Three years after the shutdown of ERT, I realise that when ERT was shut down I was so much a part of that system that it was impossible for me to conceive writing what follows.
The shutdown and reopening of Public Television in Greece
· Tuesday 11/6/2013: An announcement by the government spokesman is broadcast on ERT at 18.00 that ERT will stop broadcasting at midnight that same day.
· 11/6/2013, 24.00: A black screen begins to be broadcast by all public channels.
· ERT employees continue (illegally – ERT is officially closed) to produce programme and broadcast online by host sites such as the one of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) until 19/8/2013.
· Late August 2013: A makeshift agency at the Ministry of Finance called “DT” (the acronym of Public Television in Greek) begins broadcasting on the frequencies of the former ERT channels. Some employees are hired (mainly from former ERT ones).
· 7/11/2013: Following a public prosecutor's order, riot police forces (MAT) raided the ERT building in Athens at night and evicted the remaining ERT employees who had stayed on for almost five months working for free.
· In the following days, ERT's main evening news bulletin, as well as some news programmes, were broadcast from the street outside of the ERT building. A few days later, ERT employees were moved to the ERT3 studio.
· All employees were dismissed and received dismissal payment.
· 30/1/2014: Inauguration of ERT Open facilities at POSPERT offices (the ERT Employee Union, except for journalists), across the street from the ERT building. Some of the former ERT employees continue to produce programme through ERT Open (without a salary).
4/5/2014–11/6/2015: The New Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (NERIT), the new public broadcaster of Greece, launches (incorporation and statutes were approved as of 26/7/2013). Its headquarters were at the former ERT building at Agia Paraskevi. There were three TV channels – NERIT 1, NERIT Plus and NERIT HD – and five radio stations. Its revenue came from a reimbursement fee and from advertising.
· 11/6/2015: all aspects of NERIT’s activity (radio, TV, internet) cease and are replaced by their ERT equivalents; ERT reopens after 2 years, again under the name ERT, and all its former employees who wished to return to their posts (within 5 days) were hired back.
Was there a report on how much it cost to shut down ERT and reopen it? (An investigation was announced by the government on 4/10/2017 regarding the cost of ERT’s 11 June 2013 shutdown.)
Why was ERT shut down and reopened just as it had been before?
Why and where did the evaluation and what the government had in mind to achieve by closing ERT fail?
What was right in all this process?
What have we/they learned from this process that was then applied to the "new" ERT after the shutdown to make it better?
What does the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) have to say about it all?
How does Greek Public Television operate today? There is talk of a bias, censorship, and news manipulation at ERT now as in the past. How is ERT's independence guaranteed?
How does ERT cover journalistic-interest events?
What was the position of ESIEA and other journalists’ unions about it?
ERT – My Personal Experience
I became an ERT contractor in autumn 2001 to work on the morning show and do broader research. I was not aware that you could be hired by ERT without being a permanent employee; I did not know anything about “contractors.” I was, of course, recommended by someone who knew my work (a journalist working on the news). As a journalist I worked at the morning news programme covering breaking news and live broadcasts (2002–2008), the daily culture show Simeio ART (2010–2013), and the radio, where I produced and presented a talk show on documentary (the first of its kind on Greek radio). I worked at ERT until 2013. In the meantime, I was appointed as Head of documentary acquisitions at ERT Digital (2008–2010) and became the ERT representative at ARTE in Strasbourg (where I attended the monthly programming meeting under ERT’s agreement for international co-productions with ARTE). When ERT was shut down, I was made redundant, and when it reopened I returned within the time frame stipulated (five days). I stayed for about one month, working in the protected environment of the Radio, exploring my options and thinking that something was bound to have changed. I resigned when I realised that, not only had nothing changed, but things were much worse than before, because the two years of shutdown had to be made good from one day to the next. TV staff was in a panic: Not only did they have to manage to produce the programme but they also had to prove that they were not lazy public officers hired back. I feel profound relief for resigning and have not regretted it once in the past three years. In retrospect with the necessary distance today, the situation when ERT reopened was identical with before, and unfortunately it continues to be so, in my opinion, to this day.
