Lessons in how to stage an institutional coup, Greek style

The closure of public service broadcaster ERT marks a damning first in Europe

The news anchors on Greek television channel Net, one of three stations that used to be operated by Greece’s public service broadcaster ERT, were professional to the end. Their final minutes on air were injected with the drama of microphone removal, colleague-hugging and the words “blow to democracy”.

The sudden plug-pulling is as, the European Federation of Journalists put it, “absurd”.

Almost immediately after various broadcasting signals were cut by the Greek finance ministry on Tuesday, ERT journalists and their supporters found ways to circumvent the order. Overnight, this involved the now reliable alternative of online streaming.

But, by yesterday lunchtime, ERT’s supporters in the European Broadcasting Union were busy setting up satellite links in the ERT car park.


These emergency makeshift operations may yet have to last the summer, as the Greek government’s slimline ERT replacement, New Hellenic Radio, Internet and Television (Nerit), won’t be launched until the end of August.

Between now and then, displaced ERT journalists may have to scramble together any un-seized equipment and whatever facilities the EBU (the association of public service broadcasters) can provide if they want to continue reporting on the next phase of the troika-inspired privatisation agenda in Greece. It's either that, or rely on privately owned media to do the job.

No institution is perfect, and a Greek government spokesman has been able to brand ERT “a haven of waste” without much dissent. I guess it’s not like that terribly efficient and effective international banking sector.

It's certainly not too much of a surprise to learn that it shelters a telegenic elite. It probably makes some rubbish programmes, too – the Greek equivalent of Craig Doyle Live, or the Saturday Night Show.

Still, how remarkably clever of conservative Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras, an economist, to have identified the cost-drag of ERT and its 2,500 employees as the real problem within a public sector workforce of 650,000, and render them the first to be made redundant.

It's just a coincidence that anyone who fancies staging a coup would be well advised to begin by shutting down the media outlet most likely to stir up opposition. An "institutional coup", incidentally, is how the left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras describes the ERT switch-off.

“There should be a provision of state funding for media which are essential for pluralism (including geographical, linguistic, cultural and political pluralism), but are not commercially viable.”

Those are not the words of the European Federation of Journalists or the EBU or the Greek left-wing opposition, but the recommendation of the European Commission’s own High Level Group on media freedom and pluralism.

ERT ticked those pluralism boxes in that in some remote and border regions of Greece, theirs were the only Greek-language radio services available.

Europe’s position on public service broadcasters (PSBs) has long been that they are an essential element of national media landscapes.

Indeed, the strength of not-for-profit PSBs remains the most obvious differentiator between the European broadcasting sector and that of the US, and it is one that the European project used to welcome. It likes to rely on PSBs to uphold “European values”.

The statement issued yesterday by the EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn, seemed a bit less sure.

“The commission has not sought the closure of ERT, but nor does the Commission question the Greek government’s mandate to manage the public sector,” it read, toeing the troika line.

It’s a revealingly mild response to the curtailment of media in a country already inflicted with democracy-threatening far-right groups.

Other PSBs nervous about the import of the European Commission’s apparent new ambivalence towards their existence may yet be comforted by the suspicion that there is likely no faster way to garner public enthusiasm for all that they do than the suggestion that the IMF has the power to persuade politicians to press the off button.

In Ireland, however, the joke is that ERT's enforced hiatus won't be much different than the summer exodus of RTÉ presenters. If only the troika would come for Ryan Tubridy next is the drift of the online comments beneath news stories on ERT's fate. Take Liveline, it's yours. ERT, RTÉ – what, apart from the order of the letters, is the difference?

Really, it’s best not to give the troika any more ideas. The EBU has called the Greek government’s act “a damning first in the history of European broadcasting”. Let’s avoid a damning second.