The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

TMID Editorial: PBS – A missed opportunity

Friday, 7 August 2020, 08:46 Last update: about 2 months ago

The news services provided by Public Broadcasting Services, be they on TV, radio or the portal, have always been a subject of controversy.

The slant given to news items, the importance given to stories at the expense of others and the omission or playing down of some reports have always given the impression that the national station is on the side of the government, whichever party is in power. If the news favours the government, it is given prominence; if not, it is not given the importance it deserves.

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At times news bulletins seem like a government notice board, with the propaganda dished out irritating whoever is in opposition and anyone else who seeks a balanced, responsible and credible source of information.

PBS cannot, and should not, be the mouthpiece of the government. Its services are paid for by all taxpayers, not only supporters of the government.  It must provide objective information. And it should be led by people who cannot be perceived to be close to the government; otherwise, the efforts to be seen as impartial will not be believed, no matter how good the intentions may be.

It is therefore impossible to see the appointment of Norma Saliba as the head of news of PBS, after the retirement of Reno Bugeja, as a step in the right direction to ensure fair reporting. Good as she may be in her line of duties and hard as she may try to reach that balance required, her past and present will always be a hurdle for her newsroom leadership to be seen as being unbiased.

First of all, part of her journalistic career was with the Labour Party media, and this already casts a shadow on her impartiality.

She is then married to a presenter and producer on the same Labour media, Manuel Micallef, who also happens to be a top official at Wasteserv, a government agency that is very often in the news given the importance given to environment and waste policies. What’s going to happen if Wastserv is involved in some political storm? Will PBS be able to give the people the fair coverage they deserve?

Added to this, she is the step-mother of a government MP, Jean-Claude Micallef. This is a huge conflict of interest. Again, can we expect PBS to be fair if the MP is involved in some scandal? Widening the argument further, can we expect PBS to be fair on all matters related to the government if the step-son of the head of news is a government MP?

Jean Claude-Micallef’s own views do not indicate he is in favour of independent journalism. His speech, in Parliament, suggesting that journalists should be allowed to practise only if they have a warrant exposes him as a politician who wants to exercise control on journalists. His comments received strong criticism from a profession which is already under fire as Malta loses more places in the press freedom index and at a time when the assassination of a journalist three years ago is still taking up front pages of newspapers.

There’s another thing. For the past year or Saliba has been away from PBS. Some PBS journalists have the habit of thinking that the PBS newsroom is something they can work in whenever they like – once their job there is secured, they seek to be seconded to other employment with the government, and then return only when it is personally suitable for them to do so.

Saliba is one of them, having left PBS to join the Office of the President last year, and making her return now that she is getting this promotion. It just doesn’t sound right.

The PBS board – or should we say the government? – missed a golden chance to improve the people’s perception of PBS reporting.

We hope we are wrong.

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