They may have been among the best and brightest in European television, but faced with the simple question ‘Why did the Greek government close its national broadcaster?’ all we got was embarrassed silence, a nervous shuffling and “Well… Uhhh, does anybody have any thoughts on this?”
This was the scene: July 11th, a conference hosted at City University London, assembled to discuss the Greek government’s closure of public broadcaster, ERT. At around 5pm, the academics, journalists, economists and broadcasting administrators were wrapping up the day, satisfied to have said their piece.
I’d have imagined that with all this expertise, they would have started with that fundamental question rather than have it thrown in as an afterthought, but here it was, “the elephant in the room” as the questioner put it, lobbed into the conversation only as things were drawing to a close.
I should have realised there and then; very few people in the room understood what was actually going on in Greece. Which is why I should not have been surprised on August 20th, just 40 days after that collective nervous shuffle, when the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) pulled the plug on their re-transmission of ERT’s programmes on their satellites and website. Stating they were “looking forward, not back”, the EBU threw their weight behind the government-controlled replacement, Public TV (DT), purely based on an announcement that DT would begin to broadcast news programming.
The night before the conference, my fiancée and I had returned to the UK from Greece after spending almost a month filming a documentary on the ERT closure. We’d been gathering information, interviewing ERT staff occupying their former work-places, and basically trying to get our heads around what was going on. Visiting for a short time barely scratches the surface of everyday life, but what we saw and heard gave us at least some idea of the realities of Greece in the Euro-crisis.
We were exhausted, under-slept, badly in need of a change of clothes, and all-but running on caffeine by the time we arrived at the conference organised to address exactly the topic we had been investigating: what had happened to ERT?
It didn’t. Large chunks of the discussion were geared towards one question: “Could this happen to the BBC?”, which could have easily been resolved: “No. Next question?” Instead we got five hours of hot air, hand-waving, academic what-ifs and maybes, going through the BBC’s challenges, history and strengths.
In hindsight, the conference was a microcosm of the woeful coverage Greece receives internationally. A week after the closure, the Council of State (Greece’s equivalent of a supreme court) ruled that the government must resume the ERT signal. The foreign press, exemplified by a highly misleading Reuters article picked up by other organisations, gave the impression it meant problem solved – ERT would be back on air by the week’s end.
But it wasn’t. The Greek government claimed they had abided by the ruling by broadcasting colour bars on ERT’s channels. It was a bad joke, but by then the international media attention had evaporated, and no-one really cared anymore.
At the meet-and-mingle after the conference I spoke to a lawyer from the EBU’s legal division, asking what his thoughts were: the government hadn’t really abided by the Council of State’s decision to resume ERT’s signal, so would there be any legal reaction from the EBU? Or: during the occupation, ERT3 in Thessaloniki had begun generating open-air discussions on what the public wanted broadcast in future – did the EBU think that would change things?
I’ve rarely heard someone speak for so long without saying anything. The gentleman obviously felt obliged to try answering my questions, but couldn’t. He simply didn’t know any solid, on-the-ground information about what had happened or what was happening.
I very much doubt that he, or most people working from the EBU, are uncaring or naïve, and their initial decision to resume the ERT live-stream was a highly commendable. The problem is they seem to view both ERT and the ERT-closure as an academic exercise.
Many academic specialists believe that an independent publicly-funded broadcaster is a necessity; unlike private media, it has no financial incentive and can focus on producing programmes geared at building an educated and enlightened populace.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Ultimately, it seems as far as the EBU is concerned, everything’s kosher as long as a country has a channel they can call a ‘public broadcaster’. As soon as DT announced that they would be broadcasting news programmes, the Greek government could say ‘Here you go guys, public broadcasting’s back!’ The EBU figured all was well and back to normal, and there was no need to re-transmit ERT.
Never mind that it’s being run from the former studios of Mega TV, Greece’s largest private channel. Or that private media corporations are owned by oligarchs with notoriously strong ties to in Greek governing parties.
In the end, what did the EBU do? They didn’t address the Greek government’s complicit and long-held corruption in dealing with the media. They didn’t seem to know about the bidding for digital frequencies scheduled for the end of June, only ERT was closed before it was able to bid. They didn’t appear to recognise that the Greek government’s undemocratic decision could represent a far wider issue; that many people believe the political situation in Greece is veering worryingly towards the far-right.
The list goes on. And this information is not hard to find, but it is exactly what the EBU fails to acknowledge.
It’s not so much a betrayal, but a severe let-down brought on by ignorance and wilful blindness. Staff at ERT saw the EBU as one of their main allies, not an organisation which would treat the scenario as a project, or an experiment into the academic principles of broadcasting.
When we left the conference, I found the rapid turn to ‘not-in-my-backyard’ analysis of whether this could happen in Britain insular and narrow-sighted. Now the whole experience feels like a visual metaphor: the only thing the rest of Europe seems interested in is ‘How will this affect me?’ And depressingly, this seems to include the very people who claim to know better.