Why am I defending a public broadcaster (ERT) that banned me, and which I always considered problematic?

Last night I spent a few hours, again, at ERT’s main building in Athens, keeping a finger on the ‘liberated’ organisation’s pulse, being interviewed (for the web tv broadcast that is keeping ERT’s voice alive) in tandem with my friend and colleague James Galbraith, listening to the excellent bands performing in the courtyard, soaking up the feeling occasioned by the spontaneous protest against the government’s closure of such a problematic public tv and radio organisation. Many foreign journalists ask me: Why are you defending a station that banned you and which you describe as problematic? Here is part of my answer as I articulated for the purposes of an op-ed piece published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (click here for the article in German):

ERT has been part of Greece’s woodwork since the 1930s. Ancient recordings of its announcement that Nazi troops were about to enter its Athens headquarters are still played back on the 28th of October commemoration of Greece’s Second World War experience. Up until 1989 ERT held a total monopoly of television and radio. Most of us grew up at best mistrusting it and at worst loathing it, as a propaganda instrument of the state. Yet, once a torrent of commercial media was unleashed in the 1990s, and they quickly turned into Berlusconi-esque temples of motivated superficiality, ERT’s stale, old-fashioned ways, while never loved, provided a kind of anchor in a sea of lifestyle vulgarity.

Its news bulletins resembled a series of party press releases; first you would hear the government’s version, then the official opposition’s, then the third party’s, and so on. No serious attempt was made at a critical synthesis of these positions, in case ERT’s political masters were unimpressed. The current affairs programs that followed the news were equally stage-managed, careful to preserve the parties’ ‘right’ to deliver boring monologues instead of staging proper, lively debates. Worse still, the direct link between the Ministry of the Press and ERT’s management meant that the former had the power of censorship as well as the power to staff the organisation with their cronies, with untold damage both to the quality and the financial health of the organisation.

As probably the only Greek commentator to have been blacklisted by ERT over the past two years, due to the previous government’s annoyance at my insistence that Greece was bankrupt and should default in 2010, instead of adding huge new loans to un-payable debts, I feel I have the moral authority to cry out against ERT’s passing. Over the last three nights, I made my return to ERT’s employee-occupied studios, which are broadcasting non-stop (officially illegal programs) over web tv in support of the call to keep ERT open. Interviewed by the same journalists that were hitherto banned from interviewing me, I told them that, despite ERT’s many ills, its sudden, authoritarian closure by our troika-led government is a crime against public media that all civilised people, the world over, should rise up against.

Why? Because however stale, inefficient, even corrupt our public media organisations may be, they are essential to a well functioning society. In our stratified societies the legal system, for instance, is arguably unfair toward the weaker members of society who cannot afford the top lawyers or who are inarticulate. Even in the most civilised society, courts offer us nothing more than a chance of justice. There are no guarantees of it. Similarly with our public education systems. Frequently, they serve the interests of the middle class better than those who truly need public education. Nevertheless, this is no reason to close down the courts or our public schools.

Similarly with public television and radio: they offer us no guarantee of current and affairs pluralism and cultural diversity. What they offer us is merely a chance of it. A chance for an electronic public space were values are irreducible to prices and voices can be heard that annoy our society’s high and mighty.