Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Today the Samaras government, in the person of the government spokesman, Simos Kedikoglou, announced the closure of ERT, the Greek public broadcaster.
The announcement was apparently made today, and called for the immediate closure by the end of the working day. By evening, ERT was off the air.
The ostensible reasons for the closure include high staffing (nearly 3,000 staff), high costs (a budget of EUR 300,000,000), and accusations of waste, corruption and nepotism. All these issues are true.
Mr. Kedikoglou promised that 1,000 of the terminated 3,000 staff would be re-hired “using transparent procedures” via the ASEP civil service recruitment mechanism. And that a “New ERT” would be launched “in the near future”.
It is hard to think of a more absurd way of dealing with things. Although I have written about the need to reform ERT (see my post Neither PASOK nor ND have a plan to reform the public sector in Greece from Monday, September 14, 2009), the present means of doing so reflects such a lack of political maturity, or indeed sanity, that it becomes difficult to see how this government plans to handle any more serious issues.
The facts of the matter are that:
- Successive political administrations have used ERT as a massive source of political patronage. PASOK most recently used ERT to hire 640 staff in November 2010, just before the regional elections, and after the first bail-out and austerity package had been announced.
- Successive political administrations have influenced how ERT reports news, including New Democracy and PASOK. Do we really believe the “New ERT”, set up amid conditions of brutal poverty, will be any different?
- The government has not announced any convincing plan for the structure and operations of the “New ERT” – because it doesn’t have one.
- The government has announced that the “New ERT” will no longer benefit from a mandatory tax, but has not outlined how it will be financed. Since public finance is almost inevitable (private advertising in a depression is not sufficient to maintain 1,000 public sector staff), we can be sure that some form of tax spending will be needed for the “New ERT”. So once again, the public will pay. Skai reports that according to Mr. Kedikoglou, the cost of the “New ERT” will be EUR 200,000,000 per year.
- The government cannot give any assurances that the hiring of 1,000 staff for the “new ERT” will not be done using the same lack of transparency and the same nepotistic practises that have gone on before. (Unless we suddenly believe that ASEP has become a transparent organisation, in the face of 30+ years of political history).
- The silence on the wider issue of the objectivity in news broadcasting, and the twisted links between construction oligarchs and media channels, is deafening. Yet you cannot possibly discuss the role of an independent public broadcaster without addressing the issue of political influence over other new channels by very wealthy oligarchs who have a disproportionate share of public sector construction projects.
- This “decapitation” of a semi-governmental enterprise is a brilliant way of distracting from the near total failure of the government’s privatisation programme and fiscal policy.
What is even more worrying is that ERT is now off the air, and the staff are terminated (and will receive compensation), but the government has yet to even begin drafting the law that will give rise to the “New ERT”. This means that there will be a delay of several months before this reaches the Parliament floor.
Along the way, it will be twisted, deformed and lobbied to reflect the special interests necessary to make it work. It will distract the government from the vital effort needed to restructure the economy (not that it is working particularly hard in this direction either). And it will result in thousands of hours of cheap and empty political “debate” (not that there was any shortage of this already).
I believe a public broadcaster is a necessity, albeit in a much slimmer and more independent version that what is currently the case (see my recommendations on this matter dating back to 2009).
The legislative and operating framework of such a broadcaster requires real thought in order for it to function properly. I doubt any such quality of thought or planning will be manifest in the current government.
This looks like yet another hasty, spasmodic action that will only undermine whatever little trust the public has in even the well-meaning [sic] efforts of its government. At the other end of the spectrum, it will give rise to further self-censorship and fear among the civil service, while strengthening the role of external media barons. It will ultimately weaken the present government still further.
As much as I would love to see a more efficient public sector in Greece, and a less expensive one, there are better ways of doing this. The present decision is absurd, if not criminal.