The revolution will not be televised

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Riot police storm ERT headquarters

The above article gives a better account of what happened than most of the foreign media coverage I’ve found, but it only tells you part of the story. I’m not the most qualified person to deliver an in-depth on this. I was away for most of the crucial events of the saga of the Greek government going on the warpath against the national broadcaster, and I didn’t keep up with the coverage.

The bare facts got some of international coverage: State-owned TV and radio organisation ERT (the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation) was unexpectedly shut down by the Greek government. The reasons cited were overinflated staff, a bad business model and being a drain on public resources. Said government proceeded to open a new public broadcaster. The decision led to a firestorm of reactions, both through protests from former ERT employees and stakeholders inside Greece, as well as strong criticism from most major news outlets abroad.

 

Other, less widely-known facts: one of the highest courts in Greece, the Council of State, has found the government closure of ERT to be unconstitutional and demanded its reopening all the way back in July. ERT journalists and employees have continued to broadcast from the occupied former headquarters of the channel without any kind of remuneration ever since. Initially they were on the airways of another channel which the government quickly blocked, and online ever since. DT (Public Television), the replacement channel the government established on ERT’s old frequencies, is considered a national joke. It’s worth noting than on its first days on the air they were using old movies and documentaries as filler. As a result, they were inundated by calls from Greek directors and producers informing them that they did not have, nor would ever get, permission to use said intellectual property. And finally, the government’s move to shut down ERT marks the first time this happened since the German occupation in World War II— Not even the military junta of 1967-74 dared to touch it.

 

It’s not that I think the old ERT was perfect. I, in fact, have personal reasons to have mixed feelings about it and its hiring practices after my own experience working for them several years ago. Was there a need for reorganisation and hard look at the politics of how they operated? Absolutely. But what the government did was the equivalent of treating an arthritic limb by amputating it. It’s highly debatable whether their motivation was the proffered reason, or if it was a naked attempt to offer a sacrificial lamb to appease foreign creditors. In the process, they stifled the only TV news that still occasionally offered reasoned checks and criticism. As flawed as ERT was, the fact of the matter is that it was the only palatable alternative to the circus of the absurd that are private station’s TV news in Greece. The norm is unfortunately that stories that should be getting five minutes coverage are getting twenty at the expense of less ‘sexy’ news. Televised debates operate under the principle of outshouting each other. The emotionally manipulative tone and infotainment focus is a clear attempt to poorly imitate lowest common denominator, American-style news. ERT offered sober commentary, respected viewer intelligence, and debates tended to be conducted at normal volume levels. But beyond that, it offered actual quality TV and radio programming, a philharmonic orchestra, and a TV schedule filled with documentaries, quality Greek programs and an eclectic selection of foreign shows and films. In contrast private stations flood their airtime with reality TV, reruns of a handful of questionable quality fil and the occasional interesting program that you can’t actually enjoy due to the constant ad breaks.  It might not have been perfect, but it was the one tiny light of culture and information in the pitch black intellectual darkness.

 

That was before. The irresponsible, opportunistic and illegal as the government’s move to shut ERT down as it was, led to something amazing. The news continued as before, but suddenly, there was nobody to answer to. If there’s one thing my time with ERT taught me is that journalists with experience, passion and resources know the line between what they are and aren’t allowed to publicly talk about. But once free of all political and business shackles, the result was somewhere between guerrilla television and Plato’s Republic. Watching their online broadcasts over the last couple of weeks, I realized that this is what the journalism I imagined in my more idealistic youth looked like. This is what speaking truth to power looks like. I can understand the reasoning of the current government and their overly aggressive approach, because it must be a terrifying sight to behold.

 

ERT might have lost another battle, but the information war is far from over. The storming of the headquarters resulted in the unprecedented sight of a news bulletin being filmed on the street, with riot police as a backdrop. I imagine this was set up through sheer defiance and what must have been MacGyveresque technical creativity.  While I have no way of predicting what this will lead to, I can’t shake the certainty that the government overplayed their hand this time. They brought down ERT, but only time will show whether ERT will bring down the government. All I know is that, for the first time in ages, I’m almost allowing myself to feel hope.

 

Some final items to consider:

 

– The timing of this latest move happening to coincide with ERT’s promise to cover the upcoming Greek EU Presidency is something that I’m sure had no bearing on the decision.

– The bidding war private stations engage in for frequencies, out of which ERT was legally guaranteed at least four, would explain their general deafening silence on the topic

– Not only did ERT not receive funds from the national budget, but it turned a profit.

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