Samaras’s breathtaking arrogance turns opinion against him at home and abroad
Greece letter: prime minister’s attempt to play the strong man has backfired badly
Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras: “He has not only offended Greeks but, perhaps more importantly, in the European context where he is so dependent on the good opinion of his mentors in Berlin and Brussels, he has not impressed.” Photograph: Reuters/John Kolesidis
In a recent opinion column (‘Greece in crisis needs a public broadcaster’) I made the mistake of saying that ERT, the Greek public service broadcaster equivalent to RTÉ, which had been shut down by the government, was back on the air.
I wrote this in good faith. Faith that the Greek supreme court, which had ordered the reinstatement of ERT, would be obeyed by the prime minister, Antonis Samaras.
However, I had not allowed for the fact that Samaras had engineered the closure of ERT for many reasons, one of which was to test the water of what he could or could not do in respect of closing or radically changing a number of public bodies, for which ERT has provided the test case.
Ordered by the supreme court to reopen the broadcaster, pending a review of its activities and a likely reduction in both its staff numbers and its budget, Samaras has chosen to behave as if there had been no such order, just as he has proceeded with the suspension of ERT as if he had a single-party government, rather than a fragile coalition.
Not only this, which has dismayed the Greeks, who are hard to impress these days with arrogance of this magnitude, but Samaras has also defied international opinion. The European Broadcasting Union (which oversees public broadcasting throughout Europe and the Middle East, including the Eurovision Song Contest and many other international collaborations) protested to Samaras in a letter signed by the heads of every public service broadcaster in Europe, RTÉ’s Noel Curran included.
It might seem that Samaras could not afford to show the two fingers to the EBU, but he has done so in a climate in which he ironically needs to project Greece as a responsible and committed member of the European community.
In fact, Greece is now the only country in Europe which does not at present have a public broadcaster. Last week the government introduced an interim television station, ‘EDT’, which is a travesty of public service broadcasting, transmitting old movies with a minimum of news information.
That an international organisation of such prestige as the EBU can facilitate the ERT staff by providing alternative transmission facilities is, perhaps, its way in return of showing Samaras the two fingers – a move supported by the EU and indicative of how Greece is perceived by Brussels.
The ERT fiasco has demonstrated other aspects of the Greek character. Democratic Left parted company with its coalition partners on ideological grounds, because Samaras refused to reinstate ERT. However, the second largest party in the coalition, Pasok, which had originally threatened to destabilise the government, remained in the coalition and in fact gained significantly from the debacle, securing cabinet seats for the first time and strengthening its precarious position in Greek politics, even though the coalition now enjoys only a fragile three-seat parliamentary majority.
Such hypocrisy on the part of Pasok, in clinging to power and in benefiting from the threat to public service broadcasting, has further undermined public confidence in the motives and behaviour of politicians, if that were possible.
Greeks who might have taken the most recent revelations from Anglo Irish Bank in their stride have refused to shrug their shoulders at the outcome of what is in effect a scandalous subversion of public accountability.
The entire episode, which many believe to have been a cynical manoeuvre on Samaras’s part to rid his coalition of the always troublesome Democratic Left, even though it brought the country to the brink of a general election, has discredited rather than enhanced Samaras.
In the wake of the debacle he has put himself forward as the strong man of Greek politics, the only one capable of governing for the three remaining years of this government’s mandate. But his calculations have gone astray. He has not only offended Greeks but, perhaps more importantly, in the European context where he is so dependent on the good opinion of his mentors in Berlin and Brussels, he has not impressed.
Samaras needed to impress the IMF and other members of the troika by getting rid of 2,000 public employees with immediate effect. The planned reduction of ERT from 2,650 to one third of that number would have satisfied most of that urgent requirement, regardless of the damage it has done to the country, both in terms of a blatant attack on the concept of an independent public service broadcasting system and in the international arena.
No discussion has yet taken place on the merits or otherwise of such a system, and Greeks have had no opportunity to ask how broadcasting could help them to re-establish a sense of identity or a chance of debating, through the medium of public broadcasting, what kind of society they want.