Thoughts on public service media and democracy


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.


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?


Published by GREEKLISH.INFO 


  • Launch of television studios of the Commission by Gaston Thorn
Launch of television studios of the Commission by Gaston ThornCredit © European Union, 2013

ERT’s closure is an innovation of Greek origin in Europe drawing two front lines: probably a legal precedent in Greece and a political precedent in Europe. In no other European state, a government has ever taken such an important and repressive step. In no other European country, no political speech dismissive by its own citizens and employees has ever been heard. Moreover, such an insultingly illiberal and humiliating political behaviour towards citizens and voters has ever been noticed before.

Even in the dark pages of modern history of the European Union –see Hungary and Italy- nothing similar to this has ever happened. Hungary provoked the reaction of Amnesty International and the reluctant action of the European Commission with the recent law of Media, which brings the public broadcasting and the function of the broadcasting council under the control of the governing party. According to this law, there are strict measures and reporters as well as newspapers shall be persecuted for any reason. The ex-East Europe lies in the agenda of crucial communication hot spots of international organisations of human rights and freedom of expression. In Italy, the long-term malfunction of the public broadcasting, because of political interventions and the high centralisation of media under Berlusconi’s hegemony, turned out to become a great issue in the European Parliament.

Now, it is time for Greece to concern in this way the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the EBU, the Australian, Slovenian, European –even Turkish- Union of Reporters, international scientific organisations, such as IAMCR, and decades of labour organisations. However, as summer is close and the public gets tired, the importance of ERT’s closure has to be analysed from the point of view of the broadest consequences of Media in Europe.

Surely, the fact that Greece, as a member state of the European Union and OSCE, has no public broadcasting, creates abnormality in the family of democracies

The Public Broadcasting and, now, the Public Media, are dominant in the constitutional Charter of the European Union, and specifically in the Protocol of Public Broadcasting to the Treaty of Amsterdam. This treaty especially refers to the position of Public Media in European societies and its role in information and civilisation as well as the obligation by the member states to their condition and development. The proper function of Public Media is closely linked to the Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

The Council of Europe has special resolutions and the worldwide signed Contention on Cultural Diversity by UNESCO, also signed by Greece, has a particular reference in Public Media. The list of worldwide organs and Conventions about the importance of Public Media, from Europe to Africa, Canada, Asia and regions under different economic conditions and political adversity, clarifies a universal agreement between states, societies and citizens, expressed in variable legal ways: Public Media are so important as water, air and the right to life for human decency.

The question whether the ERT’s closure is legal or not is definitely important. At this point, opinion are divided, the judicial authorities are unable to make a specific decision, as if they have to do with a case without morality. The fact that the Constitution places the broadcasting in a category separate than the other media, concerning the freedom of expression, does not mean that it allows its suppression. Surely, the fact that Greece, as a member state of the European Union and OSCE, has no public broadcasting, creates abnormality in the family of democracies. It also indicates a hostile response of a constitution and material wealth, which belongs to the Greek public, i.e every Greek citizen worldwide.

Public broadcasting against the law of competition

Many public broadcastings experiment with difficult content, named “horizon stretching” of spiritual and mental horizons of the public, taking risks

The ERT’s violent shutdown is an extreme reaction in the annoying presence of public broadcasting in Europe. Since the creation of a common market of Media, from which private companies benefited initially, the EU is under constant pressure to limit the action and the extension of development of public media. The Treaty of Amsterdam is the only international legislation, which imposes the support of the public broadcasting and its role in social cohesion, cultural diversity and democracy of nations and Europe. It is the result of an unprecedented mobilisation of the European Parliament –ignored to be voted- as an answer to the tight pressure of private sector aiming to police the public broadcasting.

