Estonian public broadcaster Eesti Rahvusringhääling (ERR) is one of the most underfunded organizations of its kind in Europe, the broadcaster's board chair Erik Roose says. At the same time, cultural funding as a whole needs boosting in Estonia, while some mistruths put about by some of the private sector media leaders need dispelling, Roose says.
Speaking to Vikerraadio morning show "Vikerhommik" Tuesday morning, Roose said he had already petitioned the Ministry of Culture in September 2021 for more funding, foreseeing the soaring energy costs.
The whole cultural sector requires more funding, not solely ERR, Roose added, saying he was skeptical of statements made by some politicians that Estonia is among the top three countries in Europe in terms of cultural spending.
"We compared the state budgets of the past 25 years. It transpired that the Ministry of Culture's budget has fallen by a half in proportion to the whole state budget. The viewpoint [however] that Estonia is a record holder in culture spending in Europe, I would sincerely doubt," he told "Vikerrhommik" presenters Toomas Luhats and Erle Loonurm.
Roose: ERR among best-value public sector bodies in Estonia
"When we spend so little money on culture, is it any wonder that, for example, the social debate itself has become so uncultured," he added.
Tiit Terik (Center) became culture minister in November, replacing Anneli Ott (Center), who had been in office since January 2021.
As to how effectively ERR uses the funds allocated to it, Roose said that even the broadcaster's most serious political critics would understand that everything was done efficiently, with both internal and external auditing and checks, and would have to concede that more money was needed.
"We are running a Europe-wide experiment on how cheap reliable broadcasting can still be. The € 4.5 that every taxpayer pays via the state budget each year brings the best value service you can buy in terms of media, with five radio stations, four TV channels, and portals in three languages," he said.
Funding among lowest in Europe as a proportion of GDP
The average funding for public media services Europe-wide stands at 0.18 percent of GDP, with the range being between 0.1 and 0.3 percent.
While Estonia had a higher figure than this 30 years ago, at 0.41 percent of GDP, Roose said, this had since fallen to 0.12 percent, i.e. at the lower end of the range and below the European average.
Roose also rebutted claims by Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) and Delfi editor-in-chief Urmas Soonvald that the budgets both of his organization, the Ekspress Group, and those of its major private sector rival, the Postimees Group, were lower than ERR's - a situation which is the reverse of that in Finland, Soonvald said.
"With the help of colleagues, we checked the turnover of competitors and this statement [from Soonvald] is not true. The figure was over €60 million for the Ekspress Grupp and €35 million for Postimees Group, minus TV channels. Most likely these amounts are higher than ERR's base budget," Roose said.
Trustworthiness among public at a six-year high
At the same time, ERR is enjoying its highest public rating in terms of trustworthiness for the past six years, with 74 percent of the populace trusting the public broadcaster as a news source, he said.
Both private media and many other taxpayer-funded bodies lag behind this, Roose noted.
Roose rejected the proposal of running advertising on ERR channels, with the possible exception of Russian-language TV channel ETV+, which he said could be considered.
"Naturally, I would be cautious in terms of setting a precedent. But hypothetically, if our big telecoms firms stopped buying advertising space on Kremlin-funded channels and were faced with the question of how to address the Russian audience with their commercial offerings, ETV + could be considered in some context," Roose said.
Ekspress Group and Postimees Group sites and print media carry advertising, as does the latter's TV channel, Kanal 2.
Commercial channel TV3 is owned by Viasat, while evening paper Õhtuleht also carries commercials online and in print.
Roose: Private media moguls not helping their own situation by attacking ERR
Roose also expressed bemusement as to why commercial media moguls had recently started to dispense management advice to the public broadcaster.
"It brings a little warm nostalgia for me," Roose, who in the past has worked as a manager both with the Ekspress Group and with the Postimees Group, said.
"During the time I worked as a private media manager, I don't remember ever wanting to lecture [previous ERR managing director Margus] Allikmaa, [former ETV managing directors Ilmar] Raag or [Hagi] Shein. We spent time on our publications, not teaching colleagues, and the circulations were even higher," he continued, noting that the attacks were particularly baffling given that the private media companies have recently been regularly reporting on how well they have been doing.
"This I can see is not fair competition. But attacking the national broadcaster doesn't help anything," he said.
The occasional calls for the disbandment of ERR altogether should be considered in the light of the absence of the service the public broadcaster provides, Roose said, and the hole that would be left if that were to happen.
For instance, if flagship 9 p.m. news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" were no more, Roose said: "I believe that a lot of people who live in central Tallinn would go to Toompea to see what color of flag was flying from the top of Pikk Hermann," referring to the tower adjacent to Toompea Castle, seat of the Riigikogu, where the Estonian blue-black-white is hoisted and lowered at dawn and dusk each day.
Roose added that even if ERR has even one camera operator or director more than the private media, then this is the price to be paid for ensuring continuity.
"We are already the most efficient national broadcaster in Europe. and my colleagues often ask me how this is possible and if I could come and teach them how to provide such reliable journalism on such a tight budget."
Like any organization big or small, and along with private householders, ERR is facing a large electricity bills for this winter and has had to reduce the broadcast length of one particular show by a few minutes as a cost-cutting measure, portal Delfi (see above) reported last week (link in Estonian). Delfi also claims that this is but the first of various such measures.
The Estonian National Opera (Rahvusooper), for instance, falls under the culture ministry's remit and employs a comparable number of people to ERR (well over 600), while sport also falls within the ministry's purview.
Erik Roose became ERR board chair in 2017, for a five-year term, replacing Margus Allikmaa, who had been chair over two terms 2007-2017.
The broadcaster was set up in 2007 by legal act and following the merger of the formerly separate ETV and Estonian Radio.
It operates two TV channels in Estonian, and one in Russian, ETV+.
The radio channels are Vikerradio, Raadio 2, Klassikaraadio (all Estonian), Raadio 4 (Russian) and Raadio Tallinn (in Estonian and which carries BBC and RFI content in English and in French also), while news, along with several other portals including those covering culture, sport and science and education are provided in Estonian, plus a news portal in Russian.
ERR also operates a streaming service, Jupiter, which carries plenty of content in English, particularly from the U.K., and with Estonian subtitles, making it a useful resource for those learning Estonian. The children's streaming channel is Lasteekraan.
ERR News, the English-language portal, went live in August 2010.
In addition to the management board, consisting of Roose, Riina Rõõmus, Urmas Oru and Joel Sarv, the broadcaster is overseen by an independent supervisory board, headed up by Rein Weidemann and including an MP from each of the (currently five) political parties represented at the Riigikogu.
You can read past interviews on the interface between the public and private sector with Erik Roose here and with Estonian Association of Media Enterprises (EML) chief Merle Viirmaa, representing the private sector, here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte