ERT: Life without public television – A family portrait

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACC BY-NC-ND 2008 by bababobo

My grandmother used to wake up very early in the morning. Keeping the pace of life in the village she grew up in, she never changed her daily routine when she moved to Athens in the early seventies. Her ritual was repetitive and simple: Getting up at 5am; whispering a short, improvised prayer thanking God for another day in this life; watering the plants in her secret, urban garden; switching on her old-fashioned TV set.

The thin blue light which was emitted by the monitor and mixed with the first sunlight, was the signal for my granny that the new day had come. She would spend the rest of it doing her household chores, reading and relaxing, with the TV on which was keeping her the only company she could have.

In this TV-scheduled life, ERT was the one and only default TV channel. My grandmother was watching it in the same way that modern society uses the Internet: as an information centre to keep up with the news and the weather forecast, as a virtual transporter to visit places and attend celebrations she would never be able to go to, and as an entertainment medium to amuse her in her solitude.

She never trusted any of the private TV channels. Being the wife and life partner of a dedicated communist, she got engaged with the idea that the private companies represent the evil face of capitalism and that the common goods – and TV was for sure one of them – should be operated by the state.

The night of the shutdown of ERT, my granny was shocked. She kept calling me to understand what had happened, why her screen was black when she turned on her favourite TV channel, why this was a governmental order, if this, in my opinion, “would lead to the establishment of a regime”.

Having in mind that my aged grandmother had already experienced a world war, an army occupation and a dictatorship among other things, this was really a tough question to answer. Times had significantly changed since her youth, but the ghosts of the past had somehow remained in the closet.

I didn’t want to scare her. So, my response was, “no”, followed by a tremendous effort to explain to my beloved ancestor the sequence of causes and events that led to this governmental decision. My answer though could not beat that feeling of betrayal that she, one of the most dedicated ERT viewers, had already experienced.

The black screen on her favourite TV channel led my grandmother to the most significant change of her daily habits in the last almost forty years: She permanently switched off her TV set, unable to trust the government’s reform efforts and unwilling to follow the private TV channels’ programmes.
Along with her, a particular, if small percentage of the population with the same habits took the same decision. A whole generation raised by the state broadcaster, unable to follow into the Internet era and the trends in social media and unwilling to be informed by privately owned institutions would from now on be left in the dark.

This realization motivated me to investigate the deeper consequences of the ERT closure – considering the value of equal access to information – and to document which sources of information the Greek people would now turn to.

TVXSonERT
The first official survey on the ERT closure was conducted by the company VPRC and commissioned by the highly visited web portal TVXS.gr, owned by Stelios Kouloglou, an acclaimed former ERT journalist and documentary-maker. It pointed out that 65% of the Greek population reacted negatively to this government decision. In fact, the broad solidarity after the shutdown was a clear proof that everybody was worried about where to get information and cultural entertainment.

The most profound genre affected by the ERT shutdown was the news. Although ERT wasn’t the best example for objectivity – it had been used by the previous governments for their purposes – its variety of journalists and political programmes covered a wide range of opinions across the political spectrum.

Ironically, the only party never invited to ERT’s news panels was Golden Dawn, which in revenge, on the day of the shutdown, issued an angry statement supporting the radical government decision for shutdown. Among other things, the neonazi party stated:

“ERT theoretically belongs to the Greek people, but it doesn’t respect one million voters of Golden Dawn. It insults them as ‘neonazis’ and it never invited a Golden representative to speak. Its corrupted workers’ unions switched off Golden Dawn from the public discussion, just as the Prime Minister has now switched off ERT.”

The news bulletins of ERT, even though they weren’t competitive with those of the private TV channels (the total percentage of viewers for all the ERT channels reached a maximum of 15-20% over the last decade), were preferred by those that wanted to watch a more moderate analysis of the political context of events.

This preference had, according to all independent analysts, its greatest significance in the period of the two elections in a row, between May and June 2012, when the public broadcaster gained back its reputation and ranked first in the viewing surveys, with a total of 18,2% percentage during the night of the final results.

During the months following the elections, the ERT journalists tried to keep the aesthetics that had made that particular night a success. Their moderate and critical way of analysing the political events though enraged the ruling party New Democracy. They thought ERT was harshly criticizing every move they made.

On 12 June 2013, the day following his radical decision to shut down ERT, Antonis Samaras, the Greek Prime Minister, made an appearance in an event organized by the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Megaron Mousikis Music Hall. During a triumphant and emphatic speech, he stated:

“There was not a case during the last months, when an important foreign leader came to Greece to support the country’s effort and the sacrifices of the Greek people, or when we made an important visit to a foreign country to find support, that ERT workers weren’t ‘accidentally’ on strike. A strike every time something important or optimistic was going on – that is the kind of information they offered”.

Samaras’ allegation was purely propagandistic. Of course, ERT workers were often on strike, as the whole Greek society during the last three years of recession, and the best timing to shout their demands was when an important foreign leader was in Athens – but to refer to it as a systematic boycott of government’s effort to reform the country seems like a demagogic trick to justify the death of ERT. Samaras’ decision to shut down the only serious medium criticizing the moves of his government resulted in a significant decrease of public political discourse. The population was left alone with private TV channels and newspapers. These, as I will explain in a later post, are deeply entangled with the interests of a small, powerful elite, through a complex network of companies and ownerships, and thus haven’t earned the credibility of a more objective medium.

The lack of alternatives drove people to an increasing use of the Internet and of social media in particular. The vast majority of the population that has Internet access, is now using independent news portals (newsit.gr, newsbomb.gr, newsbeast.gr, jungle.gr, enikos.gr, lifo.gr, tvxs.gr, protagon.gr, news247.gr, thepressproject.gr) or blogs for their information and mostly relies, for the credibility of the depicted events, on Facebook and Twitter.

The two giant social media platforms, used for socializing in the past, had become a major information source over the last three years, during which the massive recession induced by the Memorandum agreements between the Greek government and the troika of lenders hit the Greek population.

A critical objection against them though remains, concerning their failure to stimulate public political discourse. Most events are described and announced as they happen or as the author of the announcement would have liked them to happen. The social media’s nature of publishing and commenting without much critical thought, tends to produce a total chaos of real events, lies, fresh opinions, insults, moderate comments, propagandistic statements, making it extremely difficult for an inexperienced user to identify the facts.

Nevertheless, the social media are as close to real life and its range of opinions as it gets and probably much closer than the depiction of events in any other print or broadcast medium.

Yet, what happens to the generation of my grandmother and to those like her, who do not have Internet access or are not familiar how to navigate it? The answer is as cruel as this: Their information provision has now been left to the private broadcasters and to random, short discussions in public areas, with those privileged with independent information sources. To refer to a famous line by Tennessee Williams, they rely on “the kindness of strangers”.

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