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Dimitrios Athanasakis

Information age factotum. UCL machine learning EngD. Medical researcher. Coder. Adherent of Kaizen.

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ERT and the tragedy of the Greek commons. Lessons still not learned.

Introduction

This comes after an excellent coffee with the indefatigable Manos of lolgreece fame.

On June 11, 2013 the Greek government issued a decision that abolished ERT, the Greek state-owned public radio and television broadcasting corporation. According to the decision, ERT was supposed to cease operations immediately and be succeeded by a new corporation. Instead, ERT’s 2,656 former employes protested the government’s decision and continued broadcasting by whatever means available (including satelite wildfeed, and internet broadcasting). How the former employees, handled themselves, while the government spokesman responsible for its dissolution was citing them as a have of waste and nepotism is very interesting.

Pre-debacle

It is somewhat ironic, that ERT only became relevant to me through its dissolution. I really don’t watch tv, and that’s even more the case for Greek state-run media. Given that ERT, averaged about 13% viewership broken between three different stations, I probably wasn’t the only one not paying attention. To some, this may speak about the perceived relevance of the organization. It does not however help in anticipating the people’s reaction to ERT’s closure. So, as someone with minimal interest in this situation, do I have anything to offer to the dialogue? When people go to extremes so as to discredit any views oposing their own is the norm, it might help to make a careful examination of everybody’s actions, reactions, and talking points.

Debacle Starts

Prior to the start of the debacle, ERT’s behavior was more or less in line with every heavily unionised greek public sector organization. At this point I must state that when a news organization goes on strike and nobody’s there to cover it, it becomes an interesting exercise in irony, but then again I have some interesting takes on such matters. The broadcaster’s closure, came as a bit of a shock. The current government used a recent legal provision, which effectively permits it to enact a law prior to discussion in parliament as an emergency measure in ‘extraordinary’ times(although such decisions will have to be ratified at a later parliamentary session). The major party executed this move, without any regard for the opinions of its coalition partners - one party has already left the coalition after viewing this as the last straw. Branches of government they tell me are supposed to be transparent, and distinct - well bravo for greek democracy in action.

While the coalition government is busy executing its stratagem, I actually got curious enough to look for ERT internet feeds. There was a lot of televised angry rhetoric. People who up until a few hours ago were supposed to be objective reporters, presenting a fair and balanced view of the news, openly calling out the government fascists, nazis, petty dictators and other cute synonyms. While I can see part of their point, and definitely understand their pain, I think that waiting for all of this to happen in order to post-hoc go and call out the injusticies and indemnities all around you, even when emotionally charged is not a vote of confidence for your objectivity. Hell, when there is an actual neo-nazi party in parliament, I think this use of language is destructive.

With that, news started becoming into news, and then more news. Former employees, went on the air to name names on perceived scandals, and indemnities from their carreers in ert. Journalists going on the record, stating that they never understood that this was an option - that the option to negotiate pay cuts or voluntary leave was never offered. Soon, Tsipras, our beloved opposition leader jumped in the self-referential news masturbation bandwagon, which at times seemed capable of blinding ERT.

  • The government capitalised on the news, seeing that as a kind of Thatcher moment.
  • The opposition capitalised on the news, seeing this as an example of government’s failure to comply to democratic checks and balances.
  • ERT, capitalised on the news, becoming relevant in Greek public discourse after a long, long time.

So the question is now, what are the arguments for, or against ERT. A lot of what follows has been repeated, chewed over/regurgitated/remolded over the last few days. I have read so many things with so many different details by so many different news organizations, that some things are hard to differentiate from hearsay. You may want to take them with a grain of salt and do your own fact checking.

Arguments For/Against

  • The primary argument used by the government, was that ERT was a haven of waste, with rampant nepotism. They should know, the spokesperson responsible for that utterance used to be employed by ERT (boom!). ERT’s annual budget comes up to 300 million euros, 88% of which is subsidized by a tv licensing model, payed by greek citizens. According to most people’s accounts, given this budget ERT was actually running on a surplus, which weakens the government’s argument on this point. The news organization however, according to another aspect of the story, would be very happy to burn through this surplus. 6 months prior to the government edict, news reporters went on strike to protest the government’s decision to not add 150 contracted employees to permanent staff (once again, hurray for greek unions completely disconnected from reality).

  • ERT had 6 accounting divisions which never coordinated between them, and additionally for the last eight years failed to satisfy government request for cataloguing what is actually ERT’s property.

