Details on allocation of millions to PBS programmes soon to be revealed

The Shift wins major challenge forcing transparency

 

The Shift has won a major challenge that will force the government to disclose and account for how it has been allocating millions of funds to private TV producers and individuals to air programmes for PBS.

These programmes, which vary in genre, scope and duration, include current affairs and discussion programmes informally directed by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) through friendly producers and journalists.

For years, both PBS and the government resisted giving details on how much public funds were allocated to individual programmes, citing commercial sensitivity. Even calls in parliament for this information to be available were turned down several times.

While the government pumps some €6.5 million a year into PBS to keep it afloat, no details were ever released on how these millions were being allocated for tens of TV and radio programmes, on what basis and according to which criteria.

It is not even clear whether any audits were ever made on how these funds were being passed on to private media houses and individual producers, who receive tens of thousands to produce programmes for PBS. No reports were ever published on whether these allocations are audited, justified and backed by actual costs.

Through a Freedom of Information (FOI) challenge launched in 2022, The Shift requested full transparency on the allocation of public funds by PBS.

PBS Minister Owen Bonnici and PBS Chairman Mark Sammut.

The OPM-appointed CEO Mark Sammut immediately rejected the request, arguing that PBS is a commercial company not bound by transparency rules and that the information requested was commercially sensitive.

The Shift argued that PBS was funded by public money and was obligated to be transparent. An investigation was requested by The Shift and upheld by the Data Protection Commissioner.

‘Puerile’ attempt to conceal information – Commissioner

In his decision ordering PBS to make the requested data available to The Shift, the Data Protection Commissioner criticised the state broadcaster, calling its latest attempt at concealing information “puerile”.

The Commissioner declared that PBS’s repeated argument that it was not a public authority was completely out of order “when taking into account the previous judgements by the Court defining PBS as a public authority.

PBS twice tried to block information to The Shift through a similar declaration, an argument the Court quashed twice.

The Commissioner also rubbished other arguments by PBS, including that “there was no public interest to disclosing the information”.

The Commissioner decided that PBS “should be transparent on the manner in which it spends public funds” and ordered that The Shift receive the information it requested.

According to established rules, including those related to EU state aid, PBS is supposed to fund only TV and radio programmes that are not commercially viable.

This is also included in the national broadcasting policy, which has never been updated for the past decade.

Apart from the millions given directly to PBS each year, the government also spends hundreds of thousands in advertising and sponsorships, either through PBS or directly through individual programmes, to keep the ‘non-commercial programmes’ on air.

                           

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