Pressure continues constantly until today and it will not stop. Based on the law of competition and the arguments that the public broadcasting is supported unfairly by the state, whereas private stations depend on their own power, the action of Public Media should be examined more carefully now. Public broadcastings are under control: quality control of their content, whether their new functions have public value (named “ex ante” in European legal language) and of course whether their actions are non-competitive. Many of them have also councils of citizens and experts, obliged to produce Greek and European content, support independent productions and experiment with difficult content, named “horizon stretching” of spiritual and mental horizons of the public, taking risks. Moreover, they keep files, philharmonics, multiple stations and they monitor global coverage as well as “tastes”, ignored or scared by the market.

Even if private televisions are not obliged to do anything of the above mentioned, however they are generally economically supported by the state, for example via tax incentives. Public television tests, with its innovative contents, unofficially and free of charge, in the name of private television, which programs are preferred by the public. Besides, private stations are economically supported by each citizen through subscription, even by watching advertisements, to which viewers pay attention for free, producing in this way unwillingly the benefits and profits of theses private companies. In Greece, they are allowed to function without licence.

There is an unbridgeable gap between public and private stations in Greece. Whereas the former are aware of the technical “know-how”, have an experience of 75 years, the innovative presence in digital transmission and specialised staff, the latter, being charged, have nothing more that could make them competitive. So, probably this contrast and the unbridgeable gap, coloured with some syndromes –worth of psychoanalysis- of the hegemony were just too much.

The drama in the ERT case is that the many domestic and international voices against its forced closure are met with the total absence of dialogue by the Greek government, the silence of the mainstream media in the country and the silent tolerance of certain Euro-elites. But this is not a local, Greek drama. It is a case that concerns the future of the rule of law in Greece and in Europe, social cohesion and public interest, and the quality of life for future generations.

The ERT forced closure has given rise to massive mobilisations of protests, strikes and solidarity projects in Greece, condemning reactions by international organisations in Europe, hundreds of thousands of mentions in the European press and mass media and the reaction of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the EBU, to name some. The Greek government remained unmoved in its decision to shut down ERT, not only because it seeks to follow a Thatcherite and Blairite stance towards public opinion, which it has seen steadily moving away from the governing parties, but also because it simply had nowhere to ‘go’. The political architecture of Greece and the role of the EU are not simply questioned by European citizens. There is a clear message of distrust in, and a disconnect from both the political claims of elites and policies and political and economic institutions. While the press in Europe has been repeating a story of the crisis that revolves around politicians and individual agencies, and while the infamously named PIIGS countries served to localise the ‘disease’, citizens were addressed about political trivia and with artificial ‘news’ by major media. Within this six-year period of constant shock, investigative, inquiring, critical journalism re-emerged in cooperative schemata, citizen journalism initiatives but also within ERT. I have listed elsewhere the reasons why the praxis of its closure does not correspond to the arguments offered by the government. What is rather the focus here is how does this matter and for whom?

The defiance of the illegal closure by a core group of ERT employees has seen the reinstatement of transmitters, broadcasting programmes and news almost immediately after the violent shut down and until now under By the end of this year, more than six months into the new model of self-governed public service journalism have demonstrated a unique experiment in the history of public service media in Europe. This is the first time in modern European history where a totally liberated medium from both market and state, a truly public broadcasting corporation emerges that opens up to the representation of diffused, and not concentrated and private, interests. Briefly, ERT has continued some of its previous good work and expanded it even more in supporting independent productions and practicing self-governed ways of content production and has given voice to collectivities.

For its international audiences, and not ‘just’ the Greek diaspora, the official ‘voice of Greece’ has been silenced. On the other hand, a globally accessible ERTOpen has emerged. The operation to silence this voice involved the shutting down of radio stations, television channels, archives and online services and the dismantling of orchestras and choirs, the technical disconnection of transmitters and physical evictions performed by the riot police and culminated in the infamous image of handcuffs used to lock the gates at the Athens headquarters.