· Party-appointed persons, usually having no relevant experience or qualifications, in executive positions
· No interest in meritocracy and evaluation – excellence
· Focus only on news and bulletins that serve the government
· Introversion and obscurantism (e.g. the agreement for international co-productions with ARTE was, and still remains, neglected)
· Efforts for factory-type total control of staff (especially journalists), while certain people returned to ERT salaries yet failed to show up to work every day
· Poor-quality journalism
· Under-representation of arts & culture
· Even fewer islands of freedom and creativity
· Even more powerful POSPERT (administrative and technical unionists, other than journalists)
· An endless misery pervading the very building itself, reflecting the prevailing financial situation in Greece
· Scant personnel since those who returned sought to retire as soon as possible
· Low viewing (much lower than before shutdown)
ERT before the Shutdown
There was always a rumour that ET2 (one of ERT’s three channels, the arts & culture channel) would be shut down. It is not clear why exactly, but it was there. Perhaps it was due to the fact that it had poor ratings (less than 2%) and was the "cultural channel” – therefore served the interests of no administration. Personally I was shocked when the shutdown came, although I worked there and I, and everyone else, should have known better and been prepared). I found out a few hours later by fellow journalists, political editors at VIMA newspaper who I run into on the street after work, around 4 p.m. on 11 June 2013. They already knew; they had information to that effect, which was finally being confirmed. In the evening I went to ERT, like most others, where I stayed overnight so that the "bad guys" who were closing us down could not come and close us down for real. As long as the microphones were on, we had power. We were the public television – without any government intervention for the first time ever.
ERT after the Shutdown
On 11 June 2013, the Greek government, through a joint ministerial decree, announced that on midnight of the same day, the ERT broadcast signal would be cut off, which was effected using riot police at broadcasting antenna facilities. Ironically, the announcement was made on the 18.00 ERT news bulletin. The bubbles of our "open-ended" contracts, which "ensured" that we could never lose our jobs, burst. According to the statement made by the then government spokesman, after a brief (but unspecified) time period a new public broadcaster would be established, which would be up to date, completely independent, disengaged from the corruption and wastefulness of the past, whose staff would strictly be selected on merit and at much lower numbers than the "old" ERT, to number less than 1,000 persons. ERT was the first state-owned company to be shut down under the government's agreement with the Troika for shutting down state agencies and organizations, as well as for civil servant layoffs. Thus, 3 television channels of national coverage (one in Thessaloniki) plus 1 for the Greek diaspora, 7 radio stations, 19 regional stations, the archive/museum, 3 orchestras, and a television magazine (the latter had ceased publication a month earlier) went out of operation. Automatically this meant that some 2,656 ERT employees would be laid off and compensated. In spite of the theoretical (1) budget surplus ensured by the fee embedded in every electricity bill, paid by all, whether they had a TV set or not), the government spokesman described ERT as a "shelter of waste” that cost more and had less viewers than private media. (2)
Employees take an Active Role
ERT employees held a general assembly to determine their stance and issued this statement:
"ERT must be open: to society and its contradictions, issues, concerns, ideas, and actions. ERT must be open: to culture, the world, the various trends, pursuits, and dynamics. ERT must be open: to every citizen of the world in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia. Public Broadcasting has the power and the will to upkeep the public good of information, culture, and sport. It has the courage and determination to fight to stop ERT from being manipulated by any single-party or multi-party administration. We, its staff, are still alive and will prove equal to the circumstances. We will strive for an institutional framework for the operation of ERT, which will consolidate and safeguard the independence of public broadcasting, will finally cut off the umbilical cord with the government and every centre, visible or not, of political and clientelist interventions. ERT must be open – the property and true asset of all Greek citizens. Those who draft plans to shut down ERT can only serve other types of interests. They are dangerous. We, the journalists of the Hellenic Public Broadcasting Corporation, firmly state that we will keep ERT open by all means. We call on every citizen, from Gavdos to Evros, to prevent this nightmare. To prevent any attempt to mute the national Public Broadcaster. Let those who dream up nightmares remain in a fairy tale, or wake up before it's too late. We are awake. We are in a permanent General Assembly and we invite citizens, social and political actors, academics, literary and cultural figures to ERT building at Agia Paraskevi at 19.00. We won’t budge. ERT IS AND WILL REMAIN OPEN.
