The latest published accounts of Malta’s national broadcaster PBS show the company to be floundering in grim financial state, with the company carrying significantly more liabilities than assets despite a hefty increase in subsidies from taxpayers’ funds.
However, government apologists and private companies closely related to the Labour Party and its broadcasting arm, ONE TV, carry on absorbing millions of euros in public obligation government funds, in TV productions and current affairs programmes.
The financial situation – which in accountancy terms means that the national broadcaster is bankrupt and would have to fold down if not for its shoring up by taxpayers – has continued to worsen under minister responsible for state broadcasting, Carmelo Abela.
The financial picture
The latest published audited accounts, for the year ending September 2020 shows that PBS – which operates two TV stations and three radio stations – ended with €3.8 million more in liabilities than assets, meaning that it’s practically insolvent.
This dire situation comes despite a significant increase in government subsidies, which reached €5.5 million in 2020, a staggering €1.4 million more over the €4.1 million already pumped from public coffers into PBS in 2019.
Although the company directors, mostly government apparatchiks, declared that by the end of the 2020 financial year, PBS made a ‘profit’ of less than €1 million, this still did not make up for the massive liabilities and debts which the company has accumulated over the last years, mainly through uncontrolled spending on payments for loss-making local TV productions and recruitment of scores of staff without any form of transparency.
The pumping of more taxpayers’ funds into the national broadcaster – doubtful under supposedly rigid state aid rules – was also necessary to make up for the loss of advertising sales attracted by the national stations.
During 2020, the national broadcaster saw revenue from advertising drop by €1.1 million, although this was to some extent experienced across the media industry due to the pandemic.
Out of the €6.7 million in advertising sales, PBS got €1.1 million directly from government advertising, meaning that taxpayers contributed a total of almost €7 million for PBS to continue operating.
The financial situation at the national broadcaster is so bad that during 2020 it continued to increase its dependency on bank loans, which increased to €2.7 million from €1.7 million in 2019.
PBS was only able to find a bank to grant it a new loan after the government issued a letter to guarantee any eventual defaults of these loans.
While PBS sinks, the select few feast
As PBS continuous to face accusations of impartiality and bias, particularly in its news and current affairs programmes, the national stations have been transformed into an unofficial second Labour Party channel, with key programmes all produced and presented by either Labour apologists or former producers of ONE TV.
Although this is more accentuated in the news and current affairs department, Labour’s monopolisation of the content can be also be seen in drama and light entertainment programmes.
This is costing PBS millions a year, paid by taxpayers, and passed on to selected programme producers in profits.
The latest PBS schedules of the national broadcaster, TVM and the newly established PBS News+, a sort of current affairs channel dominated by programme repeats, highlights the extent of the apparent Labour infiltration of the ‘independent’ national broadcaster.
While all independent newsrooms were, up to a few years ago, all given some PBS air time to present their current affairs discussions, these have been axed over the past few years, including popular programmes produced by Times of Malta and Peppi Azzopardi’s Xarabank. On the other hand, Saviour Balzan, co- owner of Malta Today, was given a long list of programme commissions, all paid out of taxpayers’ funds.
Through his private media business, Balzan – a government spin doctor who has also collected a number of government lucrative consultancies – is producing a total of five TV programmes for PBS and is being paid thousands of euros every week from public coffers.
Apart from his own prime-time discussion programme Xtra, Balzan is the executive producer of Etimologija, Mill-Kamra, Gourmet Challenge and Propjeta Malta – the latter being a programme by the Malta Developers Association with Balzan as their contractor.
Through these programmes, Balzan is using his own staff and services at Malta Today – paying them and himself through public funds deriving from PBS.
In another unprecedented situation, three members of the government-appointed PBS board of directors also entered the fray, conducting their own programmes while supposedly setting policy on the PBS board.
Albert Marshall, 74, the Deputy CEO of PBS apart from having a raft of other government appointments, conducts Lenti – an interview programme – while director Ray Calleja is presenting a comedy show Mustaccuni while sitting on the PBS Board.
Another board member, Pablo Micallef, who occasionally also presents Labour Party activities and has been given a number of different government jobs by Labour, is conducting the daily breakfast show on TVM together with the former NET TV Head of News Mario Xuereb, now a PBS manager.
During the previous PN administration, Micallef was used by the PN to present political activities in the run up to the 2008 elections.
Even drama and entertainment programmes have been taken over by Labour leaning producers.
Michael Vella Haber, the former CEO of One TV, now produces several drama programmes on the national broadcaster while a production house owned by Justin Farrugia – Sharp Shoot Media was given the production of a number of programmes including Fit AM, Maltarti, Il-Kollezzjonist, Common Sense, and others under the disguise of public service obligation funds.
Farrugia’s brother, Kurt, was disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief spokesman up to 2019.
Other Labour presenters who’ve ‘migrated’ onto the national TV stations to be paid by taxpayers include Marika Caruana Smith, Angela Agius, Jackie Mercieca, John Busuttil, Glenn Falzon, Quinton Scerri and many others.
Lately, PBS also installed a new Executive Chairman to try to ‘solve’ the financial mess.
On the direct orders of Prime Minister Robert Abela, Mark Sammut, a former consultant to disgraced former European Commissioner John Dalli and various Labour government ministers, was given the post.
Sammut is married to the former chief of staff of Health Minister Chris Fearne. He has no experience in broadcasting and is an accountant by profession. He was frequently in the news for the massive government direct orders he got for his personal IT business.