The Malta Independent 24 September 2017, Sunday

A few thoughts on journalism

Mark A. Sammut Monday, 11 September 2017, 08:11 Last update: about 13 days ago

Watching Salvu Balzan interviewing the two contenders for the PN leadership was painful.

It’s not only that he struggles to extract a question, as if he were his own dentist and his question a decaying tooth, but then the questions never seem focused. They are like messy putty, which Mr Balzan tries to shape into something while the words are leaving his mouth. To make matters worse, he then lacks the patience to wait for an answer. It’s as if he’s more interested in asking questions than in getting answers. Asking possibly loaded questions and then trying to hinder the interviewee from answering coherently is journalism by innuendo.

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Balzan has also formed this habit of saying, “... and I’m being cautious”. This must be some sort of new journalism: cautious journalism. Why invoke “caution” to play the innuendo card? Why can’t Mr Balzan simply ask questions directly, politely but directly,? Like Bruno Vespa does, for instance, the host of Italian TV’s Porta a Porta, a talk-show which has been airing uninterruptedly since 1996.

Vespa is warm, focused, polite, and most importantly gives his guests ample time to elaborate their answers. This way he shows respect to his viewers, who expect clear, polite, single-issue questions and clear, well-elaborated answers. All this Vespa achieves while asking pertinent and at times hard questions. All in all, a man of class who oozes savoir faire and aplomb and whose show has an aura of dignity and formality.

Like Balzan,  Vespa writes books, many of them, and most of them are bestsellers. Balzan’s book ... well, it’s my turn to be “cautious”.

* * *

Then there is bullying journalism. This is a phenomenon which should worry the citizens of a functioning democracy.

There was a time when newspapers, or “media outlets”, were the mouthpieces of political parties. Then, because of historical reasons, some media outlets became commercial entities, with a concurrent shift from the rules of politics to the rules of the free market. The rules of politics are more or less clear: garnering the biggest number of votes possible for your party. The rules of the free market are different: sell as many copies as you can, sell as much advertising space as you can, trade as much opinion-swaying as you can, in order to make money.

The free market is essentially a cut-throat environment. Mors tua, vita mea. Live and let die. Or, to be more precise, your death is my survival.

In other words, it is a violent context. The violence might be sublimated, but still violence it is. And it is not violence utilised to further a political cause. It is violence utilised to make money. Politics plays second fiddle to economics in the free market.

An alternative interpretation could be that that violence is sublimated violence, in a psychoanalytical sense. It puts an unstable lid on frustrations of a sexual nature... but this is just pure speculation.

Journalistic violence can take many forms, such as hounding individuals, publishing half-truths, or, worse, innuendos which can destroy families and careers, terrorising the judiciary, and so on. The list can really be long. And nauseating.

There are publishing houses – like the owner of this newspaper – which exercise self-restraint. There are others which probably do not even know how to spell the word.

* * *

Then there is satire.

In journalism, to my mind at least, one has to distinguish between satire and facts.

The Italians used to satirise their grandee, Giulio Andreotti, who died four years ago already. He himself used to joke that he couldn’t care less about the opinion others had of him, and that ultimately nobody would remember him. No doubt, he was a man of power who ruled with an “irony fist”. He used to be the brunt of satire because of his humpback. That his spine was curved was a fact; that his humpback had anything to do with his politics was satire.

Other Italian politicians were ridiculed by satirists: Spadolini for his allegedly very small member, De Michelis for his disco dancing, and so on.

But one thing can be said for sure. Satire can be no substitute for the deeper meaning of facts. Andreotti’s humpback had nothing to do with him being charged with dealings with the Mafia. Spadolini’s member and its alleged size had nothing to do with his anti-corruption efforts (involving the Masonic lodge P2), and De Michelis’ hobby had nothing to do with his convictions related to corruption and the illegal Enimont financing.

Because, all said and done, satire and investigative journalism do not really go hand in hand. The analogy is the CID inspector. You don’t expect a police inspector to be a stand-up comedian in his spare time. True, he can do if he wants to. But no sane police inspector would do it, because he knows that his credibility would instantly vanish.

Satire does not investigate. Satire makes humorous links between known facts to drive home some uncomfortable truth, or to expose public secrets everybody keeps hush-hush. Satire is the little boy who points out that the Emperor is naked. And, like the little boy, satire can get away with it because it can be considered “innocent”, free of malice.

Investigative journalism, on the other hand, is another kettle of fish. It is usually humour-less and opts for gravitas rather than wit. An investigator can pretend to be dumb (consider Peter Falk’s Colombo, who pretends to be a dimwit but only to lull his prey into a false sense of security) but is never witty or funny. He might be likeable (consider Tom Selleck’s Magnum PI) but never a wisecrack from him.

Satire and investigative journalism don’t mix. Similarly, violent bullying and investigative journalism don’t mix. If you read the reports of the international consortium of investigative journalists on the Panama Papers scandal, you find neither satire nor violence. You find facts and interpretations. I think that is good journalism.

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