the economic argument for the ERT closure fades vis a vis the corporation’s healthy self-sustaining financial standing and the added cost of an estimated 300 millions Euro for redundancy reimbursement.

These are some pieces of the puzzle of ERT. The context is complex and of European, indeed international, dimensions, as much as it is national. This is an exemplary case about the politics of a ‘state of emergency’ beyond any numbers (financial, audience, un/employment) and, regrettably, beyond the rule of law, legitimacy and moral compass. The legal, procedural dimensions of this case are also complex: The Council of State ordered the government to keep ERT broadcasting until the new broadcaster takes over. The government failed to comply. The European Parliament stated that this act was against the European treaties and the spirit of European Law and international conventions. On the other hand, the European Commission has stated that it is not within its competencies to react to this development, as it is a matter of national sovereignty.  However, this silent tolerance signals not only that there is lack of consensus in European political elites, but also that a specific part of political elites, both domestic and other European ones, are ready to accept this form of ‘experiment’. In this sense, it is important to note that despite international condemnation, the Greek government not only did not restore public broadcasting, but it proceeded with implementing digital media policy based on the full distribution of public wealth and property to private ownership. ERT’s digital archives for example are to be used to fill the hours of broadcasting of the new channel.

Greece may not be financially or even politically a significant player in European and international politics. It is however a focal point for the application of measures designed and promoted through a form of international coalition of actors, the so-called ‘troika’ and further shaped and applied, according to a ‘bilateral’ agreement, by the national political elite. Neither the latter can be reduced to a mere mouthpiece of the troika nor the former should be elevated to absolute power. The European Commission argues that it neither dictates nor condemns the Greek government’s decision to close down the public broadcaster: it is a decision expressing Greek and European politics at the times of crisis. It is the politics of  ‘emergency’ that is characterised by a series of policies, which aim to manage and contain public dissent, so that unpopular and to many, questionable measures can pass. These are the increased use of decrees as policy-making process, the subsequent by-passing of Parliament in crucial matters, the weakening of social rights as is the case of characterising illegal all forms of industrial action, the reform and restructuring of public institutions, and finally, the increased use of physical force. It was riot police that switched off the transmitters of ERT.

Overall, the costs of Public Service Broadcasters to taxpayers pockets prevail as a dominant line of argumentation, which is perfectly legitimate, if one considers the silver lining in Europe’s economic disparities. Yet, how to ‘contain’ the PSBs is rather the underlying approach around Europe and it has taken several forms. The ORF has been under pressure to ‘restructure’ and lay off hundreds of employees, including to abandon some of its functions and cultural institutions, from its orchestra to closing down its channel ORF1. In Austria, the debate is framed around a combination of preventing a crisis, economising a blown up public sector and consumer sovereignty. In Greece, it was presented as a matter of clearing out a ‘wasteland’ of bias and excess. In the acute crisis zones of Portugal and Spain, the privatisation of PSBs entered the public debate- although it was retracted, alone the suggestion that the final ‘bastion’ of public wealth and public good would be privatised signals a turning point in the debate of the future of PSBs in Europe. In the UK, various proposals in the recent past about the privatisation of functions of the BBC, including slicing a percentage of its income to channel into private broadcasters for the production of public service content, the exhaustive control of technologically based programming offer and innovation, belong firmly to a tide of renewed assaults to PSBs. Although not all of them are the same, not all of them fulfill their functions to the same degree of quality and breadth, and although not all of them require the same level of public funding, PSBs, are European institutions, in that they, in their sum, contribute to the construction of public spheres of European content.

Importantly, they are also national institutions supported for decades by tax payers and other public resources, unpaid and paid labour, generous and smaller donations of important audiovisual content. They function as the historical record-keepers of European societies, as points of connection among nations, and as powerhouses of intellectual capital, precisely because of their historical, contextual and polymorphic contribution to public life: orchestras, archives, production units, technology, infrastructure, know-how, direct support for independent productions are some of the core functions part of the daily routine of these institutions. Whether ERT could perform even more profitably, since it was already a healthy institution, whether it could be more transparent, given the constant interventions by governments and nepotism of political life, whether it could be more equitable, given the privileges of selected  ‘classes’ of employees are questions in a debate that have not been had, at least not in public and not with the affected stakeholders: journalists and media workers, citizens organisations, educationalists, the Parliament, the ERT, and the Arts.

There is a new Greek public service broadcaster, the Elliniki Dimosia Tileorasi or Hellenic Public Television. It broadcasts content from existing archive material of ERT, at the frequency of NET (the News channel of ERT) and from the old studios of the private broadcaster MEGA. It lives a borrowed life.  At the time of writing, EDT ‘ programme– or, as it later on the same day of its inaugural broadcast became DT, consists of old films, documentaries and children’s programming, none of which its own production. It is unclear what its future will be. In the meantime, ERT has opened up its spaces to diffused interests in society and facilitates genuine debates. It has created genuine public spheres. The new public broadcaster corresponds to the worst fears and stereotypes, a self-fulfilled prophecy, of obsolete, slow, and redundant medium. It is a negligible irrelevant organisation at the margins of a fully privatised media landscape. Even if technically received in remote areas, this kind of irrelevant universality will render it ultimately illegitimate in the eyes of society.

Is this the future of public service broadcasters in Europe?

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