handcuffed ERT

The symbolic annihilation of the public voice was epitomised in this image through the act of physically arresting, restricting, abusing and silencing the bodies and the means and channels of communication with the public. In ‘straight talk’ what this means is the seizure of assets that are of public ownership, without the agreement of the public, and their sell-out, and through physical violence. The future of the Greek public broadcaster is bleak. At the time of writing there is no concrete commitment to bring NERIT to the level of ERT. The radio stations serving regional parts of Greece are to be passed on to prefectures and local government. This is a typical tactic in the area of cultural and educational policy, to which public media also belong, for the government to rid of responsibility for the decline of public radio with the drying up of funds. This is inevitable not only because local authorities are cash stripped, but also because they are not in a position to make financial decisions themselves, after the Kallikratis Programme came into force. According to this 2010 law, and driven by Memorandum Agreements, the aims of the reorganisation of local authorities and reduction of public service personnel produce by-products of centralisation of decision-making, hence public spending is effectively reduced drastically and managed exclusively by central government. The logical outcome therefore would be the privatisation of public radio stations or their closure.

In Greece, ERT has become a symbol of defiance, resistance and change. It is also symbolic for what is going on in the country: the decision for its closure was taken outside the normal, legal, parliamentary procedures and with the tactic of ‘shock’. It was proclaimed illegal, yet the government refused to obey the country’s Council of the State. This has become largely a new normality of making decisions that lack legitimacy in the eyes of citizens and which lie outside the constitutional legal spectrum. The public humiliation of ERT employees by the government symbolises in one brief speech the public humiliation of the Greek society in the eyes of the international community: through stereotypes, trivialisation and overgeneralising populisms, much like mainstream media in Europe and in the country have talked about ‘Greeks’ and Greece, so has the government and the country’s dominant political elite treated citizens, accusing them for corruption, laziness, incompetence.This terrifying parallelism points to a ‘set to fail’ strategy towards not only ERT but the totality of the country’s public assets and property. Indeed, the forced closure of ERT turned it into the public face for public services, such as health and education; public utilities, such as water, telephony and electricity; public assets, such as gold, oil, diamond and gas reserves, and public land. What is now experienced in Greece as a profound undermining of anything public, from education to raw resources, is found around Europe: the privatisation of education across Europe, with the recent strikes in the UK, also Hungary, the dismantling of the health system as in Spain and the UK, gold-mining and raw material exploitation to the detriment of local populations and the environment in Rosia Montagna, Romania and Skouries, Greece, and the dismantling of- or attempts to- public media in Greece, Spain, Serbia, Hungary, Cyprus, Netherlands, Lithuania. Hence, looking from within the European context towards Greece, ERT’s shut-down has meant both the attempt for symbolic annihilation of public voices, but also the dynamism of the public to defend its ground. It is around this ERT that citizens in the country and internationally ‘congregate’.

What the Diaspora lost is not simply a ‘window’ to the ‘homeland’ and a point of connection to the living culture and language. It is almost impossible to measure the loss, because we have no previous experience, no existing measuring standards to cope with the enormity of what was snapped away from citizens arbitrarily. The only ways in which anything similar can be measured is through the statistics on poverty, unemployment, alienation and social marginalisation that are the immediate effects of the broader and all-encompassing context of crisis. We gained a free ERT though the Internet and this lesson in civic education will stay with younger generations –hopefully. The Diaspora, forced, by choice, recent and new or already historical, can carry this civic lesson in solidarity and perseverance and ‘give back’ by supporting this cause. It can resist symbolic annihilation.

published at New Diaspora


Published for the Association of European Journalists

20 November 2013

The Hellenic Public Service Broadcasting Corporation ERT (Elliniki Radiofonia Tileorasi) was shut down abruptly on June 11, 2013. The Greek government laid off over 2900 employees. It claimed that ERT was a wasteful and corrupt institution that had to be ended for economic and quality reasons. The government acted on the demands set by Greece’s creditors to radically restructure the public sector.