What Changed in the Employees' Attitude with the Shutdown
I single out from statements of the time:
“It […] will finally cut off the umbilical cord with the government and every centre, visible or not, of political and clientelist interventions.”
“It has the courage and determination to fight to stop ERT from being manipulated by any single-party or multi-party administration,” which say a lot about how what went on in ERT.
Something else that happened was that, in the panic of the shutdown, ERT’s potential awoke from its slumber of long years. "We are still alive" and other such melodramatic statements were made, which resonated with other parts of the population, which feared for its future (especially holders of indefinite contracts with other agencies of the sprawling Greek state administration). Yet, there were other voices saying, "They did well to shut it down, we paid for them, we paid for nothing, ERT's partying is over." Everyone was right, if we had to say who was.
The General Assembly of ERT Journalists: "The ERT employee assembly decided on Tuesday night that all employees would remain both in the Agia Paraskevi building and in the buildings of the regional stations; they called on Athenians for support, and announced open-air protest concerts in ERT’s headquarters. Partying and protesting at the same time, and as the medium broadcast the message, it reached all those who had their own reasons to protest. Using satellite services, some offices and other facilities not yet shut down, journalists continued to broadcast online via EBU (until 19/8/2013). However, it was a time of diversity and some wonderful things came out, produced democratically. This was the first time I have ever had an experience like this. And it lasted for a month for me. Almost a month, which I spent at ERT, producing and presenting shows about the issues I knew best – culture and documentary. Everyone had an incentive to demonstrate that ERT should remain open, and they along with it. It was a matter of principle, a reaction of pride. Yet, why did it have to get to that point before we reacted? Why didn’t anyone speak out earlier? Was this material evaluated?
From the very first moment of the announcement, there were strong reactions from the entire political world, which seized the opportunity to make statements. Already on Tuesday 11/6/2013, at 19.45, SYRIZA President Alexis Tsipras (who eventually reopened ERT as it was before, when he became prime minister, in 2015) visited ERT and stated: “In the old days there were royal decrees – today there are legislative acts. This is the 19th in a row. This is a coup, directed not only against workers but also against the Greek people as a whole. They lie to the Greek people, saying that they seek to eliminate wastefulness; they lie because ERT gives to the budget, it does not receives from it. I warn the government not to try to cut out the signal. If it does, it will be accountable to justice. Public service broadcasting is a matter of democracy. It is the Troika that must be shut down." (3)
Ιn the years when I was working at ERT (2001–2013), often there was watercooler talk to the effect that the only way to rid ERT of idlers, trade unionists, party-appointed worthless employees (which were only too many) and salaried people who never showed up for work (some 80–100 persons, two of whom I personally knew) was to shut it down after having evaluated everyone and reopen it the next day after doing what needed to be done. In other words, to get rid of the "useless” ones, make the best of the untapped potential, and, with a new organisational structure drafted in advance without compromise, to build a new, streamlined public television. It was also a common secret that ERT was basically "run" by contractors, not permanent employees. There were contractors in all specialties – technicians (the so-called “outsourced crews"), administrators, and journalists. Even trainers (there was a gym, of course, at ERT) and gardeners.
Permanent and Semi-permanent Staff
The “permanent” staff was a nightmare to work with for the 12 years I had to work with them. Simply because most of them worked as if they were making a personal favour to you. “Don’t worry, be happy" was the technicians’ motto whenever they were asked to actually do their work. The unprecedented loafing of some people who were just wandering around aimlessly at work was hard to put to words, and of course if you were willing to go the extra mile at work you were accused of “unfair competition." To be able merely to get your job done required careful social engineering; to manage to work with colleagues of this kind you had to have a world of patience with technicians, or if it were your lucky day you might get someone who shared your willingness to work during your shift. How much energy wasted! On my very first shooting, the sound engineer told me, "I wanted to get a job at Olympic Airways, but my guy only had connections at ERT, so here I am." This mechanism was so firmly established that it could crush you if you did not play along. As long as I could, I always sought islands of safety.
