SInce landing in Greece last August my radio dial has been steadfastly glued to 93.6 FM. Cosmos offered an eclectic mix which regularly surprised and delighted – more than satisfying my monkey-mind music tastes. Depending on the whim of the presenter you might encounter reggae, tango, English pop, world music, hip-hop, jazz, salsa, electronica or maybe even a Hawaian guitar ballad – basically a whole heap of genres from around the globe.
But earlier this week, the radio fell ominously silent. Out of nowhere, the Greek government decided to pull the plug on the national broadcasting network and Cosmos was one of the victims. The Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, ERT, Greece’s equivalent of the BBC, began broadcasting in 1938. It survived Nazi occupation during World War and the military junta of 1967 to 1974, only to be slain in 2013 by the might of the troika. So on Tuesday night, 5 TV stations, and 29 radio stations vanished mid-broadcast into the ether.
The government decided to sever the institution and over 2500 employees to appease it’s lenders in another round of brutal austerity cuts. Citing chronic corruption and mismanagement as reasons for the closure, government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said the broadcaster would reopen at some stage with a “much smaller staff”
But in a nation renowned for its glacial pace of reform, this was no graceful exit stage left. With no apparent regard for democracy, the cull was swift and near instantaneous. Transmitters, fibre links, internet connections and phone lines were shut down in a matter of hours. Riot police were despatched to ERT premises threatening the arrest of any employees who failed to vacate the buildings immediately.
Shock sent waves soon rippled out into the summer night. The opposition party called it an information coup d’etat and accusations of totalitarianism flew left and right. Labour unions quickly rallied a 24 hour general strike and the following day schools, hospitals and public transport joined the protests in solidarity. In addition up to 10,000 people gathered in the streets in opposition to these latest cuts, amidst rumours of the government falling.
So why such an acute reaction to a network with only a 12% market share that was riddled with nepotism, partiality and corruption? Part of the answer lies in the fundamental belief that broadcasting funded by the public purse -unfettered by the sway of private companies or shareholders – is the only way to safeguard the delivery of objective and unbiased news, education and entertainment.
The ERT Symphony Orchestra was another casuality of the closure
The national broadcaster certainly fell short of these ideals but in a media world dominated by commercial stations with 15 minute ad breaks, endless reruns of Jersey Shore, cheap Turkish soaps and late night soft porn, ERT was considered a last bastion of quality programming. Tune in any night and you’d be likely to encounter poetry, literature, fine art, local culture, world history, ad-free sports coverage or late night philosophical discussions. ERT was the polar opposite of the Murdoch model of mass media.
But for the government and the troika, ERT was a microcosm of a broken, unsustainable Greece that could no longer survive in a post-bailout world. In the wild west of modern neo-liberal Europe, ERT was a tired and lame horse, ready to be taken out into the fields and shot.
But there’s still a glimmer of hope. Two days after the closure, the European Broadcast Union (EBU) announced that 51 broadcasting directors, including the BBC have signed a petition to reopen ERT, calling the government’s action anti-democratic and unprofessional. The next few days and weeks are crucial, not only for safeguarding thousands of jobs, but also for preserving the right to produce programmes by and for the Greek people. Who knows? Maybe I might even be able to listen to Cosmos again….