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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 23 June 2018
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 23 JUNE 2018 7 NEWS Will the ABC meet the fate of ERT? Two countries, two cultures, two state broadcasters, one similar debate about the purpose of public-owned media and the political will to control them NIKOS FOTAKIS There are coincidences and then there is this. My social media timeline had barely recovered from the flood of posts commemorating the five-year anniversary of the abrupt closure of the Greek public broadcaster ERT by the Antonis Samaras government when another flood of posts started. This time people are protesting the Liberal Party annual council's overwhelming vote to privatise the ABC. Two continents, two very different countries, two media landscapes, one shared ongoing debate: the purpose and usefulness of a public broadcaster. I remember the night the Samaras government decided to shut down ERT. Ι was one of the thousands of citizens who rushed to its headquarters to protest one of the least thought through and most authoritarian decisions of a government burdened applying the bailout program for the Greek economy – and failing spectacularly at this. Facing the backlash from the middle and working classes already protesting the slashing of wages, pensions, workers' rights, industrial agreements and so on, the government was investing in law-and-order politics and a hardline approach towards dissent. Forced by the bailout agreement to decrease public spending, it was looking for ways to minimise the public sector. ERT would be a shining example of this: it was a dysfunctional, overstaffed, underperforming company, mostly run by a corrupt union, which produced programs that very few people watched. For decades, it had been the object of studies and independent research - advisers from all over Europe had presented plans to fix it and all were shelved by governments too afraid of the political cost. In the end, Samaras took the worst decision: to shut it down completely and replace it with a new broadcaster that would only employ 1,000 people, a third of the organisation's permanent staff at the time. On the night of the 13 June 2013, most of these 3,000 dominated the recent podcast craze, with its seminal Serial and other programs. More importantly, a brief overview of the world's state-owned media would confirm ABC's status as one of the best-run, bestfunctioning and highest-quality producing broadcasters in the world. The arguments about privatisation of public assets are well-known and basically amount to decreasing public spending. But there is much more to an enterprise that uses public infrastructure than that. Staff and ABC fans protest the ABC spending cuts in 2014. were at the building, alongside many more supporters. I remember the maze of corridors filled with people: journalists, technicians, administration staff were in emotional distress. Some were crying, other shouting angrily and many just staring into a void. Artists, intellectuals and politicians rushed to offer support. The opposition, of course, exploited it as best as it could. For days, or weeks, the area had turned into a stage of protest. Concerts took place every night and talks and rallies held during the day. Finally, the police intervened and ousted everyone. A new public broadcaster was created, which looked pretty much like the previous one. Same style of leadership, same type of programming, different faces, even more government propaganda. In the end, after the election, the new (and current) leftistand-far-right coalition government reinstated ERT and replaced the 'replacement' with its own staff, attracting the same criticism: that it is basically a mouthpiece for government propaganda. ERT has faced the same criticism for decades and was probably thereason for Samaras' decision. The excuse might have been that it is too costly and not popular among viewers compared to commercial television stations, but the real reason was that the government could not deal with a union-run organisation on continuous strike protesting that are not commercially viable"? More than what is visible on the surface. The motion was voted by two-thirds of the Liberal Party federal council last Saturday, despite every cabinet member and high-ranking official in the room saying that this is not going to become government – or in fact, party – policy. A few of them deemed it as "madness". The council called for the party to resist "high senti- Conservative politicians have campaigned against the public broadcaster for years, accusing it of left-wing bias. So the real issue is that rightwing politicians want to get rid of the ABC because they can't control its views. Samaras had the same problem with ERT. A view of the world’s state-owned media would confirm the ABC’s status as one of the highest-quality producing broadcasters in the world. the bailout austerity measures. What does this have to do with the ABC, and the Young Liberals' motion to privatise the Australian Broadcasting Corporation "except for services into regional areas mentality" i.e. affection towards iconic programs such as Bananas in Pyjamas and Play School to save about $1 billion a year. Whatever the reasoning, everyone knows that conservatives don't like the ABC. But this is probably where similarities between the two broadcasters end. ERT has always been one of the worst examples of public-owned media in the world: overstaffed, inflexible, corrupt and totally controlled by the government. The ABC is pretty much the opposite. In terms of both content and political independence, it is one of the finest examples of state-run media, along with the BBC and CBC. There is no advanced country without a public broadcaster. Even the US, with their underfunded PBS and NPR, would never totally abolish these models. PBS, after all, has been producing stateof-the-art documentaries for decades, not to mention Sesame Street. As for NPR it has The mission of public transport, for instance, is not to be profitable, but to ensure that people can go from one place to another. Creating infrastructure of this kind is the role of government and it's not a charity; roads and public transport and infrastructure ensure that a society is functional. Whatever the benefits of privatisation, they are far from a panacea: in most of Europe, there is a reversal of water privatisation and the jury is still out here on whether it was a good idea to privatise Telstra, for example. So anyone advocating and championing the privatisation of ABC should spare the public the cost-diminishing rationale and admit that no private owner would invest in investigative journalism like Four Corners or even in high quality drama like Barracuda. Even Young Liberals admitted that servicing rural areas would still fall on the government. People in rural areas have already felt the consequences of the Coalition government's stance towards the ABC, when the restructuring imposed by the new administration stripped RN of most of its music programs. Now they are in danger of losing even more. By all accounts, the chance of this happening are dim - and not only because of "sentimentality". Research shows that most Australians still trust 'Aunty', particularly when it comes to news. And this is what infuriates conservatives, who are used to being pampered by the Rupert Murdoch media machine. But this does not mean that there is not reason to worry. "There are people with games" here, as every Play School viewer surely knows.
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