My own contract was as a journalist, also as a contractor initially and then an "indefinite" contract based on a 2005 Law that converted all outsourcing project contracts at the time to indefinite status for those who had three successive such contracts within a certain period of time. This Law made permanent ERT’s last 1200 contractors. More than half of those did not even have a university degree. Yet, the Journalists’ Union (ESIEA) didn’t say anything about those 600 journalists without a degree who were hired under an indefinite-time contract. As a journalist I had the right to work on the side, with a side work permit, or to claim an "exclusive" contract with ERT (in addition to the indefinite-time contract), through which I could have another salary, a much higher one (of course). I got such a contract (a 6-month agreement for 2,500 Euros before tax, instead of 1,800 Euros) when I was appointed as Head of documentary acquisition at ERT Digital (a post which did not even exist in the organisational chart).
What Was Happening at ERT?
The issue of “permanent status" was inhibiting all areas of work and productivity. The ERT salary served as a basis for working on the side, and therefore work for ERT had to be done expending the minimum amount of energy. Journalists’ self-promotion and privileges were a motivation for work (and claiming more privileges – exclusive contracts, for instance) but to the extent that the management allowed you to do your work. There was the "fridge". If you were not liked by the management, or did not suit it politically, they did not drive you away (because it couldn’t), but it set you aside for some time – on the shortwave radio for example. I spent time "in the fridge," when the administration decided to shut down ERT Digital television overnight.
The Golden-Boys Era
In mid-2000, the most successful show, for example, was Lyritzis and Economou, where I worked for 7 years covering breaking news and live interviews. Lyritzis and Economou, who had radio experience, where they had a very successful political show, did not have an indefinite-time contract, but a contract in the order of 350,000 Εuros per year each, for ERT’s daily morning news zone (6.00-10.00).
Of course, journalists, as I said, enjoyed a better status and more freedom (or at least an illusion of freedom) than the administration. Good shows were untouchable, the news bulletin was the flagship of the news department, sports always came above shows and news (very often the TV and radio programme was shifted around for their sake). The only opportunities to do other things, perhaps more creative and worthwhile, from 2001 on, when I was at ERT, were for example culture and radio.
ERT Digital – A New ERT (which did not last long) within the Old One
From time to time, certain exasperated efforts to get over the status quo of ERT’s operation were made. One of these was ERT Digital, where I worked in 2008–2010. ERT Digital operated like a separate ERT, without an organisational chart of its own, yet with a distinct status and budget, with the tolerance of “mother" ERT, as we fondly called it, because it was under the protection and management of one of the three ERT chairman’s advisors, and enjoyed flexibility and freedom. ERT Digital was the first attempt to re-invent ERT while it was in operation. In other words, a concurrent ERT, which seemed to be intended to replace mother ERT eventually. Employees were contracted from the private sector; there was a news channel, a channel for people with disabilities, an art & culture channel, and a sport channel. The most privileged ERT employees and some who were qualified, such as myself (not that I was privileged – I was simply being lucky), were transferred from mother ERT to staff ERT Digital. This was in 2007–2010.
It was an experiment: for instance, a 24-hour arts and culture programme was built, having ARTE as a model – Cine + – on a budget of 1 million Euros. Perhaps that is precisely why it was shut down. Perhaps so that it was not competitive to pay-TV channels. Or so as not to compete with mother ERT, which always saw ERT Digital with suspicion (and rightly so, as the latter was more "independent" and did not operate under the mother ERT's hierarchy, obviously). A few years later, three to be exact, ERT would be shut down completely for two years under a right-wing government and another prime minister.
Greeks and ERT
The government shut down ERT without imagining the impact. The people, however, always turned to ERT for reliable information on all big events, when the channel showed its best self. I remember the tsunami in India, 9/11, elections, extreme weather – the people always switched on ERT for information on such events. So, the shutdown, which became known as “the black screen” did not go down well with the people. And people “rebelled," demonstrating outside ERT and blocking the road for days on end. I do not know if this reflected the majority, but they were determined and certainly had nothing to lose. Yet, this was the same ERT that we all claimed back – the one that in 2012 censored a kiss between a gentleman and a male servant in the first episode of Downton Abbey – and after the uproar decided to broadcast, a few days later, the episode, with the scene in question, after midnight.
