The coordinated attack on The Shift by the three independent English language newspapers last week was impressive in its tenacity and design.
It came after the International Press Institute (IPI) published an analysis written under the umbrella of The Shift that partly focused on the lack of transparency surrounding government State funding of the media during COVID- 19 and the associated risks.
In the coordinated attack, The Times, Malta Independent and Malta Today published an unsigned article at the same time – at noon – using the same headline and text.
They reported on an email sent by the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) to the IPI, and then went on to write that the article on the IPI, which “claimed that COVID-19 funds were threatening media independence in Malta” was “a vicious and dishonest claim disputed by the main news organisations in Malta”. By ‘main news organisations’ they were, of course, referring to themselves.
Characterising anything in the article published by the IPI as part of a Europe-wide project as “a vicious and dishonest claim” is a grotesque misrepresentation of both that article and the IGM’s email, whose text I shall reproduce below.
Although I am not employed by The Shift – I am willing to work with everyone; it’s in my interest and the country’s interest to have a variety of strong media outlets – I feel compelled to write this piece because the newspapers’ attack on The Shift amounts to an attack on investigative journalism.
That’s because it is The Shift that is currently mostly providing a platform for investigative journalism. I know that only too well after The Times ditched me under cover of COVID-19 in the midst of several investigations, and it’s thanks to The Shift that I have been able to get my investigations published.
As for the article published by the IPI, irrespective of whether you agree with everything it says, it is an unarguably well-researched, coherent analysis on how the methodology adopted by the government to prop up the media during COVID-19 is a risk to the independence of the media.
The article delved most strongly into how funding during the pandemic has strengthened the partisan media. Here’s an excerpt:
“Faced with an abrupt economic downturn in the early months of 2020, a number of independent media houses penned a letter to Prime Minister Robert Abela, asking for financial assistance. The government followed through on its pledge for financial aid, but the aid package was designed in such a way that it was the politically owned media houses that benefited most while the independence of media outlets was crippled further.”
The article also raised other legitimate risk factors in the way the independent media has become reliant on government funding during COVID-19. The evidence shows that the three newspapers, faced with vastly diminished advertising, have been given a lifeline through government advertising.
That is certainly a risk factor, and irrespective of whether that risk comes to pass in the longer term, a rigorous analysis on the subject is timely, relevant, and helpful.
After the article was published, the Institute of Maltese Journalists wrote the following email to IPI:
“While acknowledging that this is carried under the byline of The Shift News, it is of serious concern to us that this seems to be portrayed as a report on the current situation in Malta. The Institute of Maltese Journalists does not endorse the report and would like to point out that it would have appreciated being consulted prior to publication.”
I find it odd that the IGM expected to be “consulted” on topics it has a history of avoiding. One of these is the opaque, unequal allocation of advertising by the government, which has been happening for years – editors of The Times have raised this in discussions with international NGOs in recent years as well as its own editorials – and which in the current COVID-related financial misery has the potential to pervert the independent media.
Another is the threat to freedom of information by the usurpation of much of the media space by political party media, on top of the government’s control of TVM. It’s undeniable that Party media exists for propaganda and siphons the limited pool of advertising revenue that could otherwise be used for more independent media.
The IGM has not spoken about the dangers of having a bulk of COVID-19 funds being channelled to the partisan media. Nor has it expressed any support for a campaign by Lovin Malta, which deserves support as it prepares to mount a legal battle against political party media. (The Shift has agreed to support this case.)
The threat to media freedom by the political party media has been documented this year by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, and also flagged as a rule of law issue in the EU’s first rule of law report issued on 30 July 2020, which also said that the IGM “is generally not considered as being effective in safeguarding editorial independence”.
Yet the IGM has remained silent on the issue.
The article published by the IPI refers heavily to the Malta report for the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, which is sponsored by the EU. In the compilation of that report, the only non-academic consultee from the media was The Times’ editor Herman Grech, but I have yet to hear protestations by the IGM that they have not been consulted by the Maltese academic who prepared that report.
In fact, the IGM has long been paralysed on these issues because its Council members – which currently hail from “six newsrooms”, which is a weakness not a strength in Malta’s media situation – are akin to the proverbial Tower of Babel representing different interests.
It makes decision-making and consensus-building torturous, and it makes it impossible for the IGM to take bold initiatives and stands for the advancement of media freedom and journalistic vigour.
So why the attack on The Shift and why now?
The reasons are varied, and I would not like to dwell on them much to keep this discussion on the themes that matter to all of us.
One of that is a state of panic at dwindled finances – that’s something common to all of us – and a sense that The Shift is singularly sceptical about long term State funding for the media in Malta.
I feel ambivalent about State funding for the media. On the one hand, it would be better to have transparent State funding than the current situation in which the government has been using opaque, selective allocations of advertising to gain levers of influence. On the other hand, the devil of State funding is in the proverbial details.
A bad type of State funding would be what PN spokesperson Therese Comodini Cachia was reported to have recommended in her budget speech: to allocate funding in proportion to the number of journalists employed by a given media organisation. That could turn media houses into something akin to government departments, propping those whose models are obsolete and snuffing out innovative start-ups.
The starting point of any State funding has to be that the State is only justified in funding journalism that fulfils a defined public service. To this end, political party media would be out because their journalism is in its bulk a disservice to, and perversion of, the public’s right to know.
This would be in keeping with a resolution of the European Parliament last week, which demanded: “that EU funds must not be spent on government-controlled media or political propaganda.” It also called on the EU Commission to assess “transparency in media ownership” and “government interference in the sector”.
Another important thing is that funding does not end up indirectly subsidising oversized salaries of those at the top of the pecking order of some media organisations.
My thinking is that the government could set up funding channels to directly and exclusively fund journalism that is innovative, rigorous, and investigative, or fulfils the public’s right to know in its delivery. Autonomous bodies could be set to administer such funds against set criteria.