Dispute over Greek broadcaster illustrates how essential public service broadcasting is

Mission to explain the country to itself particularly crucial at a time of crisis

Imagine waking one morning to find that RTÉ radio and television services had been taken off the air by an overnight government decree.

Many, it is true, might say “good riddance”, while others would scarcely notice. But the social and political repercussions of such a decree would be far-reaching.

That is precisely what happened in Greece last week when ERT (the Greek equivalent of RTÉ) was suspended by a ministerial ruling of New Democracy prime minister Antonis Samaras without reference to his junior coalition partners Pasok and Democratic Left.

Samaras claimed that ERT was responsible for “incredible waste” and suffered from a “unique lack of transparency”.

In the face of huge international criticism and opposition from his partners in government which might have broken the coalition and provoked a general election, the prime minister was forced into a climbdown, while Greece’s supreme court declared his actions beyond his power. ERT is now back on the air.

The episode is crucial to Greek society because it calls into question whether the country actually wants public service broadcasting.

Even more importantly, perhaps, it highlights the government's announcement that ERT would be replaced within three months by a new organisation, "a state company owned by the public sector and regulated by the state".

Arm of government
"Regulated by the state" should alert all proponents of public service broadcasting to the dangers of too close an association between a public broadcaster and a government. It was Seán Lemass, as taoiseach, presiding over the formation of RTÉ in the 1960s, who saw the station as merely "an arm of government".

Conversely, the European Commission, which denied it had any part in the Greek decision, has supported the role of public service broadcasting as “an integral part of European democracy”.

National airlines in recent decades have largely succumbed to market forces, but public service broadcasting is a different kind of entity: the need for public channels which are not profit-motivated, which are supported by the state but not subject to government interference, is generally accepted as a necessary means of ensuring that information, as well as entertainment, is available free of market forces.

It also provides a common reference point in this case not only for Greek residents but also (as for Irish people via the RTÉ Player channel) for an enormous diaspora.

To give Greeks a sense of Greekness at such a crucial time for the country could be seen as one of the principal justifications for public service broadcasting.

Given my background as a former RTÉ employee I might be expected to have an affiliation to the concept of public service broadcasting. But there is no room for either sentimentality or complacency.

In the 1980s I wrote RTÉ’s mission statement “to commission, produce and transmit cost-effective programmes of excellence”.

When the public broadcaster falls short of those standards it deserves a reprimand.

In Ireland we have seen RTÉ putting its house in order by internal revisions in budget, structures and staffing, not least in the light of the Prime Time Investigates debacle in regard to Fr Kevin Reynolds.

Yet it can also provide programmes, such as the recent Breach of Trust expose of Irish creches, which are of national importance and 100 per cent in the public interest.

In Greece a review of ERT’s performance and market share, on an already reduced budget, had been signalled for some time.

This is amid general agreement that the organisation was overfunded and overstaffed, and that its current affairs programming sometimes tended to follow the government line rather than conducting its own investigations.

However, on the basis of my knowledge of RTÉ’s budgets and staffing levels, it seems clear to me that in the case of ERT the proposed reduction of the workforce from 2,650 to a third of that, and a comparable budget reduction, is untenable if responsible quality programming is to be maintained on three TV channels and a nationwide network of local radio when Greece also has seven nationwide private TV channels and literally dozens of regional ones.

ERT channels may not necessarily be the viewing and listening options of first choice – they have only a 15 per cent audience share while private channels are thriving due to the popularity of their mindless diet of foreign soaps and “spin-the-wheel” programmes.

But that is not the point. At a crucial period for Greek society, with issues of identity and national self-confidence at the centre of public debate, the existence of a public broadcaster, even a faulty one, is of paramount importance.

Richard Pine is a former public affairs editor at RTÉ. He now lives and works in Greece