I believe that the pressure of the people, the Greek sentimentality, and the, albeit brief, explosive reaction, helped to put on pressure for a solution. (Yet, was there finally a solution?) Even the timing helped, being in June and hence summertime, and good weather facilitated concerts, demonstrations, endless debates and protests in front of ERT’s main building, in which hundreds of thousands of people participated passionately. From day one, you would be forgiven to believe that it was a fair, with dozens of illicit (naturally) street vendors roasting souvlaki and corn, the smoke covering up the dozens of banners and slogans from various trade unions from all over the country that hung across the front on the fence. They had ruffled the Greeks’ feathers by closing “the people’s ERT". The same ERT, which others blamed for “a program that sucked, government-manipulated news," saying that "we're paying for loafers, lazy buggers who enjoy a permanent job while people all around are being fired and face the crisis." Do not forget this was 2013. Emotionally reacting, Greeks responded to the cuts they suffered, to the pressure they were under, due to the insecurity caused by the financial crisis and a future that looked bleak. ERT (its employees) had a moment of awakening and began to give and to demand, to open up to its audience, to whom it had turned its back until then. The symphony orchestras went out to the courtyard and gave free concerts for the people every day. The archives were put to good use, for once, as a way to fill in the gap in the programme. There was contact, a common ground, dialogue, great programming – everyone gave their best, and a large part of the people responded. Public television was a public good: Everyone could claim it, and finally did.
This was also a time of public consultations using democratic procedures, and debates on democracy, on “what kind of public television do we want,” moderated by journalists. We all volunteered to offer what we knew how to do best, and the broadcasts, structured in zones to which everyone had the opportunity to contribute, were on 24 hours a day. Films were provided free of charge, royalty-free – everyone gave what they could. I think this was a phenomenon that called for a psychological analysis. I stayed on for about a month. Then I began to think about what I was going to do with my career. Others went on at ERT Open, going without a salary for two years, until ERT reopened and they all returned to their posts or were promoted to a "coordinator" position.
But back then nothing had happened – under the pressure of this unexpected people’s reaction for ERT, the government had to do something. Constitution of the Hellenic Republic, Article 15: (Cinema, Recording, Radio, Television)
1. The press protection provisions of the previous article do not apply to cinema, recording, radio, television, and any other similar means of transmitting audio or video. 2. Radio and television are under the direct control of the State. Control and enforcement of administrative sanctions fall within the exclusive competence of the National Council of Radio and Television, which is an independent authority as defined by law. Direct control by the State, which also takes the form of the status of the previous license, aims at the objective and equitable broadcast of information and news, as well as of the products of literature and art, ensuring the quality of the programmes imposed by the the social mission of radio and television, and the cultural development of the country, as well as the respect for human value and the protection of childhood and youth. The compulsory and free broadcast of parliamentary proceedings, as well as of election messages by the political parties by broadcasting media is provided by law.
The two State Council decisions following ERT’s shutdown said, in free translation: "You were wrong to shut it down – there must be a public television." A Ministry of Finance agency was promptly set up, named Public Television (DT), and began broadcasting makeshift programme in late August 2013. Certain employees were in fact hired (by a process that is not clear to me). I was asked by phone to "go and give a hand," which I did not do. I remember the phone call was promising a lot; it was on a weekend on my cellphone, while I was at Galaxidi (in Delphi Municipality) just before or after the 15 August holiday. At the same time, the tribute I was working on as a journalist and presenter at ARTE – a 24-hour tribute to Greece without bias and beyond the headlines – aired.
Public Television (DT) (initially called Hellenic Public Television, or EDT) was the transitional public broadcaster, which broadcast a television programme between ERT’s shutdown and the launch of NERIT. The legal entity running DT was the Special Asset and Liabilities Manager of the former ERT S.A.," under the Ministry of Finance. DT broadcast on the frequencies of the former ERT channels. From the late January 2014, DT’s management had passed to the Board of Directors of NERIT until the new broadcaster went into operation, while DT staff was rented out to NERIT.
