How the public broadcaster is letting us down

If Television Malta (TVM) were your only source of news, there’s a good chance you’d be largely unaware or only partially aware of the controversies and reports of improper behaviour currently hounding Prime Minister Robert Abela.

While international organisations continue to underscore the fundamental role of public service media and its contribution to an informed society, Malta’s public broadcaster remains, at best, an official spokesperson for political parties and at worst, an extension of the governing party’s propaganda machine.

During Malta’s election campaign, when public service media has a general duty to inform the public in an objective and balanced manner about matters relevant to the elections, a cursory analysis of TVM’s news and social media platforms shows that it continues to under-report or ignore altogether stories that cast the prime minister, the government, and the Labour Party in a bad light.

A string of controversies

Over the last few months, controversy has continued to haunt Prime Minister Robert Abela.

In January, the Times of Malta revealed how a Planning Authority (PA) retainer for Abela’s law firm more than doubled from €7,300 per month in 2013 to €17,110 in 2019. In February, the same newspaper revealed a controversial property deal between Prime Minister Robert Abela and Christian Borg, a person currently at the centre of a police investigation into organised crime.

As the election campaign was underway, The Shift revealed how The Prime Minister was the guest of honour at a private dinner organised by Gozitan construction magnate Joseph Portelli just a week before Portelli was granted a permit for his Sannat mega-construction.

More recently, we learnt that Abela rented out his two-tumoli property in Zejtun in 2017 to two Russians applying for a passport but failed to mention his rental income in his tax returns.

Small references to big issues

Much of the public broadcaster’s coverage of the election campaign consists in merely reporting on what the political parties and politicians involved have stated. While many of the stories about Abela dominated the headlines in all the independent news outlets for several days, a search for any related news items on TVM’s websites or its related social media platforms won’t yield many discernible results.

And the results that do come up offer very little information. For example, a reference to Robert Abela’s property deal with Christian Borg on TVM is via a news item describing how the Nationalist Party has many questions for the prime minister about his alleged deal with Christian Borg.

The choice of words in the headline alone is curious given that there is nothing “alleged” about a property deal that’s on public record. Moreover, and perhaps more indicative of the root cause of PBS’s malaise, the article merely transcribes what members of the opposition stated, with no little to no context or background to their statements.

 

Reference to PM Abela’s property deal with Christian Borg in the news.

Similarly, while the evening news bulletin of 21 March does mention the prime minister’s rental to Russian passport applicants and his failure to declare the income from them, this is done via a journalist reporting from the PN’s election campaign event, who is merely quoting what Bernard Grech, the leader of the opposition, said in his speech and this news item is also devoid of any context or background information.

On TVM’s website, headlines about Joseph Portelli are primarily related to his role as president of the Hamrun Spartans football club, and despite the influence he seems to exert on the major political parties, references to him as property developer are sparse and always linked to statements made by others, rather than news items related to how his business empire is contributing to the unfettered development taking place in Gozo, or the dinner he organised for the prime minister.

 

Tweets about Abela’s dinner with Joseph Portelli.

 The reasons for high risk remain

On 17 March, the Committee of Ministers to member States of the Council of Europe adopted the recommendations on promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age. One of the recommendations includes a point on public service media’s contribution to society.

It states that “independent public service media, in particular, have an important social function as a trusted source of information. They play a central role in portraying events in a comprehensive and inclusive manner, explaining complex situations and changes, allowing the public to distinguish the important from the trivial and highlighting constructive solutions to important challenges. States have the specific obligation of ensuring that public service media enjoy editorial autonomy and are able to operate independently, and that their content is universally available, including online”.

In July last year, the Media Pluralism (MPM) Report rated the independence of public service media as “high risk” and in September a separate study by the Center for Media, Data and Society classified Malta’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as “state-controlled”.

The MPM report underscored how the increase in risk assessment followed certain developments, such as the revelation by The Shift that €30 million would be allocated to PBS from public funds, spread over the next five years despite the company suffering heavy losses. The Shift also reported that a news item reporting disciplinary action against a water polo club official and well-known Labour activist was deleted shortly after it appeared, following instructions from the Office of the Prime Minister.

Other instances of government interference with the public broadcaster occurred after the publication of the reports. Last October, a memo was sent to producers working on current affairs shows airing on the national broadcaster’s channels to “obtain approval from the PBS management” before moving forward with topics for programmes.

More recently, the Nationalist Party initiated court proceedings against PBS claiming its rights were breached by the public broadcaster after it took three months for the PBS to publish/air a right of reply sent in by the opposition and for placing the party’s political adverts in-between government ones. Worryingly, during the court proceedings, PBS executive chairman Mark Sammut, head of news Norma Saliba, minister Carmelo Abela and the broadcaster’s head of sales were all unable to answer questions about those decisions.

The parties’ meagre proposals for the role of the public broadcaster

There remains a stubborn unwillingness on the part of both main parties to acknowledge the fundamental importance of an independent public broadcaster and to ensure that its role should not remain to act merely as a useful (and free) tool for whichever party is in government.

The only reform in the Labour Party’s manifesto related to the public broadcaster (no. 919) amounts to the party promising to “include people who are not involved in politics” as part of the Broadcasting Authority’s board of directors, a proposed exercise mirroring the media literacy board established more than a year ago – of which we’ve heard nothing since.

The Nationalist Party manifesto makes no mention of how it plans to improve the role of the public broadcaster. It simply mentions, in an introductory paragraph, that it plans to ensure that public broadcasting is independently run by respected individuals from the entire political spectrum. Vague generalisations reminiscent of Joseph Muscat’s “roadmap”.

Again, the ADPD proposes that constitutional bodies should be appointed directly by parliament or at least following its advice, with reference to the Electoral Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Employment Commission, and the Broadcasting Authority. The party also proposes the removal of political party media in the form of a radical overhaul of the public service broadcaster.

Much of what has defined the current election campaign is not so much what the parties have put forward but what they have omitted to address. More critically, despite the Labour government’s claims that it started a drastic reform process to address the concerns raised by the board of the public inquiry into the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia and to implement its recommendations, no radical proposals were put forward to address the overlooked, yet fundamental, issue of Malta’s state media and its lack of contribution towards an informed society.

                           
                               
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