In response to an appeal by the Pan-Hellenic Federation of Radio and Television Employee Associations the Council of the State, the supreme administrative Court of the country, objected to the sudden shutdown of ERT and ordered the continued functioning of all television channels, radio stations and websites of public service until such time when a new organization would be able to serve the public interest. The government’s response was the opening of two new TV channels and a website. The closure of ERT should have been validated by Parliamentary vote within 90 days of the issued decision, but this never took place.

At the time it was forcibly closed down, ERT was a profit making organization that had successfully addressed its deficit within the period of crisis. It was not dependent on State budgets and operated from the most modern HQ and with the most modern equipment and human know how in all areas of its activity. ERT had run uninterrupted for 75 years and broadcasted major historical moments of Greece and European and international history, supported and promoted domestic and European cultural production. ERT was not a single channel but a corporation that looked after an enormous, invaluable archive with footage since the beginnings of the 19th century; three major television channels; five central, two Macedonian and 19 regional radio stations across Greece, including  the most remote areas, three orchestras and an international service. ERT was a founding member of the EBU.

For over five months since the closing down of the Broadcaster, former ERT employees in Athens headquarters and ERT3 Thessaloniki continued to work without pay  to keep  the information flow alive, especially to remote areas where they even managed to reinstate receivers after the riot police had switched them off. During this time, those ex-ERT workers  maintained  the ERT buildings and assets, including the archives. In a self-governing system, they maintained job descriptions to the extent these could cover for information needs and to fulfill journalism codes and standards for the productions of a range of news programmes. Public support has been very important in this process, as opinion polls showed that Greek people did not want ERT closed. On a daily base ERT’s premises were open to the public and hosted cultural events that were well attended by the public. Throughout  this period and until now, ERT has operated through and has been retransmitted through numerous citizen and webmedia around the country and internationally.

Shortly after an EBU meeting in Athens, on November 7, 2013, the government sent the riot police to evict ERT workers from the headquarters building in Athens.. Although the evacuation took place without resistance, the riot police used tear gas  and force against citizens and employees gathered around ERT to protest against the police action and physically hurt two Members of the Parliament. The image of handcuffs used to lock the ERT gate was published by media around the world. Currently ERT3 in Thessaloniki continues to broadcast, as 95% of its former employees continue to work in shifts and managed to deter a riot police operation. The stations of Patras and Crete and most regional radio stations have also remained on air.

The Athens ERT HQ are now under the control of the government. The interim broadcaster Dimosia Tileorasi (DT) which was hastily set up by the government is operating without the expected infrastructure of a public broadcaster or archival material and consists only of one channel. It is directly financed by the State and must therefore be deemed to be under its direct control. The future plans are for all regional broadcasters to be assigned to prefectures. The outcome would be that due to the parlous state of the government’s budget,  frequencies and infrastructure will be privatized and the public service media will be weakened significantly.

There are genuine concerns about the risk of vandalism and looting with regard the ERT HQ assets, as CCTV was shut down while riot police were in the building. During the 40th commemoration of the student uprising (15-17.11.2013) ERT broadcast from within the National Technological University of Athens (NTUA). This was a powerful symbolic move, which was accompanied, according to journalist reports, by government threats to send riot police to NTUA premises. Regional stations and the website are fully operational at the time of writing, and ERT employees have managed to maintain public assets. Proposals by the ERT Union to provide support for the establishment of the new broadcaster NERIT were not accepted by the government. On Monday 18 November, the first in a series of court cases of ERT workers against the Greek public Authority was due to be heard in Heraklion, Crete. It concerns the claim by ERT employees that their dismissal was unconstitutional. The case has been postponed for two weeks.


Evaluation of the situation

Overall, the ERT closure presents the legal and political system of Greece as well as of Europe with serious challenges in terms of

  1. fulfilling obligations to national and international instruments,
  2. causing economic loss through the loss of accumulated capital
  3. destruction of  intellectual capital of highly skilled human resources that had been developed in the course of 75 years of continuous operation and investment of ERT
  4. depriving Greek and other European citizens from a cost-effective, highly productive and quality based source of information and culture.