The law provided for a Board of Directors and a Supervisory Board, and, in early May, NERIT began to broadcast a program that was largely makeshift and full of repetitions. The intention was to hire another 650 people by October. The ratings were sad. It was already one and a half years since ERT’s shutdown, and now there were two television stations (essentially only one in operation) and three radio stations – the First Programme, the Third Programme (external production), and Kosmos FM, airing a play list, which was also intended to be outsourced. NERIT also had a symphony orchestra and the museum/archive. There were some 900 employees (850 were hired by DT to continue until their contracts expired at the end of 2015 and 40 by NERIT).
What was happening in the administration? NERIT executives, including the CEO of the Board of Directors and his deputy, resigned, denouncing direct government intervention in their work. (4) Members of the Supervisory Board followed suit, complaining of government manipulation. (5) At the same time, the Single-Member First-Instance Court of Athens annulled the redundancies of former ERT employees, and reports of illegalities and fake certificates in the NERIT recruitment procedure were published. In 2014, a total of €190 million was collected from the contributory fee in electricity bills, of which 91% was allocated to NERIT (the remaining went towards Greece's debt). The total revenue was €194.2, but due to the compulsory retention of revenue, NERIT recorded a loss of €3.8 million.
The NERIT project was left incomplete, and ERT reopened “just as it had been," again hiring all former employees. Chatting with former colleagues three years later, in 2018, they all unanimously said, “You’re so lucky you left," and, “Things have never been worse."
Dimitra Kouzi (29/1/2018)
(1) Why should ERT's budget (which covered wages and content) equal the contributory fee? And be determined by it?
(2) A partially correct observation for points 2 and 3.
(3) Does ERT actually give back to the budget? It receives the compulsory contributory fee included in all electricity bills and gives it to the budget. So it is not ERT that gives – it’s the Greeks who give (again).
(4) What was previously permitted could not continue now. The question arises, “Since they did not want to intervene, and that was one of the reasons why they shut down ERT, why did they continue to intervene in the new ERT?"
(5) Pantelis Kapsis, who was in charge of the transition from the shutdown ERT to the new broadcaster, stated in his capacity as press secretary responsible for public television:
"I was tasked with building the new broadcaster, but there was a decision by the Council of State to the effect that a programme had to be restored immediately. Since the two new entities – the Supervisory Board and the Board of Directors – were established, I did not have any competence over them, only political oversight,” noted Kapsis, who went on to say, "In the struggle to set up NERIT, my role was auxiliary. And it was a big struggle, an unprecedented effort, to establish a public utility from the beginning. Now I realise that you cannot make a public utility under such stifling political, social, and time pressures. It’s practically impossible. I don’t feel I could have done something different. Perhaps in terms of the persons involved, it can be said that we did not achieve the best chemistry for this endeavour. Yet, I feel that when two centres of authority are put into place, this creates the conditions for friction." A recent amendment to the NERIT Act passed by the Second Summer Parliament House, provides that one of these two "power centres", the Supervisory Board, will be designated by the respective government. There were many reactions. "The NERIT Act in fact required time-consuming procedures, but the solution is not restoring government control. The Supervisory Board can and should be appointed by a more representative body, not by the House majority,” remarked Pantelis Kapsis. (Kathimerini newspaper, Giouli Eptakoili, "NERIT: Neither Public Nor Television,” Tileorasi, 28.09.2014)
The literary author Christos Chomenidis (who then resigned from NERIT’s Supervisory Board, in which he participated gratuitously) remarked: "The only way to avoid being criticised is to do nothing. I accepted the post because I considered it as an opportunity. I have an outlook on things that unfortunately is being refuted by reality. If this government cohabitation was sincerely aimed at reforming, it would have changed the rules of the game in Greece. It would also sooner or later force the opposition to enter into a game of substance. Yet, no one seems to be willing to make any reforms. We live in a pretext, rather than reality. And an apt case in point is public radio and television broadcasting." To the Chairman, Supervisory Board, NERIT, Professor Theodoros Fortsakis, Athens, 15 September 2014
Christos Chomenidis’s resignation followed the resignations of the CEO, Antonis Makrydimitris, and the deputy CEO, Rodolfos Moronis, last week.
Read also more facts and figures in Kathimerini newspaper 28.5.2018