On 11th June 2013, the Greek Government reached a decision to close down the, until then, public broadcaster (ERT) citing the rationale that this measure was inevitable and formed part of the “national attempt” to cut down on public spending and meet the terms of Greece’s bailout deal . One month later, on 10th July, the new Greek Public Television(the interim Greek public broadcast service – EDT) emitted its signal via the three channels allocated to ERT. Finally, the 7th November marked the beginning of the third and final phase of severe governmental interference, the use of police forces to evacuate the occupied ERT headquarters in the Athens suburb of Aghia Paraskevi where the public radio and television organisation’s main facilities are located.
The police forces’ intervention was expected and inevitable. Greece had been operating two “public” television channels (one, the “official” “Hellenic Public Television” with governmental support, and the previous ERT with the opposition’s support  by way of a ”partisan core”). This was clearly an absurdity. In this light, the police’s intervention was inevitable because it is not possible that a public building (which as public property is of great value) to be under continuous occupation. However, the disappointing picture of police operations in front of the ERT buildings cannot be justified in the name of safeguarding the democratic order and the control of public property. It was a sad picture of Greek democracy that is nowadays paying a high price for “errors of the past”  and its total confusion about the role and the objective of the public broadcasting service in Greece.
Undoubtedly, the abrupt closure of ERT was a serious mistake, especially as far as the method is concerned. This sudden closure of ERT raised a heated debate in the Greek public sphere regarding the correctness/fairness? of the governmental decision. On the one side, the Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, characterised ERT as a “typical example of unique lack of transparency“ and a “haven of waste”. On the other side, critics have described the sudden closure of the public service broadcaster as a “direct blow to democracy”, an attack on journalism, free speech and public space.
Although, ERT was financed by a licence fee Greeks pay through their electricity bills, during ERT’s 40-year existence, the public service broadcaster was the space where politicians redeemed their electioneering bills. The two dominant parties, which have ruled Greece for the last 40 years, have “offered” jobs at ERT as prizes to loyal supporters in exchange for their vote. Meanwhile, some ERT top journalists, consultants and managers costing several thousand euros a month have found places at ERT, while their extremely high salaries did not meet ERT’s financial ratings but contributed to ERT’s financial surcharge. Moreover, ERT has for many decades been a ‘state’ broadcaster, close to the government in power each time, rather than a politically independent ‘public service’ broadcaster.
At the same time, ERT was seen as a bastion of quality programming in a media landscape dominated by private stations. ERT’s television channels and radio stations broadcast invaluable quality programmes that could hardly be found in the private media. ERT’s programming was leaning towards quality information, rather than low-cost entertainment, and in contrast to the main commercial broadcasters that fed the Greek audience the well-known low cost recipe of infotainment, soap operas and lifestyle shows, it offered a great deal of cultural and educational programming, while it supported two symphony orchestras. It is noteworthy that during the period of ERT’s “occupation”, there was a significant change in programming in terms of content and quality.
The recent events outside of ERT’s headquarters offered a fertile ground for political controversies, some of them having electioneering purposes. The whole scene enhanced the negatively charged climate of the erstwhile ERT even more than it already was with imagined symbolisms which were retrieved by idealising memories, recalling a civil war past that used to divide people but which no longer has any resonance in Greek public opinion and is totally irrelevant in relation to the function of contemporary public television. Union representatives – in the name of an ERT as “the voice of Democracy”, the symbol of free speech and independent information – claimed that the Greek public broadcasting service acquired the aforementioned symbolism during the last five months of its occupation. But this occupation had the support of the major opposition and other smaller parties.
The picture of opposition deputies hanging from the railings and yelling or screaming for help in order to be saved from the police intervention does not signify the production of a political discourse. It produces this kind of public hubbub, in which some public personalities actively take part. And this hubbub devours the rational political discourse, as it coincides with the broadcasting of the prime time evening news bulletin.
All the above leads us to the core question: Was the government’s decision to close ERT right? The answer is that the Greek public broadcasting service urgently needed a fundamental structural reform, free from opacity and waste of money.
In ERT’s case it is proven that the country’s problem is that of reform and as such, deeply political. As the government disappoints in finding an efficient solution, the eyes turn to the opposition to suggest a plan. Reasonable questions are raised by the statements of some opposition deputies that if the major opposition party wins the forthcoming elections in Greece and forms a government, ERT will re-open in its previous version. Does this imply that journalists and presenters (government supporters) with outrageous salaries, funded by the state, will be recruited again? Does this imply that we will pay huge amounts of money for productions that will never be realised? For freelancers who rarely appear at work and get bonuses for their “contribution” to the “evolution” of the sector they supervise? More of a waste of money than organising Eurovision?
ERT requires restructuring and an array of reforms, which should follow a strategic plan. However, this strategic plan, the “plan for the next day”, the “plan for the new Greek public broadcasting service” (NERIT), as it is called) has not been clarified yet.
If we want to find only one word to describe the situation at ERT, this would be “absurdity”. What will safeguard NERIT from avoiding the pitfall of this “absurdity”? A strategic plan is needed based on a solid foundation, taking into account all the parameters in order to create a new high quality independent national broadcasting service, “a new public audiovisual organization, reformed form the ashes of ERT”, according to the article by Adea Guillot, correspondent of the French newspaper Le Monde in Greece.
An essential parameter that should be taken into account in the construction of a new Greek public audiovisual organization is the fundamental importance of public service media for democratic societies and the need for media systems to be independent from governments and political parties. In this framework, the strategic plan should clarify the criteria for staff recruitment and guarantee the transparency of the process, as well as ensure the independence of journalists and the formation of a high quality informative and entertaining programme.
Greece is in urgent need of a modern, contemporary, productive public television, which will act as a counterbalance of quality in the melting pot of low cost television entertainment programming and not as a poor, disreputable relative of commercial private channels.
There was a lack of rationale in the way ERT was managed. But similarly, there was a lack of rationale in the occupation of a public property building. More importantly, there was a lack of rationale in the police intervention. There is a lack of rationale in the proposals regarding the function of the new Greek public audiovisual organization. In ERT, limit and rationale were lost. This, in any case, should not be allowed to happen in the reformed Greek public broadcasting service.
Katerina Serafeim is Dr. in Journalism and Mass Media, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a Journalist in the Press Office of the Regional Local Government of Central Macedonia,Greece. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
 According to the terms of the bailout deal, the Greek government has committed to 4,000 dismissals of civil servants in 2013 and a further 11,000 in 2014. For 2013, the target is 4,000 dismissals, including the 2,500 ERT employees, 700 civil servants found guilty of misconduct, 150 from the National Road Construction Fund that is shutting down, a significant number of employees from the defence industries and contracted employees with temporary orders.
 Deputies of the opposition parties supported the strikes of ERT’s former employees either with their statements in the Greek Parliament or with their physical presence in the organized demonstrations, making at the same time public support announcements on other mass media. Additionally, they had been taking part to all the activities the employees organized during the occupation of ERT’s buildings.
 The two major political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, have long given jobs at ERT as prizes to loyal supporters, leading to the creation of an overstaffed and inefficient public service broadcaster.