The Malta Independent 17 August 2022, Wednesday

PBS in the eye of a storm as election looms

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 8 August 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

A few days ago, the presenter of a popular programme on PBS said he will not carry on with the show on the national station because of interference which prevented him from being loyal to his audience.

In other words, what Mark Laurence Zammit was saying is that he was not free to ask the questions he wanted to ask, or bring on the guests he wanted to invite to his programme, L-Erbgha Fost il-Gimgha, one of the most popular discussion shows on Maltese TV.

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It was yet another blow to the credibility of the Public Broadcasting Services, so often under fire for its lack of impartiality when it comes to matters related to the government. 

The news came hot on the heels of an announcement that PBS is planning to launch a news station in October, one that will be mostly dedicated to current affairs and will replace the current TVM2. The idea that this new outlet could be a propaganda machine for the government quickly came to mind. That the channel will take off on the eve of an election does not help to quieten such thoughts.

Given the way PBS has been run in the past years, there are serious doubts that the new channel will be free of bias.

If TVMNews+, as the station will be known, will turn out to be a dictatorship style station regurgitating and repeating news favouring the government, then it will surely end up under the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

(If the PBS is interested in investing, it should take a look at the English version of its online services. Many times stories uploaded there look like a Google-translate exercise gone wrong.)

Financial issues

It is not an easy time for the Maltese media.

There are growing difficulties we must all contend with, not just limited to financial constraints. There was a time when jobs in the media were attractive and prestigious. It is no longer so, as other openings are more lucrative and appealing, meaning that today it’s hard to find young people enthusiastic enough to do this taxing work.

That, then, the media no longer goes to sleep but is expected to be on the ball 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a highly competitive sector makes it all the more compelling. Social media is confused by many as being part of the traditional media, and fake news and self-made journalists ever present with their posts have given us a bad name. We have made our mistakes, and some of those among us occasionally did not live up to the values of the profession. But the great majority of us do put in a great effort, which often comes with personal sacrifices, to present factual and relevant information to our viewers, listeners and readers.

Having said this, it must be admitted that trust in the mainstream media, not only in Malta, is plummeting. When a national station like PBS comes under fire very frequently because of its slanted reporting and programmes it does not help improve the viewers’ opinion.

The printed version of news is on a steady decline as it is replaced by online journalism, most of it free of charge, thereby reducing sources of income while costs continue to increase. Interest in what the traditional media has to say is also weakening as the younger generations are more inclined to believe what someone said on Facebook rather than a researched article.

That, in Malta, a sizeable chunk of the media is owned either by the State or political parties is not helpful in terms of reliability. The national media is always on the side of the government, the political media naturally follows the agenda set by its political masters, while the independent media gets the closest to giving a true, unbiased picture of any given situation. Many times, we succeed, in spite of the brick walls we have to constantly face.

Biggest budget

Of all the media available in Malta, Public Broadcasting Services has by far the biggest budget. Some would say that this is unlimited, given that the State is behind the running of PBS. While the rest of the media struggle to make ends meet, PBS has the luxury of the State’s financial support. Considering that it remains the most popular media – just to give an example, the 8pm news bulletin is still the most watched programme almost on any day of the year – many advertisers still see it as the best way through which they could promote their services and products.

While it is important that all media is put under scrutiny, it must be said that PBS naturally grabs more attention when it comes to “expectations” of what it produces. The reason for this is that its services are paid for by all the taxpayers, from all political backgrounds and beliefs, and from all sectors of society. This puts a bigger onus on the State media, considering that all of us expect PBS to offer the best possible platform, giving all angles, and leaving its followers to draw their own conclusions.

This is, of course, in an ideal world. But we do not live in one, and therefore PBS has often been criticised for not offering unbiased and impartial reporting. Apart from facing criticism about its news bulletins, the national media is often also attacked because of its current affairs programmes, which should be open to all opinions and give enough space to all parties and stakeholders, but which often are used as a propaganda machine. Some presenters have left so much to be desired when it came to subjects chosen, guests selected and questions asked.

At other times, PBS has acted as a gatekeeper for the government, preferring not to report items that could be potentially damaging, or else decide to fit them late in the news bulletin when the audience’s attention span would have dropped or shifted to a new channel. Some hot subjects were then not placed on the agenda of its discussion programmes.

Ever since its existence, and under different administrations, PBS (and its ancestors) has always pulled for the government. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes it was blatant. For those not old enough to remember, they should be told that there was a time when the name of the Opposition Leader, Eddie Fenech Adami, was not mentioned by the State-owned media. The Nationalist Party, then in opposition, felt there was so much bias against it that it resorted to transmitting its own services from nearby Sicily.

That was in the 1980s, a time of political turmoil which we have thankfully overcome. That was also the lowest point that was reached by the public media and, given the power the national station had at the time, its effect on the people was enormous.

In those years, except for Xandir Malta there were no other TV or radio stations, while only Times of Malta and the Church-owned Il-Hajja existed as daily newspapers, besides the pro-Labour l-orizzont and the PN’s In-Nazzjon. There were no online portals and the social media was still far from seeing the light of day. The grasp on information that the State-owned media had at the time was almost all-encompassing and highly influential.

Evolution

The change in government in 1987 led to the liberalisation of the airwaves, with private companies and political parties allowed to have their own TV and radio stations, while eventually other private media enterprises were launched to create a wider spectrum of platforms from where information could be obtained.

The question as to whether political parties should have their own TV and radio stations remains open, with many believing that they balance each other out.

But all throughout these years the focus on PBS remained. The advent of so many other news outlets diminished its influence, but it continues to be present in all homes much more than the other media, individually or collectively.

This is why ministers insist that PBS covers their events, and why the Opposition laments each time it perceives that it is not being given the attention it believes it deserves. A mention, or a two-minute feature, on the PBS news is worth much more than any other coverage given by the rest of the media.

Both under Nationalist or Labour administrations, PBS was criticised for pushing the government’s agenda. The news bulletins were and are often transformed into a government notice board.

There was also pressure on individuals. Over many years, PBS journalists privately complained with their colleagues about the strain that they have to face daily and how they were reprimanded for using the wrong word or footage. Such rebukes come from both their superiors as well as from government communications coordinators, facing their own stress from the minister.

PBS always defended itself against accusations of bias and impartial reporting, saying it was fulfilling its duties properly and appropriately. The party in opposition often resorted to raising complaints with the Broadcasting Authority about PBS’s behaviour. The practice increases each time an election is approaching.

The election

And this is where we are heading. We have entered the final few months of this legislature, and we will soon be experiencing another election campaign. Political activities will increase and, once the actual campaign starts, we will have events starting early in the morning and finishing late in the evening, with parties doing everything in their possibility to win the votes they need to be elected.

Individual politicians will also seek to gain as much exposure as possible in the hope that they will be elected. We are already seeing political parties sending their preferred candidates on TV shows to the detriment of others. Ministers, MPs and other candidates compete against each other for space more than they are already doing, keeping a special eye on other politicians, even from the same party, contesting in the same district as theirs.

Pressure on PBS will increase, and in these months more than ever, it would be expected to deliver services which are free of political bias and innuendos favouring the government of the day, in this case the Labour Party. This must happen on both channels in news bulletins and discussion programmes.

This is impossible, many will argue, given that the Labour government – as PN governments did in the past – will use its power of incumbency to drive its message home, using PBS as a weapon to gain more votes.

We wait and see.

 

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