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 wouldn’t presume to say I am in any way qualified to give in-depth commentary 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 in my mindframe of cutting all ties did not pay the attention to events it deserved.

The bare minimum of facts has gotten a fair bit of international coverage: state-owned TV and radio organisation ERT (the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation) was unexpectedly shut down by the Greek government, citing overinflated staff, bad business model and 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 facts that are less widely-known: one of the highest courts in Greece, the Council of State has ruled 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 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 it first days on the air, when they were filling up timeslots with old movies and documentaries, they were inundated by calls from Greek directors and producers informing them that they did not have, and would never 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 short-lived foray into journalism when I worked for one of their regional channels as a news editor for 13 months without pay and then was not hired due to reasons I cannot get into without ending up with a five page rant, but had nothing to do with meritocracy. 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. Assuming of course that the official reason was their motivation, rather than attempting to offer a sacrificial lamb to appease foreign creditors and stifling the only TV news that still occasionally offered reasoned criticism against them with one stone. 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 TV news in Greece, where stories that should be getting five minutes taking twenty at the expense of less ‘sexy’ news, where any kind of debate seems to be operating under the principle of ‘whoever shouts loudest wins’ and with an emotionally manipulative tone and infotainment focus that’s a bad imitation of the most corporate, aiming at the lowest denominator, American-style news. ERT offered sober commentary, treated its viewers like they hadn’t all undergone lobotomy, and debates tended to be conducted in 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, rather than the reality shows/reruns of bad movies/occasional interesting show that you can’t actually enjoy due to the constant advertisement interruption of the private channels.  It might not have been perfect, but it was the one tiny light of culture and information in the pitch black intellectual darkness.

And that was before. Irresponsible, opportunistic and illegal as the government’s move to shut ERT down as it was, it 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 is that what journalists, at least the ones with experience, passion and resources, know and what they are allowed to talk about publically is so different it might as well exist on different planes of reality. But once free of all political and business shackles, the result was somewhere between guerilla 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 looks like, before I crashed hard against the wall of reality.  It’s, quite frankly, inspirational, and I thought I was too cynical and disillusioned to ever be inspired again. This is what speaking truth to power looks like. I can understand the reasoning of the current government and their oppressive/aggressive action, 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 (I imagine through put together through sheer defiance and what must have been McGuyver-level technical creativity) on the street, with riot police as a backdrop. 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 last interesting facts 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.
– Nor would the bidding war private channels engaged in for frequencies, out of which ERT was legally guaranteed at least four, would have 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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