We now know how the public broadcaster, PBS, colluded in shaping the narrative of the arrival of the first Electrogas tanker. The newsroom acted all grateful for a story handed to it by government spinners, and made itself available for any suggestions on how the narrative should be presented.
Some of the democratic implications are obvious. Others, however, risk being missed. The obvious implications have to do with the production of fake news; the less obvious ones with the production of a paranoid public culture.
The collusion by PBS glorified a deal whose deep rot is now undeniable. The public broadcaster’s newsroom betrayed its mission twice over. It misled viewers, and it betrayed the public interest to serve private ones.
If we stop here, the sin is restricted to peddling propaganda. When PBS behaves this way, however, it goes beyond the production of fake news. It now begins to collude in the production of a public culture that affects all of us, sceptical or gullible. It shapes not what we think but how.
First, there is a connection with the political party-owned stations. Labour and the PN each justifies having its broadcasting media by saying that, when in Opposition, it cannot rely on PBS to put its views across fairly. PBS partisan propaganda, therefore, amplifies partisan propaganda elsewhere.
I do not think that the worst thing about party-owned stations is that they ‘brainwash’ people, if they do that at all. Between them, they currently have around a quarter of TV viewership (with ONE commanding around 80% of that). That’s not, in itself, enough to polarise a country.
But the existence of the party-owned stations crowds out alternative TV stations as viable propositions. Lou Bondì once pointed out that there is strong evidence that Labour and the PN use their positions as (effective) regulators to strengthen their position as operators.
That is, they use their political clout to muscle in as economic operators, competing with other broadcasters. One way they can do this is to ‘persuade’ businesses that it’s not in their interest to advertise on a fledgling station that could potentially rival them in influence or affect their revenues.
PBS, of course, cannot be blamed directly for such sins. But when its behaviour helps legitimise the existence of party-owned stations, then PBS misbehaviour is part of the problem. When PBS fails, it does not just distort news content. It also helps deform our broadcasting environment and contributes to limiting what choices are available.
Second, when public broadcasting becomes fundamentally untrustworthy, it’s not just the gullible who suffer. So do the rest of us who are sceptics.
The most insidious thing about systemic fake news is not that it’s believed. It is that it undermines most people’s belief in anything they hear reported. Fake news, in sufficient quantity, undermines our faith that people around us care enough about the truth, or are discerning enough to know it when they see it.
It creates a public culture that is intrinsically paranoid, exhibiting an entire range of forms of radical distrust. Some will believe they have a corrupt ruling class; others, that they face a dangerous Opposition ready to betray the country in order to grasp power; others yet, that they are surrounded by cretins.
Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the corrupt, the power-hungry and the cretins aren’t really out to get you. But fake news is also demoralising. It creates divisions that run so deep that they make it difficult to form concerted democratic alliances.
It’s not just a Maltese phenomenon. There is thriving trade today for books, translated into many languages, that purport to be a guide to how to deal with fake news, bullshit and imbeciles. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of populism have turned many self-styled rational liberals into conspiracy theorists.
The international experience corroborates the Maltese one. Unreliable news, with no sense of public interest, shapes the way we think. We begin to divide ourselves into an Us and a Them (the corrupt, the greedy, the dupes), whose divisions cannot be healed.
The partisanship of PBS news, naturally, is not responsible for all of this. But it is doing its bit to erode any belief that there is a bedrock of assumptions that we all share.
By losing this sense of a shared public interest, we also lose the belief that empathy and real solidarity — necessary conditions for democratic life — are possible. That makes cynics of us all, wary of everyone’s private agenda.
An authoritarian government by cronies couldn’t wish for more. It doesn’t need to be trusted. It’s enough that no one else is. It doesn’t need people to welcome the fact that it stacks public boards with its own people. It’s enough that it seems ‘natural’ to do so. “Democracy is all very well, but who can argue with human nature?”
That’s what’s lost when the public broadcaster betrays its mission: not the possibility of holding government accountable; but the very idea that there is a public interest to be accountable to.