Case ERT: a [failed?] attempt to manufacture consent
Two days ago, the Greek government shut down the Greek public broadcast company (ERT), in a manner reminiscent of the junta ways back in the 60s-70s. Asimina Michailidou comments on the role of public broadcasting services in modern democracies.
Public broadcast services are a component of democracy (Illustration: colourbox.com)
Two days ago, the Greek government shut down the Greek public broadcast company (ERT), in a manner reminiscent of the junta ways back in the 60s-70s.
Protests erupted almost immediately. Artists, intellectuals and other public figures mobilized within hours to express their support to ERT’s employees and indignation about the government’s decision. Let’s look briefly at the facts about ERT: ‘On air’ since 1938, it has for decades been the only broadcaster in Greece, until the appearance of private TV and radio stations in the late 1980s. It’s audio and video archives are an invaluable treasure, in cultural, artistic and historical terms. It produces award-winning documentaries, such as the Exandas series, and BBC-style period dramas. Its radio and TV broadcasts cater to many tastes- from Eurovision to jazz, to classical music and Greek folk dances. But ERT also has many flaws- created and nurtured by its ‘bosses’, i.e. whichever party happens to be in government at any given time. First, its news departments are generally government-friendly, when they should be impartial. Its TV programmes are not competitive. And its financial resources are chronically mismanaged, and occasionally plundered.
So, should ERT be shut down or not? This is how the debate is structured in Greece at the moment. In a simplistic ‘yes or no’ manner. Which is not only simplistic, but also categorically misleading. Because it gives both sides (the yes and the no) equal value, making them both acceptable alternatives. Both sides acquire the same legitimacy through such a dichotomous ‘yes or no’ debate, claiming for themselves the right to be heard and thus to compete on equal footing as to which side will win over public opinion. But they are not of equal value and do not deserve to be equally.
A democratic public sphere
Public broadcast services are a component of democracy, at least in the European tradition. To those who may be eager to dismiss such a claim on the grounds that it is ‘too philosophical’ or ‘too abstract’: this is a claim strongly backed by empirical research. Public broadcast services are proven time and again to help maintain a democratic public sphere. How? First, public media devote more attention to public affairs and international news, thereby enhancing a greater knowledge in these areas, in relation to private media. Public television also gives greater emphasis to news, encourages higher levels of consumption of news and thus closes to some extent the knowledge gap between socially privileged and disadvantaged citizens. However, and here lies the problem of ERT, these beneficial qualities of public broadcast are mitigated or eliminated by such factors as the legally guaranteed independence of the public media, the proportion of public funding, and audience share. ERT, at least its news section, is not known for its independence from the government. Its audience share is consistently low (with the exception of big event broadcasts, such as Eurovision or big football matches). As for funding, its financial woes are not so much due to lack of resources but of mismanagement and sometimes outright plundering. So the ‘yes’ camp goes: if this the case with ERT, why not shut it down, even briefly, shape it up and let it broadcast with quality that rivals that of the BBC? Since no one watches ERT, continue the ‘yes’ voices, who cares if it’s shut down?
The start and stop of public media services at will of the government, without prior planned parliamentary debate and vote / approval, may be acceptable in autocratic regimes, but it is not consistent with the spirit and values of democracy. And if the ‘restart’ of ERT aims to democratize the public broadcaster, then this can only be achieved through democratic processes. The rationale the government has used to justify its action (sudden closure opted for in order to avoid trade union action, strikes, stalling debates in the Parliament, etc.) is also profoundly anti-democratic; and politically unethical, because it tries to shift the burden of responsibility for the depreciation of ERT, the waste of its resources and ultimately for the failure to fulfil its democratic role to the employees and not the employers (i.e. the government, the current and previous ones). The government promises that the new ‘reformed’ ERT will be up and running by late August with its staff reduced to about half (down to 1200 employees from 2700). But it does not explain how this reduction in staff is associated with a substantial strengthening of the role of ERT (i.e. how ERT will become ... BBC) or how staff cuts prevent mismanagement / waste of resources. Mostly, however, it does not explain why they need to stop the broadcast for two months. Mr. Kedikoglou (the government’s press representative and Minister in charge of the ERT reform) has compared ERT to a car in need of general overhaul: it needs to be taken to the garage and left there for substantial repairs, so it cannot be ‘on air’ while this takes place. A very unfortunate comparison! It denotes the government’s understanding public service broadcasting as an insolvent company (hence the closure / consolidation), while it is a body of public benefit, whose constant, uninterrupted operation is the responsibility of the state.
Without doubt, the institution of public service media in the last two decades is in crisis, not only in Greece but also in most other European countries. Public broadcasters struggle to define their role in a communication environment that is privatized, digitized and heavily networked- so completely different (and constantly changing) to that in which they first appeared and continued to broadcast for more than half a century. No study, however, has concluded that public media are now redundant or that the need to renew their modus operandi justifies their shut down, even temporarily. As a Greek netizen succinctly put it in her tweet, 'I do not want ERT to close down, not because I watch it, but because I need to know there's an alternative to private TV channels' (which in Greece operate often as government propaganda machines). Whether the 'yes' or the 'no' camp will prevail in the case of ERT’s cessation will show whether the Greek political system and citizens continue to assess the role of public media according to democratic values, or we have now entered a 'post-democratic' era for good.
This op-ed was first published in Greek on greeklish.info, on 13 June 2013.