The ERT Shock: Pulling the Plug on the Public in Greece

The news is tragic, shocking. Greece's public broadcasting service was killed last night. It was yet another sacrifice in the name of the cruel, punishing austerity measures. Is this going to prove another 'mea culpa' on behalf of the troika and the IMF? Are they going to lament, admit yet another 'misjudgment' - when it will be too late again?

Ok, let's look at the story more closely - both the background as well as the ramifications of this moral crime.

I joined ERT when I was still a student at the University of Athens. I was only just beginning my career in journalism and I felt deeply proud as a novice that I was given the opportunity to learn from and work with a team of highly respected, well-established television journalists, some of which had actually laid the foundations for TV broadcasting in Greece.

ERT, as a television station, went on air for the first time in 1966. My father, Stamatis Filippoulis, was one of the first TV journalists and an ERT presenter, back in an era when journalism and ethos where still walking hand in hand.

I left ERT at the end of 2005, to join Al Jazeera English as a presenter and documentary producer in Qatar and later in the AJE London bureau. Eleven years, thousands of 'on-air' hours, countless news bulletins, stories and programmes later, it was time for me to move on.

Over those eleven years I had the opportunity to work with some superbly talented journalists, editors, producers. Media people who truly love what they do, they are genuinely dedicated to objective news coverage, to journalism as a mission for public good for the preservation of freedom of thought and speech. I can say that ERT could and should be proud of so many of its people, whose work standards and capabilities are of international status.

ERT for me was a school, another university. I was privileged to be part of its talent, team, especially as the Public Broadcaster has a mission to fulfill: it acts as the guarantor of pluralism, balance and the educational role of TV. Since it first went on air, in 1966, ERT has produced countless hours of exemplary, serious and balanced news coverage and programming, its reporters and staff always giving their best to deliver their work on time, unobstructed for the audience; very often under challenging circumstances. Despite any lapses, which are to be found in the history of any broadcaster (public or private), ERT has fulfilled and has served its educational role and social mission.

At the same time I had another, sad, opportunity: I could witness the slow downward spiral that financial and administrative mismanagement was creating as a result of numerous government changes and government-voters relations, managerial shortcomings and relentless waste of public money.

ERT has been labeled as a 'haven of waste.' Is it true? Well, for decades, massive salaries and bonuses were being paid to presenters, managers, 'senior executives', who would neither up ERT's ratings nor do anything to stop its financial bloodshed which was taking place via the route of various 'ambitious projects'. In reality they were simply financial scandals.

ERT is a Public Broadcaster, not a private enterprise. The money that funded, fueled its operations has been coming out of the pockets of the Greek public, not the rich bank account of a wealthy media tycoon. So, in this sense, ERT could not afford to generously hand out, furthermore when that was going on for years and years, ridiculously high contracts in excess of €400, €300K, €200K under the pretext of 'recruiting talent from the free market'; contracts and compensations that are higher than the salary of the US President. When the lists of high salaries were publicized, the waste of funds became obvious, shameful. One of the tragic side-effects is that those who have actually carried the real burden of work have not been under six-figured contracts, quite the contrary.

ERT has 2,650 employees working at five television stations, 29 radio stations and several websites, while it also supports two symphony orchestras. The Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation is the equivalent of the American PBS. It has always been the TV network striving to be neutral, calm, and pluralistic, cover serious news, preserve its educational, documentary and cultural programming.

One would wonder if there was ever in place a well-thought strategy, a plan for ERT's financial viability (if not profitability). Especially as this is an era that has completely shaken up well-established business models for media worldwide. Some of the world's most successful global media have been cutting down on employees, expenses. Public broadcasters such as RAI were forced to reduce staff, seriously reconsider their strategies and aim not only for viability but for profitability. RAI's boss Luigi Gubitosi has started the implementation of a plan of reforms that includes reducing the number of high-level directors, removing duplicate services, and allowing more autonomy among different divisions of the company.

Where did ERT's expensively paid administrations stand towards all the various omens coming not only from the grim domestic political and financial landscape but also from this fundamental paradigm shift that has been taking place in the world of media and journalism globally?

Has ERT been an overstaffed state-owned organization? Of course it has. Isn't it tragic for a country to be left without its public broadcaster? You bet it is. Why? Simply because, as Noam Chomsky has argued:

"... concentration of ownership of the media is high and increasing and those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations, and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms."

The public broadcaster's role is among other things to act as the effective mechanism that counters this dangerous threat. As we know, public broadcasting makes programs for citizens, not consumers. By completely eliminating Greece's admittedly dysfunctional ERT one can only reinforce the wider dysfunctionalities created by media concentration and the negative effects on social, public good.

I would like to pay my respects to my former ERT colleagues for all their exceptional work throughout the years and I am certain that this terrible ordeal will make them even more determined to protect their integrity, the ethics and mission of broadcast journalism in Greece and internationally.