The areas most strongly affected are those of

a. freedom of expression;
b. cultural diversity and collaboration;
c. media pluralism;
d. promotion of European identity;
e. promotion of the European audiovisual industry

Further, the image of the country within the international community resembles that suffered by countries with undemocratic regimes and bad historical record of limitations to freedom of expression and violations of human rights.

The events surrounding the ERT closure give rise to the following observations:

  1. The full disruption of services provided by ERT is in conflict with the spirit of the Greek Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, the freedom to access and impart information.
  2. It undermines Greece’s obligations under Article 10 of the Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (2010) to offer services to the whole of the country, through internet as well as radio and television.
  3. The closure of ERT comes in direct conflict with the country’s obligation to the protection of Public Service Broadcasting system, as provided by the Protocol on Public Service Broadcasting to the Treaty of the European Community (Treaty of Amsterdam) in 1997.
  4. The closure and firing of the entire staff en masse constitutes a serious blow to the country’s media landscape, by severely affecting pluralism in media sources and content. Currently, Greece is the only EU country without a robust public service broadcasting system.
  5. The ERT closure seriously undermines the obligations of the country to promote cultural diversity in line with UNESCO 2005 Convention on Cultural Diversity, to which Greece is a signatory.
  6. The closure has unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic consequences for the sustained preservation of the corporations’ historical archives of major national and international  events and their digitalization, their subsequent distribution through open platforms to the public and further usage by next generations of cultural actors in Greece and abroad.
  7. In that way, ERT and the Greek State stand accused of breaching agreements with the European Union and other parties in its commitment to make the archives available to public access and use.
  8. The disruption of ERT’s operations has brought about three kinds of avoidable financial burdens with unaccounted for direct and indirect costs in the short- and long term:
    a. significant costs through redundancy payments
    b. deprivation of secured income through disruption of approved grants and rental agreements for European collaborations, digitalization, and general copyright licenses and
    c. additional financial burden to establish a new broadcaster.

Over 400 articles were written about ERT in the mainstream press of Europe and The New York Times and Washington Post. Over 40 European and international organisations have stated their dismay over the closure of the broadcaster, including Amnesty International, Article19, International Federation of Journalists, European Federation of Journalists, International Association for Mass Communication Research (IAMCR), Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship, and several national and European associations. Over 500,000 mentions to the ERT closure and violent eviction of its employees are found in social media, Greek and English language press.

In the meantime, the government has appointed employees for the interim broadcaster with questionable transparency procedures. The interim broadcaster already depends on State’s stretched budgets, while the processes of redundancy pay to former ERT employees adds to the costs. It is impossible to accurately estimate the degree of avoidable financial costs without a proper auditing, which has only been carried out by ERT former employees and which is estimated at around 500 million Euro.

The European crisis has put under pressure, not only the economies and welfare in nation states, but also the systems of public services and their governance, in other countries as well as in Greece.

Within this period of financial downturn and political unrest, the need for objective, diverse and pluralistic information is paramount for societies, so that they can lead public debates with the best possible information and proceed to public policy with the best service to the common good. The role of the public service broadcasting system is essential in the process of providing accurate, well researched information and analysis to cover the needs of the whole of society.


More action please!

Katharine Sarikakis

Published in TEXTE ORF Public Value Report 2012/2013 [PDF] 

Is there room for pleasure in public service media, and what is the place of public service media (PSM) in our pleasures? The role of PSM is deeply engrained in Europe’s public and normative debates as one for mediating rational public spheres, understood to be the primary spaces for democratic praxis. Information and education figure predominantly as the major contributions of PSM; »to entertain«, as its third function, is often an afterthought and to be realised under strict conditions. Private media are unhappy when PSM offer entertainment and upset when this proves popular. Conditions, guidelines, »mission« and dilemmas can certainly take away all the fun of creativity and do not seem to leave a lot of room for pleasure in the public media. Doing the »right« thing is probably not about joy. Or is it?

