Moving Forward: the Importance of the Media in Politics

Órla Ryan

OPINION: Politics are a lot like life: you never know what lies around the next corner.  Unprecedented levels of upheaval have occurred since the onset of the global recession five years ago.

Attempting to steer a country or bloc of countries, as is the case in the European Union, out of the current financial malaise is no mean feat.  It’s a process of trial and error but, given the potentially enormous impact of many policy decisions, politicians must avoid behaving in a short-sighted manner.

Before the Cypriot bailout, Ireland was one of the EU states that formed the unfortunately named PIGS.  Alongside Portugal, Greece and Spain, we received bailouts from the Troika of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  The terms and conditions of the bailout programmes varied from country to country.

One of the more bizarre offshoots of the Greek austerity programme was the shutting down of their state broadcaster last week.  New Democracy – the senior party in the country’s coalition government – closed the Hellenic Broadcasting Company, or ERT, by ministerial decree last Tuesday, meaning no consultation with their coalition partners was required.  A government spokesperson said the broadcaster’s closure was necessary to meet the strict financial goals required by the Troika.

Plans for a scaled down replacement were not well received.  ERT journalists have defied the government’s decision by continuing to broadcast via an online feed.  They have received support from the European Broadcasting Union and the National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland, among others.

In a jointly written letter, Jean-Paul Philippot and Ingrid Deltenre, the EBU’s President and Director General respectively, condemned the broadcaster’s closure as “a damning first in the history of European broadcasting”.

The letter continued: “The existence of public service media and their independence from Government lie at the heart of democratic societies, and therefore any far-reaching changes to the public media system should only be decided after an open and inclusive democratic debate in Parliament … While we realise the need to make budgetary savings, national broadcasters are more important than ever at times of national difficulty.”

Following the international denouncement of his party’s decision, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said he would allow an immediate partial reinstatement of the organisation.  The U-turn was labelled “totally insufficient” by Greece’s Association of Journalists, ESEA.  Politicians from the country’s three-party coalition government are currently holding talks on how to move forward.

The series of events unfolding in Greece highlights the trial and error dimension of bailout programmes.  Throughout and before Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, we have been labelled the poster child of ‘How to (Almost) Exit a Bailout’.  Imagine if Enda Kenny announced, presumably on TV3, that RTÉ would cease to exist as of midnight.  Giving out about our national broadcaster is a shared public hobby and, at times, justified.  Where would we be without it?

The media is often the sole provider of information on politics to the masses.  It wields immense power in terms of opinion forming.  Perhaps ERT, like many longstanding organisations, requires a major overhaul, but the Greek government has cut off their nose to spite their face.  An unbiased, independent media is vital to democracy.  Mr Samaras and co should have known this already, but they definitely will in the near future.  Their move was a kneejerk reaction, and the wrong one to make.

Over the past six months, Youth Media and the Irish Presidency has provided a fresh angle on reportage of Ireland’s EU Presidency.  Enabling 25 youth journalists to attend a diverse range of EU conferences and public forums opened up the Presidency in an unprecedented way.  It got more young people than ever in Ireland interested in budget meetings, policy reform and our shared European future.  Hopefully the upcoming Lithuanian and Greek presidencies will utilise the media to continue to engage people of all ages in the political process as much as possible.

Without society’s fourth estate, the entire democratic structure collapses.  Politics needs the media – in good times and bad.  Greece is learning that the hard way.

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