An investigation by The Shift News revealed the bias created by State ownership of broadcasting networks like PBS. News stories were shown to be under-reported or avoided at times when the government was framed in a negative light, defeating the very idea of providing objective news.
The investigation provokes questions of objectivity and ownership. Is State ownership a viable option in a country in which politicians continuously show contempt of analytical media?
Media ownership is often contentious, yet utterly unavoidable. Whether it is owned privately or State-owned, ownership will have its effect but when it starts to manhandle editorial decisions there is increased reason for concern.
That concern grows from consideration of the interrelationship of journalism and political power, which is far from perfect in Malta. Politics and journalism are two roles that should be kept separate, yet too often are not. That is clear in TVM presenters becoming active members of Labour’s national executive such as in the case of Angela Azzopardi Agius.That clearly demonstrates the lack of respect for the distinctive separation of the two roles.
Publicly owned media is not in itself necessarily negative, the difference lies in government that controls that media. Around Europe for the most part there is a distance between political power and journalism which ensures that “control” remains at the level of financial ownership.
When public media is done right, it is based in the idea that information is a public good and it should be supplied to the public. The idea is core to public broadcasters like the BBC – its founding principles set in the Royal Charter is that the BBC must “educate and inform.”
There is thereby an assumption that informing the public is enshrined within the principles and actions of the broadcaster. But that line of reasoning naturally dictates that the government values the welfare of the public over its own power.
Like the BBC, PBS is a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) for which that same ideal is also perpetuated. They state that their members are “non-partisan, independent and run for the benefit of society as a whole.”
The blatant censorship of stories involving corruption from the side of PBS, shows the State’s influence on editorial choices clearly nullifying the idea of non-partisanship. But also shows the preference of maintaining power above informing the public.
Labour has demonstrated that public welfare and keeping the public informed does not take a precedence for them. One look at the pro-Labour Facebook groups will tell you that – the groups which brew hate speech show the value of misinformation in mobilising supporters. It is a perk that the government would not give up freely, and extends to their influence over public broadcasters.
Without that explicit care for what benefits the public, such broadcasting can never be a sustainable model in Malta. It warrants and allows for too much interference. Ultimately there is no regard for fulfilling public interest.
If we account for the fact that what is the best for the public is not considered to be the best for the government, it becomes essential to keep editorial power away from media owners. Editorial decisions must remain in the hands of editors to prevent deception and censorship of vital information.
When editors are limited and restricted by the very body journalism is meant to keep in check – the State – the influence of the ownership must be fought and resisted.
With sway coming from governmental parties we are no longer talking simply about the omission of facts or bias, it enters the territory of propaganda. If we do not expose that very sway, there is potential to control public opinion without the public being aware of it. The State ownership of media is playing the public for a fool.