"A direct blow to democracy": the switch-off of Greece's state broadcaster

After the closure of ERT, the country's political future hangs in the balance, writes Yiannis Baboulias.

In a move that left the country speechless, the Greek government announced the closing of the state television and radio network ERT (the Greek equivalent of the BBC) yesterday. With an "emergency law" that hadn't previously been discussed or announced, and in a fashion that suits dictatorial regimes more than it does democratic states, the closure was announced for midnight last night.

ERT is to pass under the direct control of the Finance Ministry and its 2,500 employees are to be fired in an effort to "reform" the state broadcaster. The government has labelled the station a "money-wasting and overstaffed mess", and promises to reopen it in September with reduced staff and a different philosophy in its management. But who trusts the current government, given its poor track-record when it comes to press freedom, and its notoriously nepotistic practices?

Riot police were dispatched to take down the transmitters and switch off all possible links to the outside world from the ERT building in the Athens suburbs, after staff announced they would occupy it and continue broadcasting. Thousands of people gathered outside in support, but no clashes took place with the police that had soon surrounded the building. One by one, transmitters were shut down in a dramatic countdown broadcast through the station's web TV, the last gateway of communication (still running at the moment). "This is a direct blow to democracy," the presenters announced. "We're not going anywhere."

ERT, financed by a licence fee Greeks pay through their electricity bills, is home to an invaluable digital archive that is now to be sold off, broadcasts investigative journalism shows unlikely to be carried by Greece's infamously biased private stations and plays host to the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle and RIK among others.

The station has been running a surplus budget for the past four years. So it comes as a surprise when the government's spokesman Simos Kedikoglou (already sued for libel by the opposition SYRIZA MP N Diamantopoulos for altering a video to make him appear in support of terrorists) declares the station "a haven of waste". He said: "ERT is a typical example of unique lack of transparency and incredible waste. And that ends today."

So what is the government hoping to achieve with an authoritarian move that has brought scrutiny from major European media organisations, as well as the European Commision?

ERT has long been used by government ministers and MPs as a way to take care of their own. Most recently, the case of Anthi Salagkoudi made it to the pages of the German news magazine Der Speigel as a striking case of nepotism, in which the daughter of the former minister George Salagkoudis was hired as a presenter with a salary of €3,500, only for the channel to find out she wasn’t suitable for the position. Despite that "disadvantage", Salagkoudi was moved around the channel until a suitable job was found for her.

That is unfortunately a low-level entry in the list. Consultants and managers costing several thousand euros a month have found places at ERT, influencing the station's voice in favour of the government - the case of the fired presenters Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Kasimi particularly sticking out. After criticising the government, their show was cut by the New Democracy-appointed manager Emilios Litasos (more on the case here). Why would anyone trust the very people that created the mess in the first place to "reform" ERT?

The most likely answer lies elsewhere. Recent government spin has claimed that Greece has seen off the worst of the economic crisis, but after a series of failed deals to privatise state assets, the Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras is desperate to show resolve and fire public employees to meet the austerity conditions imposed by the Troika. His latest move threatens to unravel, however, since it has brought his party, New Democracy, into direct conflict with its junior coalition partners PASOK and Dimar, with PASOK threatening to walk away if the government doesn't back down, and a DIMAR MP tweeting a cryptic: "I think we're close to the end".

Insiders have been circulating rumours for months, suggesting Samaras is not happy with the status quo as his nominally centre-left partners stop him from moving the agenda even further to the right. The DIMAR Justice Minister P Roupakiotis, for instance, often clashes with New Democracy Citizen Protection minister N Dendias over proposed bills he deems "unacceptable". Samaras is said to have approached the far-right party LAOS (participants in the 2012 Papadimos coalition government) and members of the Independent Greeks, possibly in a move to unite a grand coalition of the right. If his partnership with PASOK and DIMAR breaks, he might look even further to his right. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was the only other elected party to support the bill, which raises fears as to where this coupling is headed.

If the government fails this test - and it looks likely to - Greece may be heading to the polls soon. That prospect will certainly find the country's European partners in disarray. A SYRIZA surge under the current conditions would put an end to the positive spin, sending a bad message to German voters who will be heading to the polls this September. But it is imperative we talk about why Europe still puts up with a government that has clearly lost its marbles when it comes to freedom of speech. ERT's rich history means ordinary people won't give it up easily, and its staff, finally liberated after receiving the final blow from a government that's been gunning for them every step of the way, are broadcasting vitriolic comments against New Democracy, naming names and scandals that previously they had been afraid to.

The next few weeks look likely to prove crucial for Greece's future.

Follow Yiannis on twitter @yiannisbab

A man walks past wall art showing a television test pattern and reading "no signal" in central Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt