Public Broadcasting Services is refusing to give details about how it is allocating some €6 million of public funds a year to produce dozens of television and radio programmes, most of which are of a commercial nature and, as such, their funding could be in breach of EU state aid rules.
The politically appointed head of the national broadcaster, Mark Sammut, has turned down The Shift’s freedom of information requests that asked PBS to indicate how public funds are being used to produce its programmes, including those with dismal audience ratings.
PBS is being kept afloat by €6 million in taxpayer subsidies every year and, as such, is obliged to provide details about how it is allocating its funds.
Until a few years ago, PBS would disclose what it was paying for its programmes to be produced but Sammut is now refusing to furnish any such details by citing “commercial sensitivity”.
While PBS has made available the list of programmes that it is fully or partially funding through state sponsorships (see the latest list here), Sammut withheld other information requested, including the amount of state subsidies it distributes to particular programmes and private media houses.
The Shift is informed that hundreds of thousands of euros a year are being directed towards certain private media operators, such as MaltaToday’s Savior Balzan and Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri’s cousin George Scicluna, to produce programmes for PBS.
PBS was also asked for the allocations given for its latest programming schedules but the state broadcaster said it only has information up to 2020 since the more recent schedules are still under audit.
The production of its news bulletins is by far PBS’ costliest service. That, too, has been included in the latest list of publicly funded programmes although PBS is obliged to provide the service without a subvention.
The same applies to PBS’ online news portal, which is being funded by taxpayers even though it is funded by advertising and competes with all other online news portals being run without government assistance.
According to the National Broadcasting Policy, which hasn’t seen an update for almost 20 years, it should only be commercially unviable programmes of a social, cultural or educational nature that are to receive state funding.
This, however, has not been the case in recent years when all sorts of programmes, including those that should attract advertising thanks to their prime-time slots, have been put on the list of state-funded programmes, whose producers are receiving thousands of euros a week.
While the Broadcasting Authority appears to be ignoring this aspect of the broadcasting world, the National Audit Office has highlighted PBS’ lack of visibility on how it allocates its funds.
Because of its dismal financial results year after year, the government has had to more than double its annual subvention for PBS – from €3 million in 2014 to over €6 million in 2022.
Until a few years ago, PBS would produce most of its programmes in-house but that policy has been reversed and most of its programmes are now produced by small media houses that are charging the broadcaster questionable fees.
PBS has also come under criticism for a lack of transparency and accountability in how it allocates slots in its programming schedule, with most of the decisions on who gets what being taken outside the station at the Office of the Prime Minister and ministries.