  • Regarding the charges of nepotism, it is true that there have been many politically motivated appointments in the organization, in positions which seemed to have no apparent significance but came attached to a big fat paycheck. If you don’t trust me on this point, you can ask many of ERT’s members of staff, they were the ones making these accusations, after the fact. Which kind of brings up the question, why does it have to be so late in order to do anything about a situation which is pathologically wrong in Greece? - but more on that later.

  • On the other hand, people who readily believe this is purely about sanitizing public expenditures, should also check a couple of facts. For example, the government could have used those same extraordinary powers to cut from its payroll all the civil servants who have been found in violation of their duties, negligent, or hell somehow have ended up in jail - and no I’m not kidding, people have been imprisoned and still receive their civil service stipend - go figure. This number comes up to a few thousand more than the total employees of public broadcasting. Or how about going after a few hundred thousand cases of tax evasion? Just saying.

  • The government proved that it had no real planning for a replacement organization, and no idea of how to do a reboot. Nobody was appointed administrator for the ERT under disolution. And some guy on twitter went ahead and registered the domain for the replacement organization and started fielding offers for selling it. Because you know how greek governments work. They know how to plan ahead.

What’s the role of a public broadcaster?

But for me the real problem with ERT is that it simply became irrelevant. There have been times when it actually had a number of interesting, original media properties (froutopia anyone?). Aside from one, or two shows this has not been the case in recent years. ERT has a budget wich is many times that of its major competitors put together - so why did it become irrelevant? My take on the subject is that it stopped being relevant the moment it stopped trying to explore its limits. It was more or less the moment when it became a willing participant in the political ploys of its management. For an organization that desperately tried to find parallels with its foreign contemporaries, ERT has failed to take creative risks, or present any kind of compelling original programming.

While we’re talking relevance, it might be useful to examine what the role of a public broadcaster should be, and weather or not such a role does indeed justify its existence. In the case of ERT, I think that its role has been to counterbalance the Daedalian machinery of greek news organizations operated as the media arm of private business empires which are cross-subsidised across the board by a symbiotic relation with the government. It may not be much, but ERT has a role to play in keeping the Greek government - private media circle jerk in check.

ERT also has extensive historical media archives which cover a large period of modern Greek history. Ceding said archives to oblivion, or to the highest bidder, is a foreseeable occurrence. It also underlines the irony of not having national archives to safeguard such material, which was in any case paid by the public and for the use and consumption of the public.

Can we fix this?

If this situation is to be fixed, the organization needs to aggressively distance itself from many of its past behaviours. What’s needed is an independent public broadcaster, disentangled from political influences and answerable to those who foot the bill. Not the government du jour, but the people, who at the end of the day also constitute the audience. The only way this can be achieved is if the organization embraces transparency.

I am shocked with some of the ex post announcements coming out of former ERT employees. Shocked, because they had to reach the point where their job was forfeit in order for them to speak up against mismanagement and cronyism at their workplace. It is appalling, behavior, which in their view is justified by the fact that upper management always made sure to silence such occurences. Greece in the 21st century is still unfamiliar with whistleblowing. It is mildly entertaining that the only political party in Greece that actually concerned itself with this level of transparency was the greek pirate party - they were the only ones to endorse full digitization of documents, especially as relating to public expenditures. When the pirate party is the one being mature, well what can I say? (No offence pirates, you know I love you and I wish you had made it all the way to parliament. )

So…?

So, conclussions. This debacle has lost the coalition government one of its partners and brings into question the propriety of the checks and balances. ERT is an organization that has had some influence in public life, but it needs to restructure and reform if it wants to ever again be really relevant.

People from all sides are trying to capitalise on the perceptions they’ve generated these days. Meanwhile, and this is as much a critique to myself as it is to other people covering it, does at this exact point in time ERT matter as anything other than an obstacle to the frenzied circle jerk to the bottom of private greek media?

Meanwhile, people call the government nazis. And there are people serving time way beyond the legal limit of a jail sentence, still waiting to face trial for anarchy, whatever anarchy in a criminal law system means. And there are actual neonazis in parliament, which I know sounds confusing, but what the hell do you expect from a country that just minted a former book salesman as its health minister.

But then again these are the lessons of the Greek commons and they tend to repeat themselves. We want to reform and rebuild without evaluation. It’s as if an entire country has never heard of the mantra “ If it can be measured, it can be improved”. Everybody wants to go on with business as usual, not thinking for a moment that he may just be an entitled, pompous ass. Failing to remember the very basic fact that the scene has changed, and that the good times are over. No transparency, no metrics, no evaluation. I mean how else do you explain a book salesman for health minister?