Just as we began to digest the conclusions of the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which included a clear condemnation of the state broadcaster PBS’s lack of impartiality, we learned that the Labour government is seeking to tighten its grasp on public broadcasting even further.
Former PBS presenter Mark Laurence Zammit’s claim that he was the subject of “excessive interference” from the state broadcaster, coming as it did, just after reports that news programmes will be shunted wholesale off TVM and onto TVM2, should have sent shivers down everyone’s spines.
This isn’t coming out of a vacuum, of course. TVM has become a running joke, in its failure to cover important news events, its attempts to downplay, or ignore, the scandals threatening to destroy our country’s reputation, economy and way of life.
But that we should have these two developments within days of the public inquiry’s report and its harsh judgement of the PBS’ performance is an alarming signal that the government has no intention of taking heed of that verdict.
Many of those who remember the 1980s, the appalling hijack of what was then the only local broadcaster by the thugs in office, will be reminded that Malta’s Labour governments have always sought to suppress criticism and dissent. Their assault on this country’s young democracy has devastated almost half of its entire lifetime, and the capture of the state broadcaster has always been one of their most powerful weapons.
Of course, the situation today is totally different. Then, Maltese viewers/listeners had no alternatives to TVM and the state radio stations for local news. The internet has changed that radically. Not only do we have online news sites, but many of them produce video news reports, discussion programmes and interviews as well.
However, that in no way cancels out the damage that a hijacked state broadcaster can do. Many people still turn on the TV news to get their information, either for practical reasons – they don’t have access to the internet all day – or simply out of habit. For those people, TVM, Net or One remain their primary source of news, and thus, are in a position to manipulate their views and their decisions.
It’s become a common complaint among the thinking population, that the broadcast landscape in Malta, with the two main political parties running their own TV and radio stations, constitutes a threat to media pluralism and a demonstration of the dangerous lack of political independence in the media.
And, of course, they’re right. Very few local media organisations are truly independent.
TV and radio stations survive on advertising revenue. Maltese companies, not satisfied with getting the universally accepted recompense of exposure for their ads in return for the fee they pay, want more than that. They want the media that run their ads to also be beholden to them, to also “owe” them favours they can call in when that particular party is next in office.
That means the lion’s share of advertising revenue goes to the political party media, making it very difficult for independent media, and particularly TV or radio stations, to compete.
Without even touching on the quality of the programmes and shows the political party media produce, or the level of propaganda their viewers and listeners are exposed to, the advertising revenue issue alone is enough to cause serious concern.
This has naturally led to increasing demands that political parties’ broadcast licences are withdrawn and regulations banning political party ownership of broadcast media are introduced.
But the events of the past week should make us stop and think. We need to remember exactly why we have a situation in which the political parties have their own TV and radio stations, a situation made possible by the new PN government post-1987.
From the comfortable distance of 30 years, it’s easy perhaps to forget what it was like pre-1987, when the only local TV station, TVM, was entirely in the hands of its thuggish Labour masters. But, as Winston Churchill wrote, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
‘Run, rabbit, run’ is not an apocryphal tale, and whenever we discuss media plurality and the “dreadful mistake” the PN made by allowing political parties to set up their own TV stations, we should remember the context in which this happened.
The song, about a farmer shooting rabbits every Friday to make pie, was used as a direct attack on then opposition leader, and later prime minister, Eddie Fenech Adami. It was played by TVM over and over in the aftermath of the 1981 general elections, when the Malta Labour Party’s gerrymandering of electoral districts allowed it to win a majority of seats in parliament despite getting only 49% of votes.
By then, the PN had been almost entirely silenced by the state broadcaster. The opposition leader’s name was never mentioned, no PN statements or events were ever covered. PN MPs were named only to incite hatred and even violence, as in the insidious use of the song above.
TVM, and the state radio stations, deep in the maw of the Labour government, was able to cast its opponents as the despised enemy, while depriving them of any chance of challenging it.
The PN tried to counter this by broadcasting from a radio station in Sicily, but this could never, and did not, compensate for their annihilation from the local airwaves.
It was in this environment that the urgency to create a framework for media pluralism post-87 was formed. The Labour Party was, in fact, the first organisation to be granted a broadcast licence under the new laws. The PN followed suit shortly afterwards, though not without internal disagreement; not all were convinced this was the right path to take.
However, after the experience of the 80s, it was an understandable one. And though we will, hopefully, never again be trapped in an island where the only access to news is North Korea style state propaganda, the public inquiry report’s conclusions, Zammit’s statement and the plan to strip TVM of all news programmes combine to raise a number of glaring red flags that should not be ignored.
We should beware of falling into a trap laid by a political party determined to hang on to power at all costs. The opposition has recognised the dangers inherent in the planned changes and has said it may take legal action to stop the continued hijack of the state broadcaster, but the rest of us should be just as alarmed.
Calling for political party media to be disbanded at a time when the PL government is manoeuvring to dominate all public broadcasting channels is ill-timed and risky. Yes, we have the internet now. But so do China and North Korea. Now is not the time to be discussing the shutting down of the opposition’s only guaranteed channel of communication.