The Malta Independent 27 June 2019, Thursday

Financial state aid for media organisations warranted but must be transparent – IGM

Rebekah Cilia Sunday, 26 May 2019, 07:47 Last update: about 1 month ago

It is in the interests of everyone to have a media that is not fighting for its life, the Chairman of the Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) told The Malta Independent on Sunday. Some form of assistance for media organisations is required, but it needs to be provided in a fair and transparent manner.

Three prominent news outlets, this one included, have written about the crisis that newspapers around the world, including Malta, are facing. The solution to this would be state aid in some form to ensure their proper functioning.

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IGM chairman Yannick Pace believes that if we accept the role of the media in our democracy, and that the media is essential for people to be kept informed, then state aid should be explored. He did, however, note that the proviso is to be able to find a workable way of doing this.

Due to the way news is now being consumed, with the advance of social media and the role of Google and Facebook in the decline in print advertising, media houses are calling out for help.

Pace noted that, on the part of the IGM, so far there has not been any exploration or discussion on the subject of state aid for media publishers. The reason for this is because the IGM is there to act as an entity that stands up for journalists and journalistic principles. News organisations are on a different level to journalists and are, in essence, their employers.

The IGM is not yet a trade union, but most of the journalist institutes abroad are trade unions, Pace pointed out and it is the publishers who ultimately have to come together to work for this.

 “The IGM will definitely be a part of this because we are ultimately looking out for the industry. We can give our opinions, but to actually discuss on behalf of the publishers at this point is not something we have done.”

 

Problems associated with state funding

On the subject of the problems that may be associated with state aid for media organisations, Pace noted that other industries may ask why the media should be helped but not other industries. “In the business market, you allow the industry to compete and the best product wins.”

The media industry, however, differs because the product is not something the people necessarily want. “Someone might never read a newspaper but would still be affected by a newspaper exposing a story and bringing about change.”

He says that members of the public might not always realise that they need the media, as opposed to a product they know they want and need. “I am sure there are many changes that have affected people’s lives that started from stories about which they have no idea.”

Pace notes that Malta is unique, especially its politics and media, so although state aid for media publishers is the norm in several EU countries, it is not a matter of transposing what is done in other countries.

The main issue, Pace says, regarding funding media houses – especially if it is not done properly – is that the media may become complacent and may not strive to adapt itself.

This is something Pace has seen in a media house in the USA that was funded by a rich family. They had no interest in adapting and developing their product, he said.

 “You do not want the media ending up being lazy,” he explains, adding that “the way people consume media is changing.” So while the media needs funding to keep to its principles, it should not continue doing things the way it has always done. This could be at the risk that they are still operating because they are being funded, but no one is reading it.

Getting into the subject of whether funding should be direct or indirect, Pace says that, in his personal opinion, indirect assistance in the form of tax rebates would be the best solution.

“My issue with direct funding is who gets it and how much. Does the bigger media house get more or less funding? Does every new one that pops up get the same type of funding?” Putting it simply, Pace says that a tax rebate would be helpful because everyone still has an incentive to compete and innovate.

Pace believes that the way to go about being democratic with regard to state funding would be to pass a law and to have media companies form part of a register. This would make the process more independent, since only those abiding by the regulations would be eligible.

It would also ensure that not anyone who just sets up a blog can benefit: certain criteria would have to be met in order to be eligible for assistance. “This saves us the problem of who is going to provide the subsidy,” he says. While Pace believes that everyone can speak out and start a blog, if they are requesting assistance it is reasonable to expect some form of overseeing.

When asked if this could be dangerous for democracy, Pace said that this is why it needs to be set in law. “Okay – the law can be changed, but we do have institutions that are funded by the government of the day, which it can just pull the plug on.”

He insisted that the government of the day could abuse its power if it wanted to but, if thought out properly, it can be done. Pace believes that, considering that the media acts as the government’s watchdog, state-funding would need to be administered by an independent board or body. However, he also adds that the government does have to have a say over where the funding is going.

“At the end of the day, if we can reach agreement over what constitutes a media organisation, with clear rules on how that can be altered and not on the whim on a Minister, it can be done,” said Pace.

He believes there is room for the subject to be explored but there will always be dangers. Another problem would be the effect on managerial decisions within the publishing houses.

Pace makes the point that there needs to be good faith on all sides, which is another reason why he tends to favour indirect subsidies.

Another solution could be grants for specific projects but, in the end, there will always be the problem of who decides who will benefit.

“The challenge will be to ensure that those who deserve the funding get it and that newcomers are not excluded,” Pace said. “There also needs to be no subjectivity in the process.”

Despite the complexity of the subject, Pace is still positive that it can be done. “If there is the political will and a consensus amongst publishers on a way forward that is transparent and open, I definitely do not think it is impossible. We have implemented bigger things in Malta.”

While saying that he cannot speak for the government, Pace said that when he has discussed matters with government entities, there has always been a willingness from their end.

He believes that the more difficulties the media face, the more difficult it will be for them to report in the way they should. “I might have more time to get different views with more funding.”

 

Should partisan media get state funding?

On the subject of the uniquely strong partisan media in Malta, Pace says that whether or not it should also benefit from state aid falls under the subject of party financing. The party financing law is currently about the parties and does not include their subsidiaries. “We should work towards the point where party subsidiaries, including their media wings, are included in the party financing law.”

Pace says that we should come to the point where we have to accept that party financing cannot be totally separated from the financing of the media. His concern is that if the party media receives a tax rebate, as a form of state aid, would this be freeing up more money for the party.

Whilst he says that partisan media outlets should not be definitely excluded from state aid without discussion, their position is not the same as that of independent media houses. The same can be said for the state media.

“My reaction would be to say that independent media houses should benefit from state funding because they do not have the same foundation, but I am not saying that there is no value in political party media.”

Pace believes that where partisan media is concerned the message is one-sided, but people know what they are getting. Partisan media does have a role in the landscape and “whether you agree with them being around or not, they are there and people read them.”

 

No replies from Government and PN

This newsroom sent questions on the subject of state funding to both the Government and the Nationalist Party. Despite reminders, no answers had been received at the time of going to print.

 

 

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