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ERT Greek farce could bring down government and even Euro

It is a year short of a century since the First World War was triggered by a seemingly local event in the Balkans with an assassination.

While the farce over the collapse and later reinstatement of Greek state broadcaster ERT is hardly likely to match that impact, it could still have major geopolitical ramifications far greater than anyone initially anticipated. This is because the events have imperiled the fragile Greek government coalition presiding over the country’s debt settlement reached with the rest of the EU, the European Central Bank (ECF) and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

The details are complex and evolving but essentially it loans around €110 billion in return for a program of austerity designed to reduce Greece’s debt, currently just over €300 billion, to 124 percent of gross domestic product by 2020. A government collapse could cause the deal to unravel and Greece to drop out of the Euro, endangering the whole future of the currency.

At the same time, the saga over ERT has inflamed a simmering row between the EU and the EBU over commitment to public service broadcasting (PSB) across the continent. The EBU has for some time questioned the EU’s level of support for PSB and the Greek crisis has added fuel to this as a result of the EU’s natural desire to encourage the country to reduce its debt. The Greek government, rather mischievously, used this to divert blame from itself for its initial closure of ERT earlier in June, its plan being to reintroduce PSB under a new entity with a budget slashed to €100 million a year from the existing €328m funded by a €51 per household levy on energy bills.

The government suggested it had been put under pressure by its bailout parties to cut costs across all departments, including broadcasting, as part of the debt reduction plan. The EU was quick to deny it had exerted any such pressure, with its commissioner for monetary affairs, Ollie Rehn, insisting it had not requested the state broadcaster be closed down as a condition of the Greek bailout program.

But, this was not enough to placate the EBU, whose president, Jean-Paul Philippot, has been highlighting the wider threat to media freedom that he believes the case represents. At a public meeting in Paris organized by Mediapart and Reporters without Borders, Philippot accused José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU’s executive body the European Commission, of being, at best, “ambiguous” over the ERT affair. He claimed that EC vice-president Ollie Rehn’s spokesman had admitted that the bodies monitoring Greece’s public finances had recommended that ERT be slimmed down.

Although Greece has reversed its decision to close ERT down, Philippot was still concerned that the affair had transgressed the traditional view of public broadcasting as being untouchable and protected from significant budgetary or other manipulation. Those fears appeared well-founded after Hungary, another country suffering from severe economic downturn, seemed to be contemplating a similar raid on its public broadcaster. However, this suggestion was started by commercial broadcasting rival RTL, so it could not be called impartial. RTL argued that Hungary’s public broadcasting budget of €265 million was unsustainable and distorted the country’s TV market as it was greater than that of the two main commercial providers combined.

A similar argument had been made in Greece, given that other European countries of comparable economic size, such as Ireland, spent much less on PSB.

While the Greek government probably anticipated the reaction from the EBU, it clearly miscalculated badly over the level of internal opposition it would receive. After waves of strikes and street protests, the government held an emergency meeting comprising the country’s coalition groups, where Prime Minister Antonis Samaras sought to defuse the tension. This led to heated discussions, during which there was a threat of coalition and breakdown leading to snap elections, with still no agreement in sight by June 21.

The country’s Council of State, its Supreme Administrative Court, had earlier ordered that ERT be brought back on air until a restructured service had been established. But, with the failure among the coalition partners to agree, the future of ERT is still up in the air despite the apparent victory won with the help of intense lobbying from the EBU. In fact, the situation had deteriorated with a junior party to the coalition withdrawing its two ministers from the collation. If it goes on to withdraw voting support, it would leave the coalition with just 153 members out of 300, a majority of three, which is unlikely to be sufficient to see it through the remainder of its term at a time of unparalleled tension and controversy, as it tries to see through the draconian package of cuts.

ERT, or its successor, is still likely to have to bear some cuts and endure a reduction in its 2600 workforce. Samaras has offered to reinstate about 2,000 of the 2,600 who were fired as a result of the closure, but that is being opposed by the socialist party to the coalition, PASOK.

Meanwhile, the EBU is maintaining TV and radio services as a live stream via its website until full services can be resumed to audiences in Greece. ERT’s own over-the-air signal remains blocked because the terrestrial transmitters had been switched off. While the wider geopolitical outcome has yet to be determined, the EBU can at least be content that other governments may be deterred from meddling over much in PSB or threatening budgets in the light of this Greek tragedy that ended in farce.