A lot of assumptions are made in this preceding paragraph: that entertainment equals pleasure and that information most probably does not; that pleasure is a private affair, perhaps best entrusted in the hands of private media, while citizenship is public and based on reason; that public and private are clearly separated with the primacy of the former also clearly established; that citizenship therefore is a public matter with very few private elements; that reason and pleasure do not usually meet in the same sentence or act. That pleasure is subjective, personal, individual, superficial, private, commodified and occasionally anti-intellectual, uncritical, in other words, low in quality, relevance and priority. It is important to return to the examination of the role of pleasure, not in the meaning of »Vergnügen« but as enjoyment in democratic praxis and the possible role of PSM in creating the spaces and possibilities for it.

For the sake of noble acts

The act of deriving and expressing pleasure from cultural goods and its role in creating oppositional, critical and emancipatory readings is neglected during anxious discourses about public media. Pleasure is at the heart of creativity, discovery and worth. From science to politics, some of the greatest minds have spoken of the joy of creativity and knowledge, of »finding things out« (Richard Feynman) and creating something new, and the joy of actively contributing to communal life. Aristoteles, in the Nichomachean Ethics, argues that Eudaimonia – »the good life« or living well – is a  flourishing, active life, not one simply of happiness, but one of moral strength. This is  connected to qualities, such as self-control  and tenacity but also, to the quality of knowing what ought to be done and acting in accordance to it. In this sense, good life is one of public participation but also one of actively engaging in all aspects of life, including home life. The existence of institutions, and in particular of the state, is not simply to provide communal life but »for the sake of noble actions«.

Eudaimonia is a state of existence fueling the direct kind of democracy the Athenians enjoyed, which not only allowed for efficient administration of the state, but also provided  financial mechanisms for  the Arts and especially  Greek drama, as well as great public works, such as the construction of the Parthenon. Translating eudaimonia into institutional responsibility requires us to think of ways in which creative and substantial contribution to all aspects of life is facilitated and enabled not only through the provision of fora for the airing of »expert« views and »cool-headed« discussions. It is also for the construction of spaces and making available of resources for the integration of everyday, non-expert, non-professional impact onto the cultural and political life of a society. Pursuing »noble acts« is therefore neither the privilege nor exclusive right of highly educated elites, but indeed a right and act of the »lay man«. What might these »noble acts« be and how may they be connected to pleasure in PSM? The work of the soul in accordance to excellence is for Aristotle the epitome of Eudaimonia. For this to take place, citizens must be enabled to live an enlarged citizenship, one which, according to the works of T. H. Marshal and Ruth Lister would involve the satisfactory cover of material as well as legal conditions, economic, social and cultural dimensions in addition to the – rather limited – political ones. Where the symbolic dimensions of cultural texts (whether sound, images or actual text) do not directly allow for the development of such dimensions, where the cultural environment does not directly speak of people’s experiences and hence the possibility for action, for creativity and joy, people create their own cultural environments that provide alternatives to existing ones, speak directly against them or modify them.

In other words, people create their own symbolic spaces from where they can derive pleasure. These are not limited to spaces of entertainment genres, but of cultural offerings, including »factual« programmes, rational debates, evidence-based »texts«. This is what John Fiske called productive pleasure in resistance culture making. His thesis is based on the observation that overall, elites possess the resources for culture making of myths and values, whereas society at large has more limited options, and that because of this discrepancy culture is always a terrain of conflict and compromise, a struggle to »fit« and see oneself belonging. Mainstream institutions would therefore tend to reflect these values and omit ideas and experiences of the majority. Indeed, one of the most prominent criticisms against PSM has been their elitism, patronising approach to culture and top-down values. This point of critique is a common point between reformers of public media and proponents of for profit media – beyond that understandings of what opening-up of narratives and democratisation of culture making entails, become blurry. For-profit media are concerned with the functional monetary outcome, which is thought to be secure, if cultural »recipes« for mass cultural products are followed. Popularity therefore is conflated with pleasure and entertainment of one parti­cular character, that of esca­pism. Such pleasure does not derive from creativity and active participation but from withdrawal. For Fiske however resistance produces a special type of pleasure productive pleasure.

