Once more, it is time to step into the hazmat suit and wade into the morass of media regulation, Greek-style. Late last year the Syriza/ANEL government fulfilled one of its manifesto commitments to rewrite the regulatory regime for broadcast licenses in order to tackle vested interests in the media. At the time, we argued in some detail that the new media bill was too narrow in scope and the economics of the sector too stifling to allow for a better deal for viewers, and indeed citizens, and therefore it is primarily interesting as a piece of political theatre. This week the government announced that it will press ahead with fast-track legislation defining the number of TV broadcast licenses and the conditions under which they will be put out to tender. Based on precedent, the political debate promises to be highly charged, and focused largely on other issues. Below is a galloping guide on how that’s likely to play out, and a glossary if you are interested in following the debate.
What’s Belarus got to do with it?
The amendment being debated delights in the heading Amendment to the Bill entitled “Ratification of the Agreement between the Greek Government and the Government of the Republic of Belarus regarding international passenger and commercial transport”… Inserting an amendment to legislation already in the pipeline (whether relevant or not) is the standard operating procedure for fast-tracking bills that would otherwise require weeks of more extensive scrutiny and consultation. I have heard that something like a quarter of legislation in the Greek statute books takes this form, but I have not found a published study to back this claim up (do let me know if you have). Trade relations with Belarus (2015 Press Freedom Score =93, where 0=best, 100=worst) the lucky ones this time.
What’s “the Turk” got to do with it?
Much of the press spent last week speculating on the identity and the motives of a Turkish media mogul (ο Τούρκος καναλάρχης as he was immediately dubbed with customary overfamiliarity by the gossip sites) who expressed an interest in bidding for one of the licenses – presumably because he wants to make a small fortune in the Greek media market having started with a large one. This no doubt provoked a collective sigh of relief by the Greek housewife viewing segment at the prospect of the return of Turkish daytime soaps to Greek screens, while some reassurance was offered to concerned nationalists by his stated intent not to broadcast news programmes.
What will the debate be about?
Process – According to the law voted in last October, the responsibility for licensing broadcasters is shared between the Minister of State and the independent media regulator ΕΣΡ (National Council of Radio and TV). A fractious committee debate last week failed to appoint new members to the Council, and as a result the Minister has assumed full responsibility for the process. Several opposition parties have accused the government of acting unconstitutionally by bypassing the regulator; the government deflects the accusation back at them, accusing them of derailing the process on a technicality in order to protect the vested interests in the media. There may be a valid argument here, but by the time it plays out the amendment will have passed.
Context and timing – Critics are accusing the government of fast-tracking this bill as a distraction from the pressure that it faces over passing the latest bailout review and its handling of the refugee crisis. It is true that compared to the looming vote on pension reform this issue is more likely to unite the government coalition than divide it. Accordingly, PM Alexis Tsipras yesterday, freshly returned from his state visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran, in an open address to his cabinet used this otherwise obscure amendment as his rallying cry and called on them to unite against common enemies. Broadly speaking, though, the sale of broadcast licenses is also a requirement of the latest memorandum/bailout agreement, and putting the licenses out to tender is expected to raise public revenues to help Greece meet its fiscal targets.
Jobs – Journalists are the “human shields” in this conflict. On its own, this topic would be of marginal interest to the mass of society, but poking the hornet’s nest of the media guarantees a lot of coverage by, er, the media themselves, and the emotional involvement of those charged with reporting it, whose jobs also happen to be on the line. As a reminder, minimum employment numbers (400 per licensee) are legislated in the latest media bill, and the preservation of jobs was a key element in the re-opening of the public broadcaster ERT in June 2015. It is hard to simultaneously condemn the corrupt regime that allowed a proliferation of media outlets and argue to preserve jobs in the media sector, but journalists and politicians make valiant efforts to square that circle. However, broadcast journalists have announced their intention to “down tools” during the debate.
Freedom of the press and pluralism – The government has in fact openly antagonised TV channels pursuing a critical line, so it will be surprising to see any of them licensed under the new framework. In the most recent incident, a video montage shown at the recent celebration of Syriza’s one year in government provoked outrage in the opposition and journalists’ unions for including clips of media which the voiceover accused of being part of a hostile coalition against the Greek people. Given the level of (well-founded if sometimes misdirected) cynicism surrounding the media in Greece this argument is unlikely to gain much traction domestically, however it is a debate that needs to be had at some point.
Netflix – The US streaming video service that recently announced it would enter the Greek market is not likely to come up – nor are any other internet-based channels, both global and domestic, that are currently outside the scope of the legislation. If this debate were really about regulation of the media it would have to acknowledge that broadcast TV is losing its grip both on news and entertainment, and the time and attention devoted to it is largely of symbolic and political importance.
Corruption – see below.
Technicalities – see below.
Diaplokí, davatzídes, the systemic media, the “triangle of power”: see our previous glossary entries on this subject.
Θαλασσοδάνεια (thalassodánia):, lit. “sea loans”.The word derives from shipping, and refers literally to loans taken out by shipowners to buy ships that uncannily sink before the loan can be repaid, therefore loans that will never be repaid. Here, loans issued by banks via the so-called “triangle of power” to troubled media groups and political parties.
Γραμμάτια (grammátia): Promissory notes, or IOUs, meaning in this context a political debt. the government accuses the opposition, and particularly the newly elected leader of Nea Demokratia, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of opposing the bill to repay obligations to unnamed backers. For similar concepts, see our Glossary of Informal Exchange Systems.
multiplexes, HD (High Definition), bundles, frequencies, spectrum and other technical jargon. As there is no regulator to assess the technical reasoning behind the proposed licensing regime, these matters will be debated by “lay” MPs. I am not an electrical engineer, but I hear that a memo has gone out to anyone with any knowledge in this area to tune out at this point so as to preserve the integrity of their coiffe.
At stake here is the government’s proposal to issue four national broadcasting licenses to private operators as opposed to the de facto eight. The supporting technical study referred to in shorthand as the “Florence Study” (ironically referenced in the section of the Minister’s note entitled “Transparency – Social participation”) was released to MPs but is not publicly available. An extract missing several key pages found its way onto the internet. In its truncated state it does not provide much scope for preparation for geeks wishing to follow the debate, but it has already provided fodder for incomprehensible statements and counter-statements by politicians. Interestingly though, in one passage that is preserved the report states that “as the financial data available for the period 2013-2015 are incomplete and present inconsistencies, we are unable to apply any of the standard benchmarking scenarios to define the number of licenses to be granted on financial viability grounds”, thus undermining one of the key government arguments for defining the number of licenses.
That’s it from me, I’m off to watch some cute kitten videos on Youtube.
POSTSCRIPT: The authors of the “Florence Study”, the Florence School of Regulation, made the full paper available on their website the day after the legislation was passed.