While journalists and advocates continue expressing outrage over the way Greek public broadcaster ERT was closed—it went dark with little notice on Tuesday night, and 2,566 staffers lost their jobs—few Greeks appear willing to defend the network itself. Programs were serious and dry, and all three terrestrial stations had a combined viewership of 14 percent. There did not appear to be any concern about the weak ratings, and it’s often said that hiring was based on nepotism and spending was loose.
“It is true that the Greek national broadcaster is a symbol of corruption in Greece,” said George Tzogopoulos, a research fellow at The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. Pay was exorbitant for a few hand-picked reporters and directors, while the rest of the staff, although modestly paid, were given open-ended contracts that essentially made it impossible to fire them, Tzogopoulos said.
As part of its austerity plan to slash debt, the Greek government must cut 15,000 state employees by the end of 2014. Phase one was to lay off 4,000 this year. A government spokesman said ERT, with its 2,566 employees, was an obvious place to start, because the public broadcaster suffered from an “exceptional lack of transparency and incredible extravagance.”
Nikos Meggrelis, a presenter of a news program on ERT 1, agreed—sort of—with criticisms of the network.
“Of course there is corruption at ERT, but that is the fault of the politicians, not the journalists,” he said. Meggrelis himself is a case in point. He was a director of ERT’s satellite channel until January, when, he said, he was pushed out by the current government’s appointee. Now he has joined other newly laid-off ERT reporters in keeping rogue broadcasts going.
Founded in 1938, ERT enjoyed a monopoly status until the beginning of the 1990s, when the government granted licenses to private channels. Funding for ERT comes from direct payment of 4.30 euros ($6) added monthly to electricity bills.
By 2011, the ERT budget of 328.76 million euros was the equivalent of all private TV stations combined, and yet it held only about 10 percent of viewership. More than 60 percent of the budget went to staff.
ERT employed 980 journalists and the broadcaster had a journalist in nearly every city in the country. Still, there was hardly any news on its website, which received only a modicum of attention by the public, said Elias Mossialos, a former minister of state under the PASOK-led government.
Mossialos tried and failed to reorganize Greece’s public service broadcasters in 2011, unable to fight the country’s strong unions or the party support. Mossialos’s plan would have reduced the broadcaster to two TV channels, 10 radio stations, and increase its presence on the Internet. The majority of the funding would focus on modernizing programming.
“It was very contentious,” he said. “None of the political parties, including my own, liked it.” The New Democracy party “completely opposed it,” Mossialos said in an interview.
Yet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who leads New Democracy, presented a draft plan for a new public broadcaster to go on air in August or September that Mossialos said reads remarkably like the first part of his 2011 proposal.
Under the New Democracy party plan, the New Greek Radio, Internet and Television, or NERIT, would employ around 1,000 employees and would cost about one-third of the old broadcaster. The government promises editorial independence and says it will be modeled after the BBC, Italy’s RAI, and Germany’s ZDF.
Still, Samaras may well have the same difficulty Mossialos did in implementation. The same day Samaras presented his plan, members of the coalition parties, PASOK and DIMAR, called for ERT’s closure to be scrapped. Samaras has now called for talks on Monday.
Mossialos, who currently is a professor at the London School of Economics, stressed that for the government to retain any credibility NERIT must be independent.
“Its staff should be hired without any government interference, and its programs should be evaluated by a third party,” Mossialos said.
In the meantime, the powerful unions called for strikes to continue throughout the weekend.