Paternalistic approach

Not to repeat ourselves tiringly, but to remind ourselves briefly, the media are different and changing, their usage is more complex and creative, audiences are inventive, curious, multiskilled and demanding. At the same time, all this remains also remarkably the same: there coexist patterns of couch potato and popcorn consumption together with interactive intervening in developing a cultural text. Hence, the linearity of PSM is assymetrical to the range of possibilities and acts being realised through varieties of platforms and connections: the question would be therefore, not only to serve the people through the noble act of rational thought and high quality entertainment, but also to serve by taking the »back seat« in or sharing the control over culture making is a real and mature need. PSM must become broader, more complex and more flexible, so that they can be involved in genres of direct intervention, cross-media creativity, multiple story lines and multiple authors and options for narrative development. Especially in early citizens, such as children and young adults, the need for an ethos of public service must be coupled with excitement about creativity and expression, and certainly play.

How are our arts and educational needs debates and decisions taking place in our societies, where the disconenct and loss of trust in major institutional pillars of european societies are the shaky ground? Culture making has born conflicts of ideals and purpose within it, as well as marginalisation or legimisation of the work, distance and proximity to a critique of social conditions under which citizenship is to be acted. Often, »popular« cultural creativity has been characterised either as folklore or as vulgar in the worst cases or unsatisfactory in the best. The debate over public media has been dominated by a paternalistic, »civilising« approach exclusively reserved for the experts and skilled over cultural processes deriving from non professional, precarious, and other forces. When these latter groups gained spaces on TV they were under conditions of ridicule, as the spectacle of savages and other »curiosities« or were enthroned to the tip of the mountain of happy-go-lucky and similar clichés. Plenty such examples are to be found in reality tv or entertainment shows and the news. Wisdom of mosaic truths are then trivialised, and untlimately denied.

creativity is social

I have written elsewhere about the restrictive and limited agenda through which debates on PSM are being held, certainly not ony through policy debates but also in scholarship and socialisation of the role of PSM in contemporary societies. Preoccupation with the national as the departing point and destination, is not one of expansion of intellectual horizons, if it does not entail genuine commitment to reflection, enlarged thought and empathy with the world »beyond« the national. This should not be taken to mean simply the world outside country borders, but indeed the diversity of experience and perception, within borders, and the ways of connection. Creativity is a social process, intangible for its most part and vulnerable to cultural and intellectual openness, dependent on institutional provisions and availability of resources. Not as a »creative industries« buzzword to roughly include sectors meant to make up the new knowledge economy, but in its more substantial meaning of thinking in new ways, engaging different perspectives, discovering how things work, making something from which one communicates but also others can take and further or integrate existing products or thoughts. Creativity means moving beyond the standard ways of doing things, opening up new ways of seeing, allowing more knowledge to build on knowledge. For-profit communication industries largely rely on the individualisation of pleasure and its definition as gratification, as an instant- and anonymous part of a consumerist-purchasing act. For Public Service Media the script would read a little like the words of Sir David Attenborough about the beginnings of the BBC »We thought too that we could play a key role in modern democracy by enabling a stockbroker in Surrey to understand what a fisherman in the north of Scotland might be feeling – and vice versa. We would be able to broaden horizons, introducing people to subjects that they might have never encountered and bringing them new pleasures and delights«.

»Der ORF hat ein differenziertes Gesamtprogramm von Information, Kultur, Unterhaltung und Sport für alle anzubieten. Das Angebot hat sich an der Vielfalt der Interessen aller Hörer und Seher zu orientieren und sie ausgewogen zu berücksichtigen.« ORF-Gesetz § 4. (2)